Great Performances at the Met: ‘La Traviata’

For some people,an evening out begins with love or the expectation of love and the conviviality of people one knows. In “Great Performances at the Met: La Traviata,” the room is almost empty with Violetta forlorn and waiting. In her red dress, on a stage that includes a very red sofa, she eventually is the only woman in a roomful of men. There is one man who she truly loves. Sometimes being the lady in red isn’t all fun and games, particularly if that lady is a man. You’ll have to watch this Willy Decker production under the Met principal conductor Fabio Luisi to understand what I mean.

Of course, Giuseppe Verdi’s opera with Italian libretto is based on a French novel (by Alexandre Dumas fils) by way of a 1852 play, “La dame aux Camélias.) The novel was published in 1848 and based on the real-life love of Dumas (fils), Marie Duplessis.

Marie Duplessis (née Alphonsine Rose Plessis) was born in Normandy, France in 1824 and by 12 she was being pimped by her father. What does that tell you about her home life? Who needs that kind of fatherly “love”? She moved to Paris at age 15, but while she worked in a dress shop, she learned to be a courtesan by educating herself and was the hostess of a popular salon where writers, politicians and artists gathered to socialize. She was the mistress of Dumas (fils) for part of 1844 and 1845. She was also a mistress to Hungarian composer Franze Liszt. She briefly married twice (to French aristocrat Count Edouard de Perregaux and the Swedish Count Von Stakelberg. Both were reportedly at her bedside when she died of tuberculosis at age 23 in 1847.

Dumas’ novel with Dumas as Armand Duvat and Duplessis as Marguerite Gautier appeared less than a year after her death. In Dumas’ version, the love is thwarted by the need to conform to the morality of the time: Armand’s father is afraid that Armand’s sister’s reputation and chances for marriage will suffer by the scandal of Armand’s affair with Marguerite. Marguerite sacrifices her love for Armand in order to save Armand and his family from social disgrace and pretends to have left him for another man. Only when she is dying does Armand learn the truth. In the book, Duval is telling the story to the narrator.

In the three act opera “La Traviata” (which literally means “fallen woman,” Violetta is the famous courtesan. She’s just recovered from illness and is throwing a party at her salon. Her current lover is Baron Douphol. Gastone attends the salon with his friend, a young nobleman named Alfredo. Alfredo has only adored Violetta from afar and while she was ill, he came to her home everyday.

Learning this Violetta is touched, but she says that she lives for pleasure while Alfredo lives for love.  She wonders if he is perhaps her true love and gives him a flower, bidding him to return when it is wilted.

In Act 2, Alfredo and Violetta are living together three months later in her country home outside of Paris. Yet all is not well for Violetta had to sell her horses, carriage and home in Paris to support their life. Alfredo is shocked (apparently he’s too young and aristocratic to have considered the money required to live peacefully doing nothing). He leaves for Paris, but while he’s gone, his father meets with Violetta and asks her to leave Alfredo because his daughter’s engagement and possible marriage into a good family is threatened by Violetta’s relationship with his son. When Violetta does finally agree, despite her great love for Alfredo, Alfredo believes that her old lover the Baron is responsible for Violetta’s departure.

When Alfredo confront Violetta at a party that she attends with the Baron, he insults her in a manner that even his father finds offensive–by publicly denouncing Violetta and throwing the money he has won gambling at her feet as payment for their time together.

In Act 3, the Baron and Alfredo have a duel off-stage and Violetta learns that the Baron was wounded. So touched was Alfredo’s father by his son’s devotion and Violetta’s sacrifice, that he has informed his son of the truth and he is sending Alfredo to her. But Violetta is on her death-bed.  Alfredo and Violetta are briefly re-united and she dies in his arms.

French soprano Natalie Dessay makes her Met debut as Violetta. Dessay’s Violetta is a strong modern women making desperate decisions.  Dressed in a simple red dress, she may be the only belle at her salon, but we understand her utter loneliness. Matthew Polenzani’s Alfred dresses in a dark grey suit and white shirt with tie, as do all the men. Dmitri Hovorostovsky is his father, dresses in a double-breasted suit with a wider lapel. Yes, the dark grey or black suits aren’t entirely the same.

We are reminded of how little time Violetta has by the oversized clocks. It’s as if Rene Magritte’s suited businessmen have met in a great grey coliseum with Salvador Dali as the interior decorator.

Dessay has sung this role at the Vienna State Opera, the Aix-en-Provence Festival, and the Santa Fe Opera. She’s appeared at the Met in four productions, including Bounod’s juliette in “Romeo et Juliette” in 2005.

Polenzani was in Willy Decker’s 2010 premiere of this production. He first appeared at the Met in during the 2007-2008 season.

Soprano Deborah Voigt hosts the transmission. Gary Halvorson  directs the telecast.

If you go to opera for lavish costumes and sets, you might be disappointed. But if you’re open to new visions, that bring classic stories into contemporary settings, this opera does Verdi and Dumas romantic tail justice.

In New York, THIRTEEN premiered the opera on the previous Thursday, August 23 at 9 p.m. with an encore presentation Sunday, August 26 at 12:30 p.m. THIRTEEN’s Great Performances at the Met will be broadcast today, Sunday, August 26 at 12 p.m. on PBS (check local listings).

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