La Traviata

The Metropolitan Opera on Wednesday, January 12.

The thing that mystifies me about opera—or, more precisely, opera audiences—is how conservative it is. Theater companies routinely tweak Shakespeare plays—Romeo and Juliet in modern times, The Merchant of Venice in pre-war Germany, Hamlet in a bare black box, part doubling in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, gender reversals in The Tempest, an all-male cast for The Comedy of Errors, and on and on and on—and although those interpretations aren’t always popular, they’re not shocking either. Broad interpretation is an accepted component of theater.

By contrast, any opera production that isn’t a traditional, realist sort of affair seems to be branded “controversial” out of hand. Having heard the “controversial” label applied to Willy Decker’s production of La Traviata (which premiered in Salzburg in 2005 and made its Metropolitan debut this season), I expected something truly avant garde and alienating. Instead, the only shock was how elegantly constructed the production is and how beautifully it dramatizes its sad tale of repression and mortality. I simply can’t understand how such a sensitive, thoughtful, passionate Traviata could ever be controversial.