2020 May Kirsten Flagstad -1206
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New York, The Metropolitan Opera


La traviata


Martin Bernheimer 


La traviata has long been the exclusive property of Franco Zeffirelli at the Metropolitan Opera. His first bigger-than-big production came in 1989, with Edita Gruberová as Violetta; it was succeeded, for reasons unclear, by a somewhat different version in 1998 featuring Patricia Racette (who replaced Renée Fleming). Both Traviatas were vast kitsch orgies in which the scenery overpowered the characters and surface prettiness triumphed over drama. The nadir came in Traviata II, when Zeffirelli turned Flora Bervoix’s party into a gaudy super-circus frequented by a preening corps de ballet and dancing cows. I’m not making this up, you know.


Conservative New Yorkers, who applaud scenery and tend to like their so-called

realism lavish, registered few complaints. Peter Gelb has publicly assured the devout that Zeffirelli’s Bohème and Turandot, which accommodate all of Paris and Peking respectively, will linger on. But Gelb is slowly replacing the rest of the Zeffirelli gallery that he inherited. On New Year’s Eve he introduced a new Traviata in a staging that invoked Wieland Wagner far more than Zeffirelli. Although Wieland died in 1966, his revolutionary minimalist style still looks daring to most American eyes. That must explain the shockwaves created by the director on duty, Willy Decker. This German master of high-concept abstraction, born in 1950, can hardly be considered an enfant terrible. But, defying tradition, he reduced Verdi’s ode to the courtesan with a heart of gold to a cool intellectual exercise.


The production, fascinating if sometimes heavy-handed, wasn’t even new. It was a replica of the biggest hit of the Salzburg Festival five years earlier. Gelb originally intended to cast the same principals, but Anna Netrebko apparently decided that the heroine’s little red dress was no longer flattering, and Roland Villazón suffered a career crisis. Exit the stardust twins; enter Marina Poplavskaya and Matthew Polenzani.


Although both did what they could, this became Decker’s show virtually by default. Abetted by his designer Wolfgang Gussmann, he stripped the stage bare, made almost everything white or black, interpolated hyper-obvious symbols and updated the period to the present. The showplace became a sterile arena. A few sofas served as decor. Florid patterns materialized and faded on the cyclorama to denote Violetta’s fleeting happiness. Dr Grenvil, normally incidental, stalked every scene as an omen of death. A huge clock reminded the heroine that time was running out. The gentlemen and, yes, ladies of the chorus became a unisex mob in matching tuxedos (men are menacing beasts). Even the most dubious innovation was delineated with artful care.


Poplavskaya, a theatre creature from blonde head to pointed toe, climbed the walls with frenzied, fearless abandon as Violetta and would no doubt have hung from the ceiling had there been one. She gave a dauntlessly athletic, expressive, magnetic performance. If only her vocal skills had matched her dramatic instincts. Polenzani often overcame tenoral stodginess as Alfredo, and sang as ardently as his lyrical resources would permit. Andrzej Dobber looked gruff, sounded strong as his father. Gianandrea Noseda favoured propulsion in the pit, sometimes lost contact with the raucous stage, and earned gratitude for opening most of the time-dishonoured cuts.


The Met revival of Pelléas et Mélisande on December 17 made no effort to simulate impressionist Weltschmerz. Forget Debussy’s epochal blurs of sound supporting wispy nuances amid shimmering textures. Forget the mystical, mythical universe grounded in a distant medieval kingdom. Forget the poetic narrative, predicated on Maeterlinck, replete with exotic symbolism and nature imagery. This, after all, was Jonathan Miller’s 15-year-old production. As recreated by Paula Williams, it offers a callous variation on the original themes. The action is updated to the turn of the 20th century. The revolving sets, bleak black and white, depict crumbling castle walls—even when the text identifies a forest, a park, a garden, a grotto. Instead of the key scene where Yniold encounters sheep on the way to slaughter, the evasive director has the child narrate his own nightmare. Ultimately Miller and his sympathetic designer, John Conklin, invent a drawing-room tragedy at Debussy’s expense. Call it wilful trivialization.


In the circumstances, exquisitely ethereal music-making might have seemed anachronistic. With Simon Rattle in the pit, there was no such danger. Making his long overdue debut and inspiring orchestral brilliance at every turn, the smart conductor cleared away haze in favour of storm and stress. He defined undercurrents of violence where others seek serenity, muted passion in place of troubled introspection. He painted with primary colours, not pastels. It all made sense in this context, and it hardly precluded telling detail or sensitive accompaniment.

The strong cast was led by the baritone Stéphane Degout as an ardently poised Pelléas, and the mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená (Lady Rattle) as a sweetly monochromatic Mélisande (am I alone in preferring a bright soprano as the eternal innocent?). Gerald Finley, unusually yet persuasively youthful, brought brooding sympathy to the unsympathetic stances of Golaud. Willard White, who made his Met debut as Golaud a decade ago, conveyed the wisdom of old King Arkel with gentle pathos. Felicity Palmer sustained authority as Geneviève, and young Neel Ram Nagarajan held his own artfully as Yniold. If one could accept Pelléas et Mélisande minus mist, this was a good night at the opera.

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