Matthew Polenzani and Marina Poplavskaya
in La Traviata
(© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
Matthew Polenzani and Marina Poplavskaya
in La Traviata
(© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
The idea of a minimalist La Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera could instantly strike some fans as unappealing -- especially those enamored of Franco Zeffirelli's lavish productions that have been seen there for over 20 years. Yet, there's no cause to dismiss Willy Decker's new and stripped-down treatment, which debuted on New Year's Eve.

Instead, there's every reason to welcome it as a savvy reassessment of the beloved Giuseppe Verdi-Francesco Maria Piave work. Even if it doesn't succeed on every count, the production, which was originally presented at the Salzburger Festspiele in 2005, makes several trenchant points about the underlying drama that's the life of slowly dying courtesan Violetta Valery (Marina Poplavskaya).

Decker's approach to the opus about a woman inexorably stifled in a man's world is so radical that, at the outset, the director even dispenses with the famous gold curtain. As the audience enters, Wolfgang Gussmann's stark set -- a corrugated grey-white cyclorama, above which is a large expanse of black -- is on view. At stage right is a tall two-door entrance, and opposite it, balanced precariously on the low banquette running the length of the cyclorama, is a clock reminiscent of a timepiece in a barren Salvador Dali landscape.

To the right of the clock sits an elderly man (Luigi Roni) -- who turns out in the fourth act to be the physician tending to Violetta, but who Decker also wants to be understood as an embodiment of the death waiting to embrace Violetta after she finishes compulsively dancing through dizzying parties and through her ill-starred affair with young Alfredo Germont (Matthew Polenzani).

When conductor Gianandrea Noseda commences the overture, Violetta enters, falls, silently rises, and tries again -- instantly signaling she's doomed before she begins. The stunning knee-length red dress and high-heeled red shoes Gussmann has designed for her and a red divan on which she flirts are only for show as she disdains and then admits love for the importuning Alfredo.

The stark surroundings are enhanced in the second act by several divans covered with floral prints -- which match the robes Violetta and Alfredo wear while cavorting under huge camellias now blaring above the cyclorama. However, by the fourth act, the desolate space looks like something Samuel Beckett or Robert Wilson ordered.

One undeniable effect of Decker's spare environment is how it throws the music and the singers into stark relief. And the production's most notable strength is Poplavskaya's thoroughly committed acting. Her hair in a loose bun or loosely flowing, she's a Violetta waltzing as fast as she can to deny that death is at her door. It may be this awareness of Violetta's looming demise that, however, renders her first-act "Libiamo" and her "Sempre libera" less uninhibitedly glorious than one might wish -- and even at some moments, tentative. On the other hand her fourth-act "Addio, del passato" is completely wrenching. In league with this, Noseda's conducting, although open to the score's pathos throughout, grows more heartbreakingly insistent as the opera's tragic end approaches.

Also commanding in the acting and singing departments are Polenzani and Andrzej Dobber as the elder Germont. Their physically bold second-act confrontation has rarely been as well realized. And much praise is due the singing and acting of Donald Palumbo's properly cantankerous chorus, which adds to the worthiness of the enterprise.