La Traviata

The Metropolitan Opera at Central Park on Tuesday, August 22.

Sean wasn’t feeling well, so I went to the park alone. By myself, I only needed enough space to spread a single towel, so I shamelessly snaked my way to a small patch of unoccupied grass relatively close to the stage on the north end of the Great Lawn. Even from there, I could barely see the performers, but it didn’t matter. I spent most of La Traviata with my eyes closed, blissfully soaking in the music together with the cool night air.

The Metropolitan Opera’s parks concerts are unstaged, so they give one the opportunity to focus solely on the music. Verdi holds up to the scrutiny effortlessly. The vocal lines are interesting, not always moving in the direction I expect, and the orchestration is beautiful. The opening Preludio — with quiet yet ardent whispers from the violins — captured my attention immediately by not demanding it.

At first, I felt slightly let down by Hei-Kyung Hong, the soprano in the starring role of the courtesan Violetta. She sounded a bit thin in the grand “Siempre libera” aria of Act I, but to my delight, any disappointment I felt melted away in Act II. The extended scene between Violetta and her lover’s moralizing father, Germont (Wookyung Kim), was stunning. Kim’s baritone was rich without being the rumbling growl of many lower-voiced men, and alongside him, Hong’s voice took on a splendid buttery warmth.

Without subtitles, I could follow only the broad strokes of the story, but like most romantic operas, La Traviata can be understood by anyone who recognizes the words amore and addio. The inevitable tragic ending is tacked on but foreshadowed broadly by Violetta’s pointed cough in the earlier acts. (Coughs are the Chekhov’s gun of opera; nineteenth-century librettists were entirely too fond of death by consumption.)

But I didn’t care about the story. As I listened to Hong’s haunting rendition of the mournful “Addio, del passato” in Act III, I lay down in the grass and let the sound wash over me. At a particularly lovely moment, I opened my eyes and was surprised to see how bright the stars were, even above the god-knows-how-many-billions of watts of light pollution New York radiates. Verdi’s music, the celestial firmament — it was almost too beautiful.

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