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Marina Poplavskaya as Violetta [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Metropolitan Opera]
16 Jan 2011

The Magic Flute and La Traviata, New York

The dust on 65th Street is clearing up and the reviews for the renovated Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts are in — the piazza is being hailed as newly “inviting” by architects and arts critics alike, and rightly so.

W. A. Mozart: The Magic Flute
Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata

See body of review for cast lists

Above: Marina Poplavskaya as Violetta

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera

 

But what about the individual institutions that make Lincoln Center the landmark it is? How can we make them as welcoming?

On January 6, the Metropolitan Opera attracted a large and lively crowd for the season’s final performance of its reduced version of Julie Taymor’s production of The Magic Flute, sung in English. Despite the family appeal, the adults in the audience still far outnumbered their younger counterparts.

Unfortunately, there were moments of obvious disconnect between conductor Erik Nielsen, the Met orchestra, and the singers. The evening got off to a rough start due to the awkward excising of the overture and some rather listless performances from Bruce Sledge as Tamino and Wendy Bryn Harmer, Jamie Barton, and Tamara Mumford as the Three Ladies. Things didn’t pick up until Nathan Gunn’s assured entrance as Papageno.

Susanna Phillips worked hard to make her Pamina three-dimensional and she succeeded despite some bizarre staging and an inexplicable costume. Bass Morris Robinson deserves kudos for his performance as Sarastro. He was one of only a few artists who made the most of singing and speaking in the audience’s vernacular. Ashley Emerson did an especially good job with her spoken scenes as Papagena and brought real charm to the role.

There are several fun moments in this production but, on the whole, the performance felt uncoordinated and severely lacking in the magic department. At the curtain call, a man sitting behind me yelled “Bravo!” when a cast member came onstage to take a bow, but then immediately turned to his companion and said, “I don’t even remember that guy!” Yes, that man in the audience can say he went to the opera and maybe he even enjoyed the 140 minutes he spent there, but the nearly instantaneous amnesia he experienced is not what opera is about. I began to wonder exactly how much putting a friendlier face on Lincoln Center has cost, and not necessarily in dollars.

_S1E3231a.gifMarina Poplavskaya as Violetta and Mattew Polenzani as Alfredo

When the audience is packed with people young and old cheering in the aisles has the battle for a more “inviting” Lincoln Center been won? Not if they’re streaming out the doors before the prima donna has taken her bow. Not if they forget about the opera they just saw before they even catch a cab at that fancy new underpass.

If Thursday night’s performance was unmemorable, Friday night’s showing of the Met’s newly acquired production of La Traviata provided plenty to think about. German director Willy Decker has not only stripped the drama to its essentials, he also effectively changed the opera’s architecture by eliding the final three acts into a single sequence. Strangely enough, this had less of an effect on the combined acts than it had on Act I, which felt weakly related to the rest of the evening. Still, the evening progressed seamlessly from the single intermission to the end, the drama unfolding at a relentless pace that illustrated both Violetta’s lifestyle and her illness.

Restructuring the opera in this manner created an added challenge for Marina Poplavskaya in the title role. In the first act her defiant and flippant Violetta spent practically the entire time posturing and posing. This could have been dramatically effective if the singing had been tossed off with more ease. As it was, both the acting and the singing felt effortful. Still, she met the trials of the long second half and her performance of “Addio, del passato” was genuinely touching.

As Alfredo, Matthew Polenzani sang with an appealing mix of passion and elegance despite a few potentially awkward staging moments. Moreover, he was the only cast member to comfortably fit Decker’s style within a greater musical context. Playing the elder Germont, Andrzej Dobber sang and acted with unusual brusqueness. Although a refreshing reminder of bourgeois prejudices, this harshness should have been better tempered with more subtle compassion in order to make his later actions logical and to soften his sound in places.

_MG_1786a.gifMattew Polenzani as Alfredo and Andrzej Dobber as Germont

Jennifer Holloway was a stylish and androgynous Flora but, because of her costuming, she got lost in the crowd despite a fine performance. In the dramatically expanded role of Dr. Grenville, Luigi Roni did an excellent job of segueing between the part as originally written and functioning as an effective personification of death. Among the comprimario parts, Maria Zifchak was excellent and underused as Annina. Juhwan Lee and Joseph Turi both made strong impressions as well.

As for the production itself, only time will tell if Decker’s version can withstand the rotating casts and quickly changing tastes that burden a repertory production of La Traviata. While the previous Met production practically engulfed singers with its fussiness, Decker’s is brilliantly and almost cruelly exposed. Furthermore, while the attractive set and nearly uniform costumes feel both contemporary and timeless, they have a whitewashing effect that the singers must fight against. A power couple such as Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon may have done it with ease, but it is difficult to imagine a pair of singers who could match their success. However, the staging and design of Decker’s production (with sets and costume designs by Wolfgang Gussmann) are intriguing and enjoyable. Like the renovations that surround the opera house, I consider the Met’s new Traviata to be a success.

Alison Moritz

Cast Lists:

W. A. Mozart: Magic Flute — Pamina: Susanna Phillips; Queen of the Night: Erika Miklosa; Tamino: Bruce Sledge; Papageno: Nathan Gunn; Speaker: Tom Fox; Sarastro: Morris Robinson; Papagena: Ashley Emerson; 1st Lady: Wendy Bryn Harmer; 2nd Lady: Jamie Barton; 3rd Lady: Tamara Mumford; Monostatos: Joel Sorensen. Conductor: Erik Nielsen. Production: Julie Taymor. Set Designer: George Tsypin. Costume Designer: Julie Taymor.

Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata — Violetta: Marina Poplavskaya; Alfredo: Mattew Polenzani; Germont: Andrzej Dobber; Flora: Jennifer Holloway; Annina: Maria Zifchak; Gastone: Scott Scully; Dr. Grenvil: Luigi Roni; Giuseppe: Juhwan Lee; Messenger: Joseph Turi. Conductor: Gianandrea Noseda. Production: Willy Decker.

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