Last Saturday afternoon I went to the Met Opera to see Verdi's La traviata for the first time since 2013. The new production by Michael Mayer had received a great deal of attention in the media and I was hopeful it would prove for me one of the highlights of the season, especially as it would give me my first opportunity to see Yannick Nézet-Séguin on the podium after having officially taken on his new position as the company's Music Director.
The opera, now one of the mainstays of the operatic repertoire, originally caused Verdi and his librettist Francesco Maria Piave no small amount of trouble when staging its 1853 premiere in Venice. Based, of course, on the play La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils (who also penned the eponymous novel on which the play was based) that Verdi had recently seen performed in Paris, the opera was originally intended as a contemporary love story or, in Verdi's words, "A subject for our own age." But Verdi had not reckoned with the intransigent Venetian censors of whom he had run afoul when staging Rigoletto two years earlier. They were adamant that the production should be backdated to the eighteenth century. Apparently, Violetta's occupation as a courtesan so offended their morality that the plot must needs be relegated to the distant past. Verdi was furious but there was nothing he could do, all the more so as the production was plagued with other serious problems including a Violetta whose age and weight were totally inappropriate to the part. (Before condemning the Venetian censors too harshly, it should be remembered that the opera also encountered problems of the same sort when it premiered in England where it was considered so morally questionable that Queen Victoria refused to attend any public performances.) At any rate, the Venetian premiere was a disaster that caused Verdi to write: "La traviata last night a failure. Was the fault mine or the singers'? Time will tell." It was not until the following year that the opera (cast with a new Violetta) achieved success, but even so it was not until decades later that stagings of La traviata could be set in nineteenth century Paris as Verdi had first envisioned.
The star of this particular performance, and one of my principal reasons for attending, was soprano Diana Damrau who excelled as Violetta. I had seen her play the part at the Met in 2013 and was just as impressed on this occasion as on the last. In an online interview published on the Met's website during that previous run and since deleted, Ms. Damrau had stated:
"People say you need three different voices for Traviata. You need to have the flexibility and brilliance for the first act. Then the centerpiece of the opera is the duet with Germont—that’s a big lyric soprano. And for the last act you want to have a dramatic soprano. Everything has to come together really, the colors, the emotions… In terms of difficulty, it’s a five-star role."
This was a homecoming of sorts for tenor Juan Diego Flórez in the role of Alfredo, his first Met appearance since 2015 even though he has costarred at the house with Ms. Damrau in almost thirty appearances since 2006. Baritone Quinn Kelsey had previously appeared at the Met as Amonasro in Aida; but here, in the crucial role of Alfredo's father, he was a disappointment to anyone who remembered Plácido Domingo's standout turn several seasons ago. (Mr. Domingo is scheduled to reprise his role in the second half of the season.)
Yannick Nézet-Séguin's conducting was excellent overall. I've seen him several times over the past few years and have always found him quite capable if occasionally lacking in inspiration.
I did not find Michael Mayer’s production, described on the Met's website as a "dazzling 19th-century setting that changes with the seasons," particularly impressive. Instead of changing with the seasons, it would have done far better to have changed with the radically different settings of the first two acts. Has the Met's budget crisis grown so acute that a single set (the work of Tony Award winner Christine Jones) must suffice for all three acts?
Showing Violetta on her deathbed during the overture was a departure from traditional stagings As Mr. Mayer himself explained it:
"We frame the opera as a kind of fever dream in which Violetta re-lives the events that brought her to her final moments on earth. When the curtain rises, we are at her deathbed in that last flickering moment of consciousness."That's all well and good, but I thought it a stetch and in the end entirely unnecessary.
On a more positive note, the production is certainly a great improvement over the unfortunate 2010 Willy Decker production whose random stabs at contemporary relevance were completely at odds with Verdi's intentions and at times almost unbearably inappropriate.