Sunday, March 12, 2017

Having a really big clock is overrated

Your faithful correspondent has reported on opera far too little in the past year or two. To get back into the habit, and to practice his craft, your reporter witnessed Saturday's Metropolitan Opera Live in HD performance of La Traviata. Let us be clear about one thing—an HD broadcast in a movie theater is far from the same thing as a performance in the opera house, and to this reporter's mind, not its equal. Opera is simply better in the house. Stage sets were meant to viewed as a whole, and most operatic voices sound better when heard from a distance than when miked. But when front row recliners in the movie theater go for the same price as Family Circle (the very highest balcony) seats at the Met—or even less—one must make choices.

Sonya Yoncheva as Violetta and Michael Fabino as Alfredo
And a really big clock.
Photo: Marty Sohl, Metropolitan Opera
This is the Willy Decker production of La Traviata, which first saw the light of day in Salzburg in 2005 and subsequently came to the Met in 2010. It is known for its minimalist design and updated costumes. And a really big clock. (Set and costume design are by Wolfgang Gussmann.) Critics have called the use of the clock to symbolize Violetta's measured days heavy handed, and we don't disagree. It is interesting in such a context that, in Act II, scene 1, the clock is shrouded in flowery slipcover fabric, as is all the furniture. (As Violetta accepts the sacrifice she must make, she removes the slipcovers from clock and sofas—and herself as well, since her dressing gown is made of the same fabric.) Dr. Grenvil is present in most scenes to symbolize Violetta's mortality. There is a particularly effective moment in Act IV when Alfredo talks of leaving Paris and tries to coax Violetta toward the door, but Violetta's eyes are glued to Dr. Grenvil. She knows well her fate. Although such clever touches abound in this production, on the whole one is left with the awkward and unsatisfying feeling of being inside a very large, ornate, Victorian mansion that had been redecorated in mid-century modern style.

Michael Fabiano and Sonya Yoncheva
Photo:  Metropolitan Opera
The singing was quite good on Saturday. Sonya Yoncheva was a very effective Violetta, imbuing the courtesan with passion and intelligence. With the exception of some pianissimo high notes in Act IV, Ms. Yoncheva was very much the equal of this very demanding role. Her tone was warm and mostly even throughout, her coloratura clear, and her acting very convincing. She was paired with the Alfredo of Michael Fabiano. Mr. Fabiano first gained notoriety as one of the contestants in the 2007 documentary The Audition, and this reporter has only heard excerpts of performances since then. We at Taminophile Enterprises believe Mr. Fabiano's singing to be much more beautiful and free than in The Audition, particularly his high voice. His Alfredo was certainly passionate and had many more dimensions than many productions give him.

We are not of one mind about the character of Giorgio Germont. Is he administering tough love to protect his daughter, or is he a controlling swine interested only in his social position? In the hands of baritone Thomas Hampson and director Willy Decker, he was a bit of both. We never believed his gestures of regret in the last act. Very telling is the moment when Germont takes the focus off of Violetta's and Alfredo's suffering to make them aware of his own supposed remorse. We're also not of one mind about Mr. Hampson's portrayal of the role. He has had great success as Germont for many years, but on Saturday one heard some occasional vocal fatigue, and his low notes were not powerful. One is reminded of his younger days, when he was a delightful Guglielmo, Figaro, and Count Almaviva (in Le Nozze di Figaro)—all higher, lighter roles. We must admit the playful, self-congratulatory air he occasionally had with those roles converted well into a self-absorbed air as Germont.

As usual, the Metropolitan Opera Chorus sang and acted well as revelers in the party scenes, although some of the directorial and costuming choices left one confused or simply dissatisfied. The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, under the skillful hand of Nicola Luisotti, played the score with precision and expression.

Would I recommend this opera? The cast is a very good reason to see it. Will I see it again? Only for a new cast as exciting as the current one.