New York, Metropolitan Opera: “La Traviata”

The Metropolitan Opera, New York, NY
Opera in Three Acts, libretto by Francesco Maria Piave.
Music by Giuseppe Verdi   
Violetta Valery MARINA REBEKA
Giorgio Germont QUINN KELSEY
Flora Bervoix MAYA LAHYANI
Gastone di Letorières EDUARDO VALDES
Metropolitan Opera Chorus &  Orchestra
Musical direction   Marco Armiliato
Stage direction   Willy Decker
Designer Wolfgang Gussmann
Associate Costume Designer  Suzana Mendoza
Lights  Hans Toelstede
Choregraphy Athol Farmer  
New York,  December 16, 2014

Willy Decker’s production of “La Traviata”, which originated at the Salzburg Festival in 2005 creating an international sensation, seemed to be founded on the rising superstar talents of the original protagonists – Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon. This production has since traveled to several other theaters around the world, coming to the Metropolitan Opera in 2011 with a different cast. At the Met premiere I was impressed with the spare, expressionist dramatic power of Decker’s production – enhanced by a coldly enigmatic yet transfixing performance of the titular heroine by the vocally uneven Marina Poplavskaya. Still I wondered how it would fare in repertory revivals – especially under the supervision of a staff director. This style of stripped down regie production depends very much on the interaction of the director and cast – the personenregie is detailed and needs to be molded on the interpreter. Precision in choral movement and handling of the few props and set decoration is essential. Instant opera or park and bark will spell disaster. Since 2011 sopranos as different as Marina Poplavskaya, Diana Damrau, Hei-Kyung Hong and Natalie Dessay have essayed Violetta in this staging, which has remained fresh and intriguing nearly ten years after it was originally conceived. The Metropolitan Opera’s current revival is centered on rising young talent on the international scene – the Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka as Violetta and the Americans Stephen Costello and Quinn Kelsey as Germont, père et fils. (Sonya Yoncheva, Francesco Demuro and Ludovic Tézier take over for the January run). Rebeka is vocally well equipped for the role of Violetta – her full lyric voice has a rich color, flexibility, tonal focus and projection as well as sufficient range and power. Most of all, Rebeka has the stamina for this protean role – at the end of the performance she was in stronger voice than at the beginning.   However, the timbre – though colorful and distinctive – lacks the essential morbidezza, the soft yielding vulnerability crucial to creating a movingly fragile, doomed heroine. Her middle voice has a beguiling dark fruity color that is slightly covered and sensual. Rebeka’s upper register is rimmed with a typically slavic metallic bright edge. It gives the tone point and projection but also imparts a coldly glittering, emotionally distancing, impersonal quality to the timbre. Her musical phrasing is matter of fact, forward driven and energetic. The ability to float or spin vocal lines expressively or to linger or suspend phrases by the use of portamento and rubato is not part of her well-stocked vocal armory. There is a limited variety of vocal color and inflection – though she changed facial expression to suit the meaning of the text, the vocal tone itself lacks “face”. When Rebeka attempted to sing piano the voice lost color and depth – it turned tonally empty and slack. Her “Ah, fors’è lui” was devoid of any sense of hesitation and yearning and “Sempre Libera” was energetic and defiant with no sense of reacting against a new, unfamiliar emotional attraction. Rebeka attempted the high E-flat at the end of the cabaletta but it cracked – however she nailed it on the opening night. A tall, shapely dark-haired beauty, Rebeka worked hard to suggest a physically exhausted woman – though Decker’s staging keeps her in perpetual motion. In the third act, she read Germont’s letter matter of factly with cool-headed defiance and the climaxes of “Addio del Passato” and “O Dio! Morir sì giovane!” were sung full forte without a hint of desperation. Rebeka’s Violetta radiated great energy, physical abandon and extroverted passion – the courtesan’s inner life and delicate sensitivity were more elusive. Interestingly, those who listened to Rebeka’s opening night on Sirius radio or the internet stream found her singing brittle and monochromatic – the audio-only experience was incomplete and less than satisfying. Those who saw Rebeka’s Violetta in the house were swept away by her energy, commitment, vocal generosity and personal beauty – she received a genuinely enthusiastic standing ovation at the final curtain call of the performance I attended (the second of the run). Unlike her glassy-toned, bland Donna Anna in the Met’s recent new “Don Giovanni” production, Rebeka’s “Traviata” made me eager to see and hear her in other roles.
