After the Metropolitan Opera debacle yesterday, I thought twice about running the mini-series I planned this week on responses to the company’s HD broadcasts. However, the Met has seen the light, and some of yesterday’s comments readers about the negativity of professional critics made me particularly inclined to bring a few more opinions into the mix. There follow, therefore, two responses — one a letter, one a very funny essay/review — to the “La traviata” broadcast originally aired in April. (I did not review this production myself, though the New York Times certainly did; the New York Post also reviewed it, but with a different singer.)
Below is a brief video excerpt of Natalie Dessay singing “Sempre libera,” with Matthew Polenzani.
Horrible “La traviata”
by William Grote
Whoever is responsible for the horrible “La traviata” I saw last night at the Regal Cinema in Ballston and whoever allowed it on the stage should be fired!
Opera lovers expect to experience “La Traviata” with a Violetta who is a courtesan with beautiful clothes and well-coiffed hair in a ballroom, not a slutty woman who doesn’t brush her hair and who runs around what looks like a gas chamber in her underwear. We don’t expect to see singing dancers peering down from a hole in the ceiling.
I missed the significance of hauling Violetta up in the air above the party on the over-sized sofa on which she was (sort of) dancing. I also didn’t understand why Violetta spent so much time walking back and forth on what looked like a racetrack along the walls.
How silly and degrading it was to make a talented tenor perform Alfredo rolling his eyes like Mickey Rooney playing Andy Hardy having a confrontation with a father who looks the same age as his son. I don’t think Verdi thought that his Alfredo wearing boxer shorts should sing to a Violetta in a slip, both carrying flowery drapes on their shoulders.
And what’s with Violetta’s pulling off all the gaudy furniture covers before departing for the Paris party?
The only change that could salvage this production would be adding a singer in the image of Groucho Marx!
by Gauthier310 (name withheld by request)
We did not see the opera in the flesh, so to speak, but on HD, in a Washington cinema. That is, we saw a movie about the opera, not the opera itself. There was a lot of chewing and slurping going on, as the pensioners finished the brown bag dinners they had brought along. But the most important difference from a live performance is that, at the end, when the moviegoers applaud, the singers cannot hear them.
In a way, it was a humiliating experience after years of having an opera subscription: somewhat like having to hang out at a soup kitchen after being used to fine dining. On the other hand, for someone whose first experiences with opera were scratchy 78 rpm records, this is high heaven.
As for the production, you’ve got to have seen it to believe it.... The opera begins with Violetta couging and retching. Although this is not made explicit, she clearly suffers from penicillin-resistant tuberculosis. The rest of the action takes place in a most unsanitary manner, no one concerned about contagion. However, the stage is a sterile, semicircular empty space, easy to spray Clorox on and hose down. The only decoration is a 10-foot diameter clock from Ikea, presumably intended to hint at the passage of time, ars longa, vita brevis, and all that.
The Doctor is present throughout the performance. He is a silent presence in his Burberry trenchcoat, a combination god, grim reaper, and father confessor. I thought initially he was Il Commendatore who, having wandered away from [Mozart’s] “Don Giovanni,” was now watching another opera to see where it would lead. But then, in the third act, The Doctor has a brief singing part. I believe he sings, “I do not take Medicare,” but I could be mistaken.
Once Violetta has made the case that she is a very sick girl during the overture, she can get on with the party. The chorus enters and celebrates Violetta in song and drink. They are all in black suits and, even though they are not wearing dark sunglasses, it is clear this is a Secret Service party.
Alfredo enters. He is a humble Colombian boy who has learned to sing in Italian using Rosetta Stone. He declares his protean love for Violetta, meaning he wants for free what the Secret Service presumably have to pay for. Violeta realizes he is just the sort of dumb wimp she needs to care for her as her sickness worsens, so she lets herself fall in love with him, not without a lot of teasing.
