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Tuesday, April 17, 2012
Count Down (on Verdi's La Traviata)
count downby Douglas Messerli
Francesco Maria Piave (libretto, after the play La dame aux camellias, by Alexandre Dumas fils), Giuseppe Verdi (music) La Traviata / the production I saw was the Met Opera HD Live broadcast on April 14, 2012
In some respects, this expressionistic set overstates everything, and certainly does not allow any dramatic tension about the inevitability of the plot. But it does free up the characters to symbolically enact a ritual which, after all, is not about story in the first place, but centered on the intense musical relationships of the three major characters: Violetta (Natalie Dessay), Alfredo (Matthew Polenzani), and his father Giorgio (Dimitri Hvorostovsky).
Dessay, a trained actress, begins the opera as a performer about to go on stage, the way many have described Judy Garland offstage just before her entry, her small frame suddenly rising into a figure slightly larger than life. Violetta, having recovered from a recent consumptive attack, is weak, not at all sure she might be able to attend the party she is throwing that night. But bit by bit she pulls together, transforming herself into the party girl in short red dress her guests—men and women all dressed in black and white suits—have come to expect. This “bacchanal,” however, is closer to a mined performance of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge than it is to Verdi’s original salon party. The champagne they drink is from empty glasses, the camellia obviously a silk flower. Dessay has not only to sing of “Sempre libera degg’io,” but, raised and lowered, on a red couch, must balance herself and dance upon the prop. She is, in short, less a consumptive woman confined to a couch than a jumping, singing acrobat. And any joys she may have in her party-life seem those that come from a successful theatrical performance than a lust for life. If Dessay was contrite, during the intermission, for having missed one of her high notes, it was easy for her appreciative audience to forgive her given her otherwise beautiful singing during her energetic apologia to the “good life.”
For Giorgio, Violetta is, at first, nothing more than a selfish courtesan out to steal his son’s money and affections. Gradually, however, when that vision proves difficult to sustain, he employs the usual tricks of men who cannot escape the petty limitations of a societally controlled life: his beautiful daughter will lose her fiancé if Alberto does not return home. Crueler yet, Giorgio tells Violetta of her own destiny, her loss of beauty and betrayal, perhaps, by Alfredo himself. As Violetta notes, the punishment for her libertine lifestyle comes not from God but from man. Even Giorgio, however, finally comes to recognize Violetta’s sacrifice, singing in a beautiful aria (Hvorostovsky at the top of his form) of her love and generosity.
So pure is Violetta’s love that she agrees, most reluctantly, to give up Alfredo and return to Paris, knowing now that her fate will be an early death. Accepting an invitation to her friend Flora’s costume ball, she pretends to take up once more with her former protector Baron Bouphol.
The party-goers, now carnival celebrants, reenter this cold waiting room once again, this time with another women, clad in red dress, strapped to the clock. Violetta is no longer the life of the party; she has almost been drained of life.
Sick and suffering, with just a few hours to live, she awaits the return of Alfredo who, having survived his duel with the Baron, has discovered the truth of Violetta’s abandonment and has written of her determination to see her once again. As in any grand opera, the lovers reunite to imagine the possibility of life as they once lived it, a reunification that the audience has known is impossible from the start. For a second, just before her death, the courtesan is relieved of all pain and age, until she faints away, both Alfredo and Giorgio left to face their own failures of faith in her love.
Some of the subtlety of this opera may have been lost in the symbolic posturings of Decker’s and Gussman’s vision, but the overall dramatic impact, particularly in Dessay’s powerful performance, remains, and La Traviata seldom wavers in its musical splendor as this grand courtesan had in her past.
Los Angeles, March 15, 2012