Verdi : TraviataNew York, Met, 2012 (Audio)
Director: Fabio Luisi
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Last season the Metropolitan Opera had an enormous success with Willy Decker’s grippingly spare, almost surreal new production of Verdi’s “Traviata.” It has come back this season as a vehicle for the soprano Natalie Dessay. Ms. Dessay missed the first performance on Friday night due to illness, so the veteran soprano Hei-Kyung Hong, an admirable artist, took over.
On Tuesday night Ms. Dessay sang the second performance, conducted by Fabio Luisi. This was her first time portraying the touchstone role of Violetta at the Met. And before she uttered a note, Ms. Dessay, who had originally intended to be an actress, made a wrenching impression as the fatally ill courtesan.
The production places the action entirely within a curved, bright-gray wall that looks like an arena. To the side a gigantic clock ticks off the diminishing minutes of Violetta’s life. As Mr. Luisi conducted the orchestral prelude, which begins with melancholic music for strings, the petite Ms. Dessay appeared in a short crimson cocktail dress, looking haggard and blank faced.
Dragging her feet, she walked unsteadily, a woman with no doubt that her life is slipping away. But when she heard the bustle of guests approaching, she shook out the wrinkles from her dress, took a whiff of a white camellia, and put on her party face.
Singing Violetta’s first effusive lines, Ms. Dessay sounded vocally shaky, with some wobbly sustained tones and dry patches. But she soon warmed up and rose to the occasion when Alfredo, the man who has fallen for her from afar (the tenor Matthew Polenzani, who sang beautifully all night), offered a toast. Ms. Dessay joined in with lilting, carefree exchanges during the “Libiamo” duet and chorus.
It is pointless to separate singing and acting in a Dessay performance. Every vocal phrase is impelled by the emotion and dramatic intention of the moment. After Alfredo’s courtship Violetta, who is cynical about love, ponders whether it might just be possible to take his ardor seriously.
She brought ethereal sound and a searching character to the soft phrases of “Ah, fors’è lui.” Then, smashing a glass of Champagne against the wall and kicking off her heels, she slapped sense into herself and delivered a defiant “Sempre libera,” declaring that she will never be fettered to anyone, at least romantically.
Her coloratura runs were sometimes inelegant, and her impetuous way with phrases must have been a challenge for Mr. Luisi, who nevertheless managed. Still, here was a woman swept up in her own reckless determination.
And Ms. Dessay’s performance only got better, especially during Act II when confronted by Alfredo’s father, the patriarchal Germont (the great baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky in top form), who convinces Violetta to give up his son. In the final act her performance of “Addio, del passato,” Violetta’s farewell to dreams of happy days past, while not a model of technical refinement, was mellifluous and achingly real.
At the end, when the lights came up and Ms. Dessay stood onstage for a solo bow, looking haunted in a frumpy coat over her satin slip, the ovation was huge.
(Edited from the New York Times)