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Saturday, January 8, 2011

La Traviata - same production, totally different experience

I went to see the new production of La Traviata at the Met tonight -- the one everyone's been talking about. The production by Willy Decker replaced the overstuffed, traditional Franco Zeffirelli production. The Decker production was already a well-known product -- it first premiered at the Salzburg Festival in 2005, and back then starred the operatic glamour couple of Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon. That performance was released commercially on DVD. Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Metropolitan,  signed Decker, Netrebko, and Villazon for a repeat performance.

But between 2005 and 2011, a lot happened. Netrebko pulled out of the engagement, Villazon ... stopped singing, but Gelb remained determined to stage Decker's production. A new cast was hired (Marina Poplavskaya, Matthew Polenzani), and tonight I finally went to see what the fuss was all about.

Before I went I dutifully did my homework and rewatched the Decker production on DVD. But the experience of watching it on DVD and then seeing it in the house was so drastically different that I thought I might as well have seen a different opera. Even though the sets, costumes, and stage direction were almost identical, Marina Poplavskaya, Matthew Polenzani, and Andrzej Dobber are such different singers from Anna Netrebko, Rolando Villazon, and Thomas Hampson that I left the theater genuinely puzzled about how I felt.

This is unusual for me. Usually I am very clear about what I like, and what I don't like. But when I watched Marina Poplavskaya take her curtain calls tonight, I actually felt hesitant about clapping, and it wasn't because I didn't appreciate her accomplishment as Violetta. The whole experience was just uncomfortable and unsettling in a way I didn't ever expect. I felt after the evening that I had really sat in the ICU of a hospital all night, and watched someone die.

I didn't feel this discomfort when I watched the DVD with Netrebko and Villazon. I think it's because Netrebko is essentially a more conventional performer. Offstage, she might be the glamour girl of opera, but onstage, she seems to know that the public buys a ticket to hear the voice. Netrebko's voice is the jewel on her crown. It's the reason she's a superstar. Her voice's very sound is enough to convert the most hardened ears -- it's warm, round, opulent-sounding; a rich, thick column of sound that fills the auditorium. In order to preserve this beautiful, rich, large voice, she drops consonants and dipthongs her vowels, and avoids any vocal "effects" like sobbing, and exaggerated shading and dynamics. When her big vocal moments arrive she is able to flood the auditorium with waves of sound. She also dutifully follows the stage business of any stage director, but remains Anna no matter what she's asked to do onstage. Her stage persona is sexy, warm, feminine, and accessible. Her round cheeks, cherry lips, sweetly curvaceous yet petite figure, give audiences the idea that she's the gorgeous girl next door. Even during the most tragic moments, Netrebko's Violetta had a strength to her that was uplifting.

Her stage relationship with Rolando Villazon was also more conventionally romantic. Villazon always seemed like a lovesick puppy whenever he appeared with Netrebko. (The dynamic was apparently repeated offstage, but that's neither here nor there.) As a result, even though Decker had Villazon stuff money down Anna's mouth, chest, and between her legs in the Act 3 confrontation scene, it seemed more like a lovers' quarrel. La Traviata with Villazon and Netrebko remained a romantic drama of boy meets sick girl, boy loses sick girl.

This layer of romanticism was completely stripped away in tonight's performance. For one, Marina Poplavskaya is a completely different stage animal that Netrebko. Bony, brittle, square-jawed, she projects less femininity and sex appeal than Netrebko. When she first stumbles onstage in the prelude, she really STOMPS on the set. I've never heard anyone walk so loudly on the Met stage before. She also has very little romantic chemistry with Matthew Polenzani, so the romantic side of La Traviata was completely absent from the performance. In fact, at times, I wondered if Poplavskaya's lack of warmth with Polenzani was even on purpose, or whether the two performers actaully don't get along.

Instead, the focus was squarely on Violetta dying. Decker's production focuses heavily on symbols of death -- the now-famous clock, the completely white background that reminds one of a hospital, the projection of red camelias that turn black/white in Act 3, the grim Dr. Grenvil often sitting by Violetta. But Poplavskaya made the experience even grimmer. I've never seen a Violetta who so completely refused to be sexy and beguiling until tonight. In Act 1, whereas Anna was cutely tipsy, Poplavskaya was obnoxiously, aggressively drunk. In Act 2, Netrebko and Villazon snuggled and kissed sweetly. Poplavskaya seemed to be mocking Polenzani's protestations of love, and it didn't help that Polenzani happens to look a bit lumpy and stolid onstage. I coud cite other examples, but even Poplavskaya's long long blond hair looked stringy and unkempt, rather than a symbol of femininity. Netrebko's hair -- dark, slightly wavy -- framed her face beautifully and thus even when she was dying, there was something romantic about it.