The second act has Alfredo and Violetta cohabiting in a living room with Ikea furniture. They have draped flowery cloth over the severly Swedish rectangular couches, and are also wearing robes of the same material, probably from Bed, Bath and Beyond’s Klimt Collection.
Alfredo is astonished when he learns that groceries have to be paid for by someone, the someone in this case being Violetta. She is selling all her possessions to keep them all, including her maid, and the butler, in the living room, figuring that, what the hell, she’ll be dead before it all is gone. Alfredo rushes to Paris to set things right, although it is clear that he has no marketable skills, but he needs to be offstage because his father is about to visit Violetta.
Above: Another excerpt from the April 10 Met performance of “La traviata,” with Matthew Polenzani and Natalie Dessay.
Alfredo Germont’s father, curiously, is also called Germont, just by his surname, although the program lists him as Giorgio. He is admitted by Violetta and – surprise! – it is Arnold Schwarzenegger, ruddy complexion and hair bleached white, in his first singing role. Germont lives with his daughter, who appears to be close to her “sell by” date for marriage. She is engaged to a nice Yeshiva student, who will break off the engagement if her brother continues to be shacked up with his shiksa. There is no mention of Mrs. Germont, but it is not a stretch to imagine that she left Mr. Germont when she found out he had fathered a child out of wedlock with his Colombian housekeeper.
Violetta realizes that sacrifice is called for. Besides, it is party time, and she hasn’t partied for a while. She tearfully agrees to make the supreme sacrifice of leaving Alfred, writing to him that she is going back to her former protector, The Baron. It is Carnival, and the Secret Service now wear masks, so they cannot be identified. They have also brought over some General Services Administration staff, including a male transvestite, who puts on a red dress identical to Violetta’s and bends everyone’s gender. The red dress presumably indicates the multitude of Violetta’s sins. Alfredo shows up at the party, and makes an ass of himself before leaving for America....
In the final act, Violetta is dying and prays to The Doctor to keep her alive until Alfredo comes back one last time. Alfredo and his father do arrive. They express regret about having insulted her. They now realize that she is a saint. They are sorry. There are very sorry. They are very, very sorry. They are excruciatingly sorry. They are sorry, indeed. However, this is Verdi and not Rossini, so apologies are earnestly made and graciously accepted.
Violetta is wearing a white slip to show that she has been redeemed of her sins. She and Alfredo decide that, now that they have been reunited, they want to be together forever after. Unfortunately, it quickly becomes clear to them that forever after is going to be a rather short period of time. Alfredo passionately and tearfully declares that he will love no other woman again. Violetta has been around the block a few times and knows how to take such avowals. She confidently tells Alfredo that some day soon he will meet a nice Italian girl, from a good family, who will naturally adore him, and so he should love her and marry her. As a wedding present she offers him a thumb drive with pictures of her, and her blessings. Having taken care of business, Violetta dies, presumably to be received in Heaven by a whole flock of little girls in Easter dresses and hats.
Dmitri Hvorostovsky gave a fantastic performance as Giorgio Germont, making the audience hate the pious old hypocrite. Matthew Polenzani gave a credible characterization of Alfredo as a clueless wimp, but Caruso he ain’t. Natalie Dessay sang Violetta. She is about 200 pounds and 8 inches short of being a real opera diva, and her voice sounded thin at times. Yet at other times, she sang with vast power, surprising in such a tiny person...
Well-known, beloved works like La Traviata are often dismissed as old war horses or old chestnuts, especially when pandering to a public stuck in adolescence, with no significant attention span, promiscuously requiring constantly renewed stimuli. It is ironic that the terms used to pander to this audience are themselves stale European terms. Horses have not been used in war for a hundred years... and chestnuts are not an American snack food...
Great works of art are like an adolescent’s mother, not longer young and pretty, and often embarrasingly uncool. Yet, like Mother, they continue to deliver TLC, welcoming us to their remembered touch, their remembered warmth, their remembered perfume. Great works of art have no expiration date.