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.

Giuseppe Verdi’s most popular opera is based on a novel by Alexander Dumas, fils, about an unhappy, dying courtesan who enjoys a fleeting interlude with a young man who truly loves her before his father pressures her into leaving him for the sake of his family’s reputation. It’s an oddly small story, racked by futility—Violetta can’t escape a premature death; Alfredo Germont is too immature, too impetuous, too hopelessly sincere to avoid the embarrassment his father is trying to forestall—but La Traviata still feels grandly dramatic. There’s often something elegiac in futility, of course, but more than that, Giorgio Germont’s belated realization that respecting the dignity of the woman he has cruelly dismissed matters more than conforming to a hypocritical, callous community is terribly poignant. Violetta and Alfredo’s romance doesn’t do much for me, but the dawning of mutual esteem and tenderness between Violetta and Giorgio moves me to tears.

Decker sets this Traviata in a stripped-down modern style, with Violetta in a short red dress and the entire chorus—men and women alike—in crisp dark suits. The lockstep uniformity of the chorus gives it an air of menace, exacerbated by the staging, in which the masses often bully Alfredo and show Violetta markedly double-edged affection. During some of the more intimate moments at the Parisian parties, they peer voyeuristically over the back wall, and their mockery of a seemingly jilted Alfredo, with faces masked and one man tarting himself up in a red dress like Violetta’s and dancing lewdly, is uncomfortably cruel. Conformity has rarely looked so ugly.

That seems to be Decker’s intent: to take the themes of the opera and paint them boldly across an otherwise stark aesthetic. The opera’s other central theme—Violetta’s mortality—is emphasized by the enormous clock onstage and the “doctor,” who usually doesn’t appear until the third act but who haunts the stage here, not a doctor but Death itself. Subtle it’s not, but it’s effective, and Decker handles the shadings well. During the second act, during Violetta and Alfredo’s brief sojourn in the country, the clock is covered, the doctor finally absent. But when Giorgio returns, the curtain is stripped away, and the flowers of the backdrop fade into a dark gray.

Marina Poplavskaya gives Violetta a playful quality that can seem seedy or sweet, depending on the context. She doesn’t have a particularly robust voice, but she is marvelously expressive and capable of spine-tingling pianissimos. In her final big aria, “Addio, del passato,” her softest high notes float weightlessly upward, delicate and graceful and perfect. Matthew Polenzani plays Alfredo as an overgrown adolescent, impulsive and awkward, with an intense crush on Violetta and a sulky, stunted relationship with his father. It’s not charming on its own, but with Polenzani’s lithe, youthful voice, the performance becomes more endearing and makes more sense.

But honestly, this Traviata is most effective when it’s less about Love and more about Death, both physical and spiritual. Violetta’s soul-killing return to her life as a courtesan is heartbreaking, as is the final soothing reprieve when Alfredo and Giorgio return to ask her forgiveness before she dies. Decker draws truly wrenching performances from his stars, and the stylized production complements them exquisitely. Together with Verdi’s sumptuous score, they find pathos and poetry in an otherwise pitiful tale.