Vocally, Poplavskaya also stripped away any notions of romanticism. I have no idea whether this is intentional, or the natural result of her voice and vocal production. She is one of the most uneven singers I have ever experienced. Many times (for instance, during "Dite alla giovine") her voice seems to be a miracle -- large, effortless, instantly recognizable timbre. She can face any which way and her voice seems to cut bounce all over the auditorium. Her timbre is cool, dark, fascinating, a mixture of steel and tears. But other times, her voice sounds pinched, squeaky, like a cat meowing. When she's struggling, she has a way of pulling up her shoulders and dropping her jaw, as if she were in physical pain from singing. I didn't expect her to get through "Sempre libera" unscathed -- few sopranos can sing it well -- but she struggles in moments one wouldn't expect her to struggle. "Amami Alfredo" was unfortunately one of those moments. After two gorgeously sung verses of "Addio del passato" the final note was a barely supported squeak. Many Violettas love  to swell their voice to a crescendo during the final "Oh gioia" -- Netrebko included. Callas even when her voice was in vocal decline could make that note a thing of beauty. Not Poplavskaya -- her final "Oh gioia" again sounded thin and ugly, but the way her voice seemed to literally give out just as she collapsed in a heap on the floor was a moment of weird verissimulitude.

Poplavskaya also made some musical choices that were unconventional. She completely (and I mean completely) eschewed ANY portamento all night, so the long arching lines that we're so used to hearing in this role instead sounded like tight, terse sing-speak at times. Verdi obviously adored his heroine -- he gave her some of the most beautiful music he ever wrote, but Poplavskaya at times made that music sound brusque and hard. No "Addio de-el-el pa -a - a - sato" tonight -- it was like "Addio del passato" with the consonants spit out and the vowels shortened. I don't know whether I'd go back to hear Poplavskaya's Violetta, but it was certainly a very different, memorable experience.

Matthew Polenzani has a sweet, lyrical voice and a wonderfully pure singing style. He's a bit stiff onstage, and seemed very uncomfortable with the more frantic stage business of the production. But strangely that added another dimension to the opera -- Alfredo is more provincial than ever, someone who doesn't fit in with the sinister demimonde society that Decker depicts. Dobber as Germont was also different from Thomas Hampson. Hampson has always seemed somewhat stuffy and pretentious onstage, with a condescending, patrician air and dry voice. His Germont was cold and detatched and genuinely disgusted by Netrebko's open sensuality. When he slapped the hyperactive Villazon it seemed like a frustrated parent spanking a toddler. But Dobber has a large, crude voice and he snarls his way through the role, and he's sometimes painfully out of tune. He also eschews any portamento, and at times legato, so his musical line sounded terse and biting at all times. When he slaps his son it's done in a nasty, abusive way, and his interactions with Violetta are not just cold but actually creepy. This is a Germont who seems to relish in inflicting pain. Another example of how different singers can totally change one's perception of an opera.

I've purposefully avoided talking a lot about whether I like the Decker production because after tonight's experience, I realized something about La Traviata -- it is such a timeless piece that productions ... don't really matter. A stage director can have a vision, he can prefer a certain aesthetic, he can have a concept, but in the end, it's left to the singers to fill in the roles and thus the opera with their own personalities. Of course an overstuffed and vulgar production like Zeffirelli's didn't do the opera any favors, but a strong enough Violetta (like Angela Gheorghiu) could make it a moving experience. Decker's production is spare, minimalist, grim, but it gives the performers a chance to create a different emotional impact. I have no doubt that when there's a revival, with a different cast, the cast will follow the same stage directions, Violetta will wear the same red dress, and it will be a completely different experience.

As a side by side comparison:

1 comment:

  1. I was in the house last night as well and was very impressed by your review and analysis. I was devastated by Poplavskaya's performance. I find her a total stage animal with commitment to and identification with a character that verges on the painful -- appropriately in this case. I think she's one of those singers who has to be viewed as a total package, voice body, acting ability and her ability to assume a unique physicality for each character she portrays. Her voice ma or may not ever come completely into line but her performances will always be revelatory.

    I've placed a link to the Wall of Text on Designerblog and will be a regular here. Brava!