Rising young matinée idol tenor Stephen Costello made his Met role debut as Alfredo in this second performance – on opening night he was replaced after a thirty minute delay by cover Francesco Demuro. The official reason given for the replacement was “sudden illness”. Reports from backstage sources indicate that Costello suffered a panic attack brought on by an “abbassamento di voce” right before the performance – or vice versa… On December 16th, Costello seemed to be in perfect vocal and physical health in Act I – his slender lyric tone isn’t really Italianate but was bright and pingy and projected well into the house. Slim and very young-looking, Costello has the perfect puppyish good looks for the role of Alfredo. What surprised me was his physical relaxation and dramatic engagement – gone were the slack or hunched shoulders and the dead eyes that failed to connect with his stage partners. Costello actually looked like he was physically part of the action and not a college student who somehow wandered onstage and was asked, with visible discomfort, to sing with strangers. Alfredo in Decker’s production is something of a victimized misfit who is tormented and shunned by his peers – Costello exuded a fragile, lost boy vulnerability that was very touching. Alfredo’s slightly lower tessitura, compared with his earlier Donizetti roles, seemed to result in more relaxed, freer vocalism. However, when Costello had to put pressure on the upper middle register his sunny tone took on an unappealing bleaty quality, losing color and focus. In Act II, the exposed vocal lines of “Dei miei bollenti spiriti” caused audible pitch problems – flatting around the passaggio – and loss of tonal steadiness. For a bel canto tenor, Costello was skirting over or dropping anything above a high G. By the time Costello got to one truncated verse of the cabaletta “O mio rimorso”, he was fighting to stay afloat – dropping out in the final cadences and ducking the final high C. Costello settled down after this ordeal was past but his vocal poise was gone from then on. The spreading in the upper register was noticeable in the “scena della borsa” yet he sang attractively in the “Parigi, o cara” duet in Act III. Persistent problems in the passaggio have now developed into noticeable vocal insecurity – Costello seems to be at the beginning of a vocal crisis. Mr. Costello needs to find a new voice teacher – this Alfredo actually showed greater vocal potential and stage presence than his earlier Met appearances. But the vocal technique he has acquired will not serve him in the future.
Vocally the star of the evening was Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey as Germont père who took over the December run from the original scheduled Tézier. Kelsey has a burly, rich mahogany tone that has easy reach into the upper register. Decker’s conception of the character of Germont is of a cynical, entitled combative patriarch – the ice may thaw at the beginning of the Act II confrontation scene with Violetta but it doesn’t melt entirely. The father’s contempt and distrust linger on for much of the scene. Kelsey’s vibrant sizeable dramatic baritone and imposing physical presence suited this less sympathetic conception even though it contradicts the music and text. Rolling legato, velvety round tone and easy ascents into the upper third of the voice assured that “Di Provenza il mar” would bring down the house – and it did. This last-minute replacement – as in the case of Michael Fabiano and Sonya Yoncheva’s role debuts this season – has brought much needed fresh young blood into the Met’s Italian wing. Kelsey is a noted Rigoletto and the Met’s next revival better feature him and not Plácido Domingo as Verdi’s tragic jester.  Marco Armiliato, in recent seasons a fixture on the Met podium, conducted an energetic, forward moving and dramatic reading of Verdi’s score that suited this unsentimental, even unromantic production and its youthful, temperamentally extroverted leads. The rambling sloppiness that pervaded his conducting of Verdi’s “Aïda” earlier in the season was blessedly absent – the Italian maestro ran a tight ship here and kept the restored cabalettas in Acts II and III from impeding the action. Photo Ken Howard