Two Traviatas–1.

As its title indicates, these initial posts were intended to assess aspects of two performances of La Traviata, one here in New York and one in Naples, that fell conveniently close together. But based on my recent Italian experiences, the state of the operatic art in its Motherland is especially dispiriting, and closely related to peculiarly Italian economic and political realities that serve to amplify the already serious problems faced elsewhere, and whose artistic weight is hard to judge from outside. The San Carlo Traviata was, especially in consideration of its venue, all too representative of the situation, and I haven’t the heart to give it any rigorous scrutiny. Bits and pieces of it, and of the Andrea Chénier seen in Rome on the same visit, will likely surface in the context of future discussion.

At the Met, it was The One With the Clock—Willy Decker’s auteurial fantasy that was first given at the Salzburg Festival in 2005, came to New York five years later, and is now reportedly in retirement. I hadn’t seen it before, having had a potent antidote in the form of a sampler DVD thrust upon me while innocently on my way into the opera house one evening. It showed me the clock and enough else about the production to curb any incipient enthusiasm, plus the discouraging sight of Rolando Villazón, whose earlier Alfredo had been among the happiest Met debuts in a couple of decades, in what looked to me like extreme discomfort with his surroundings. So, untempted by the annnounced cast, I’d passed and had never caught up, though I did acquire the Salzburg CDs, mainly to hear Anna Netrebko’s Violetta. This year, I decided to transcend in order to hear two trending singers, the soprano Sonya Yoncheva and tenor Michael Fabiano.

The production has been described often enough, and now survives in video halflife. I’ll engage with only a few of its particulars. While it avoids some of the most destructive extremes of contemporary Regie, it is otherwise a walking, singing catalogue of everything I think is wrong with “advanced” operatic theatrethink. So my eye spent most of the evening in a state of aggravation. Still, I can’t deny that from the middle of Act II, Scene 2 (in original sequence) through to the end, I was intermittently moved. I’ll have some thoughts about that below. First, to the eye-aggravation. That would have begun even before the staged Prelude (Violetta in pantomime with Death Himself who, as we suspect all along, is none other than Dr. Grenvil, or vice-versa) had I read the program annotations in advance. Let’s pretend I did.

First, under the heading “Synopsis,” comes an anonymous, flatly written recounting not of the Piave/Verdi work, but of Decker’s auteurial fantasy. In the absence of any effort to distinguish between the two, this is misreprentation and miseducation and is, simply, unethical. Next, under “Program Notes,” Cori Ellison gives us some solid historical background and a dose of Budden-inspired speculation on the work’s story as timeless and mythical, in the course of which she puzzlingly states that Traviata was first sung in time-of-creation costume by Gemma Bellincioni in 1866, at which time la bella Gemma (a/k/a Mrs. Stagno) would have been two years old. (I)N: Mary Jane Matz’s Verdi, whose authority I would be loathe to challenge, states (p. 329) that the first such performances were not until 1906 in Milan, with Rosina Storchio—though, as Ellison (citing Shaw) comments, individual prima donnas were no doubt dressing themselves à la mode  before that. In any case, it cannot have been G.B. in 1866.  Finally, we have Decker’s “Director’s Note.” It’s perfectly kosher for a director to explain him/herself and to argue for any departures from the creators’ specifications (though once again, these last are not honored with representation). Like most directors working at this high a level, Decker is obviously intelligent, inventive, and highly skilled. His mind, however, again like those of so many of his brethren, rattles about in a postmodern, neoMarxian cage. We’ll meet some of his thinking as we encounter it in action.

Footnotes   [ + ]

I. N: Mary Jane Matz’s Verdi, whose authority I would be loathe to challenge, states (p. 329) that the first such performances were not until 1906 in Milan, with Rosina Storchio—though, as Ellison (citing Shaw) comments, individual prima donnas were no doubt dressing themselves à la mode  before that. In any case, it cannot have been G.B. in 1866.