Idiots at the Opera — La Traviata Redux

We hadn’t planned on seeing Willy Decker’s production of La Traviata again. We saw it eleven months ago with Natalie Dessay, Marcello Giordani, and Dmitri Hovorosky. It was our first time at the Met, our first opera, and it turned us into fans, so going back to see the same production with a different cast was a little like checking up, not just an old lover, but your first.

But when we realized Placido Domingo would be singing Germont, and Diana Damrau would be singing Violetta, and we could get $20 rush orchestra seats, we couldn’t resist.

At 7:30, someone got on stage to make an announcement. We could barely hear her except to make out the words, “Saimir Pirgu, bad cold, substituting.” We didn’t catch the name of the relief tenor.

It was a disappointment, but there was no booing. The crowd was there for Placido, and maybe Diana too. Had either one of them been out, there might have been a riot.

I’m still not 100% certain who the poor tenor was. I’ve scoured the Internet. I’m pretty sure it was Jan Korab. I’ve never seen or heard Jan Korab before, but based on a little research it looks like him (though I was in the back of the orchestra with no opera glasses) and sounds like him (although I can find one clip of him singing Alfredo).Update: Just found out through this site that the unfortunate tenor was Salvatore Cordella.

So how was it?

We still love the production, the starkness of Violetta racing against the clock – contrast this simple set with the glitz of the “Vegas” Rigoletto, and there’s a lesson. Sure grand opera should be grand with costumes and sets that place you in a world, but the world better be one that compliments the emotions of the music. The “glamor” of Vegas did not serve the melodrama of a father avenging his daughter’s honor, only to wind up being responsible for her death; it trivialized it. La Traviata is all about time’s winged chariot. The story is not complex; the emotions are, and keeping it simple, reminding us of mortality – Violetta’s, Alfredo’s, Germont’s and our own, works.

As for the singing, poor Jan Korab or whomever what’s-his-name! He had neither presence nor from where we sat, much a voice. (Though given that this seemed a pretty last minute substitution, good on him for showing up.) We could barely hear him in Act I. This didn’t leave Diana Damrau much to play off of, but she was electric, amazingly controlled and powerful. However, with such a bland Alfredo, sparks didn’t fly.

The choreography and staging seem designed for the sensuous Anna Netrebko or the waif-like Natalie Dessay. I realize there are tons of debates on this in opera, and by fat-lady standards, Damrau isn’t fat. (The better-half described her as “voluptuous.”) Is it catty for me to think she would have worn that red dress better if she shed forty pounds? Or to have been thinking about how much harder it must have been to carry her around the stage than to carry Dessay?

Vocally she was flawless – a powerhouse. She sings the way Fred Astaire dances – by making even the most elaborate vocal moves seem flawless and natural. Besides her ability to hit anything, and never go shrill, her volume control is awesome. At times she seemed to be singing so softly, but she could always be heard.

The tenor got better, or at least louder in Act II and III, but never really took off, leaving Damrau to do her best work in those scenes where Alfredo is missing or mostly silent. Fortunately, that’s a good part of Act II and Act III.

Damrau and Domingo singing their duet in Act II were suburb, and the chemistry palpable. Frankly, if they’d put some black dye into his hair and sent him out to sing Alfredo, I’m sure the audience would have loved it.

Placido of course got points just for being Placido, and a big round of applause before he’d sung a note. He is a high-megaton authentic star, and I’m thankful I had the chance to see him, but he seemed subdued, content to compliment Damrau, acknowledge her as the lead. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, and it probably makes even more sense when Pirgu, a rising tenor is singing Alfredo.

Domingo was certainly once a far better Alfredo than last night’s relief pitcher, and maybe even than Pirgu (not that I’ll know), but I’m not sure if he was a better Germont than Dimitri Hovorosky who we saw in the role last year – a career baritone, who managed to make it seem like La Traviata wasn’t really about Violetta and Alfredo, as much as it was about poor Germont and his regret for keeping them apart. Then again, had Domingo attempted anything like that, he might have come off as an ungenerous old man, afraid to make way for the next generation, instead of a loving father who realizes too late that in trying to protect his son, he may have hurt him immeasurably.

Because I couldn’t find anything from this production, taking you out, from last year’s HD, with Natalie Dessay and Matthew Polenzani: