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Conspicuous Consumption

New York
Metropolitan Opera
10/20/2008 -  & Oct. 23, 27, 30, Nov. 3, 6, 15, 20
Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata
Anja Harteros (Violetta), Massimo Giordano (Alfredo), Andrzej Dobber (Germont), Theodora Hanslowe (Flora), Louis Otey (The Marquis d’Obigny), John Hancock (Baron Douphol), Paul Plishka (Doctor Grenvil), Eduardo Valdes (Gastone), Kathryn Day (Annina), Johwan Lee (Giuseppe), John Shelhart (A Messenger), Sara Erde Christine McMillan, Griff Braun (Solo Dancers)
Metropolitan Chorus, Donald Palumbo (Director), Metropolitan Orchestra, Paolo Carignani (Conductor)
Franco Zeffirelli (Production/Set Designer), Raimonda Gaetani (Costume Designer), Duane Schuler (Lighting Designer), Maria Bentez (Choreographer), Kristine McIntyre (Stage Director)

(© Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

Franco Zeffirelli encompasses every adjective in the operatic book except the word “spare”. A Zeffirelli production may not be subtle, but I can’t think of any spectators who doesn’t want to plump themselves down on those great sofas, go dancing in the huge ballrooms or take a walk out of the artificial country home into an imaginative garden which could rival the most sumptuous forest in Italy. In his decade-old Met production—and may it live on for many more decades to come—the opening gathering is luxury incarnate, that country home of Act II was as vernal and airy as a Tuscany vineyard-keeper’s mansion. The “Spanish” party in Scene II was no mere gathering. Crimson-red cutaways cut themselves away, one after the other, revealing costumed invitees , dancers, bullfighters, even—oh shades of the moose in last weekend’s Saturday Night Live—some fake dancing bulls.

And what does Zeffirelli do for the dank deathbed garret of the dying Violetta? Well, hang the expense! The stagecraft magic raises that dark spacious bedroom, and transforms the stage into a luxurious downstairs, where she can die in style.

For this Traviata has style in spades. The orchestra was in excellent form under Paolo Carignani, with an atmospheric set of preludes and some brisk arias. The chorus, as always under Donald Palumbo, became almost like a Greek Chorus. And the Traviata music still amazes with its wealth of arias and choruses. Yes, far too many in the last act, which has more song than solemnity. Think of it as an embarrassment of riches.

But, alas, Rossini was wrong when he noted that “Opera would be so much better without all those singers.” Traviata does have the singers. Rather, one indispensable singer. Alfredo can be a decent tenor, the father can get away with portentous drama (for Act II is by far the most dramatic section of the opera), but as a movie ad might put it, “Traviata is Violetta!”

Violetta’s challenge is double that of any other Verdi heroine. I can’t think a single opera where the soprano carries the entire opera on her shoulders, from the first drink to the last diva-style “Ahhhhh!”. Nor can I think of any Verdi heroine so completely drawn as a character. (I once read Dumas’s own novel-memoir about Violetta, and must admit that Verdi and his librettist, Francecso Maria Piave, got a far more human character.)

That said, Anja Harteros has such a sumptuous, creamy absolutely delicious voice that it can actually overcome not only the other characters but the movement of the drama itself. Her Act I party, was so frivolous, so hearty that in her song, I couldn’t quite believe her tender Ah! Fors’e lui. Oh, from there to the mammoth Sempre libera, it was too great a chasm, the high notes were high with almost violent climaxes.

Oh, don’t mistake the realities. Ms. Harteros took on the runs and trills from the low to the highest notes with ease, and even those rolling couplets at the end had a manic fireworks “rightness”. But, having known several “fallen women” in my time, a super-dynamic voice is less believable for her Act I finale conundrum, affecting more pathos (if less appreciative applause).

But certainly no complaint about that perfect Act II. Andrzej Dobber was a presentable father—Verdi handles his hypocrisy, his ego, his substitution of “correctness” for compassion—with almost gingerly gentleness. One should despise this aristocrat, but Verdi’s music is too realistic, the father has too much sympathy. And Mr. Dobber was just earnest enough for us to like him.

But this was time for Ms. Harteros to demonstrate her singing brilliance without the benefit of fireworks. In Non sapete, where she realizes that her breakup with Alfredo is more than a few weeks, her voice became breathy, her lovely warm mid-range began to reach us far more than in Act I. And then, her Dita alla giovine became a soft plea, a pleading, a surrender, a poignancy all at once.

For one who wants to “believe” in opera, who hopes that Violetta’s consumption night be cured….well, this was an aria where Ms. Harteros’ emotional feelings, projected with mezzo-richness and the most touching pianissimos, was almost unbearably touching.

Like Hamlet, there is no “one” Violetta, and when a Callas, Steber, Kiri, Fleming or Harteros plays her, it brings out another facet. I’m uncertain still what Violetta’s personality was last night, but the drama of Act II was satisfaction enough.

Of the others, Massimo Giordano was a pleasant enough Alfredo, but the character is hardly heroic, the one cabaletta and the one bouncy aria, not ready to make a star. The comprimari were all good, especially a rich-voiced John Hancock as the Baron, and Theodora Hanslowe as Annina.

But Traviata belongs to the coloratura, and in this case to Mr. Zeffirelli. If the opera still is the most popular in the world - probably besting Carmen and Bohème - it is due to the unending melody, the story, and, in spite of opera’s restrictions, an earthy reality as great as the soaring music.

Harry Rolnick



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