courtesan. n. a prostitute, especially one with wealthy or upper class clients (Oxford Concise Dictionary). n. a woman of the town [courtisane. Fr.] Shakespeare (Johnson’s Dictionary)
Also: from traviare. v. to be lost, wandering, travail, travel, astray (Concise Cambridge Italian Dictionary)
Dear friends and readers,
I’ve been writing altogether too frequently about prostitutes lately: from trafficking to The Rise of the English Actress, from arguments about how or whether to help prostitutes to suspect individuals and another night in the life of Roman Polanski, it seems hard to leave the topic.
And now Willy Dekker’s La Traviata at the Met directed with HD camera transmission in mind, featuring Natalie Dessay and Matthew Polenzani (to whom much of the power of the experience is owed), is undoubtedly the most memorable, striking, & contemporary production of an opera I’ve seen since Claus Guth’s Don Giovanni at Salzburg. To speak metaphorically, it seemed at first the La Traviata characters has gotten lost in some minimalist Samuel Beckett play: instead of a tree, we had a clock, instead of a dirt road, a highly uncomfortable couch, instead of a horizon, a bending wall with a overlooking roof.
But then as I saw this crowd of greedy men grabbing at our heroine, assailing her, tossing her about on stone couches, making her their puppet, I was reminded of Jane Campion’s take on Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady. Isabel Archer was destroyed by this hard devouring and (paradoxically) scornful adulation too.
What is it with Salzburg — as that’s where the Dekker & Guth premiered — what electric current from a core of contemporary brilliance is running through this place? The production has been making the rounds of opera houses since 2005, and everyone apparently “knows” the script is based on partly autobiographical novel by Dumas, La Dame aux Camelias, which has been filmed and retold many times, and this version provides the capable singer with an opportunity to deliver the most moving of performances (see, e.g., The NYTimes and Minnesota Radio).
I just loved the set. Very demanding. You are just out there singing with no distractions beyond what is meaningful.
And I was swept away by Verdi’s music. It rocks, you sway within from it. Exhilarating, mysterious (as a song in this one tells us), thrilling. The music of this part of his oeuvre makes your body move, it’s irresistible the rhythms and harmonies. Two others just the same: Rigoletto. La Forza del Destino.
So what can I add beyond what I’ve already said: If the purpose was to make an unsentimental Traviata, to wrest this cliche from false tears, Dekker and Company managed it by hitting truer emotions. Bold and simple through and through: black-on-white for everyone but Dessay against an often royal blue background:
The nerve was to bring out the underlying realities of the original Dumas by transgressive parody. The traditional ballet became a muscular man naked to the waist, putting on Dessay’s red dress, and cavorting about the stage with all the men, making gross sexual gestures (see above). Where Alfredo once left the stage, now he was there to be teased, bullied, mocked, banged about:
— or was this a nightmare? The last act was just inspired. I was near or in tears, holding them back, stunned with emotion (though often not for the specific situation in front of me but rather the emotions themselves which I’ve felt in other situations). Our heroine was no longer emoting from a bed but walking about dazed, now grief-stricken, mad with depresson, then lit with sudden crazed hope (which hope alerted even the dim Alfredo that she was not going to last), all activity, trying this, demanding that (to go to church, to go out, to be forgiven, with plans for the future), letter in hand:
Polenzani as Alfredo sang exquisitely beautifully and his acting almost as good as Robert Alagna (Don Jose in the Met HD Carmen). He was more subtle than Dessay:
And his voice was stronger and more moving: his arias were like prayers to joy. Jim said that technically Dessay wasn’t up to it: her voice rasped at the end, the middle register was lacking. Well, if so, it made her singing all the more effective at the close, her destruction more believable.
For me the only failure was Dmitri Hvorostovsky as the father; I felt he was stiff, wooden, not acting at all. Jim suggested that he was impassive because he was directed to do that by Willy: he was supposed to be the relentless male, refusing to engage in what was in front of him.
Well, I’ve read the story and the father is supposed to be intensely emotional too — he wants to go to bed with her (maybe he does). But do see the comments below where people felt otherwise and liked Dmitri’s singing and stance, and I agree that making this male a stone figure reinforces the idea of a sweeping dismissal of this woman as a human being who counts. No all that counts is the “pure” daughter for whose advantageous marriage (monetarily, for prestige) Violetta is to be cast away. (Castaway was a Victorian term for prostitute).
A fine production to end a season which included a similarly (humane, sensitive) transformed Faustus (Marina Poplavskaya has played Violetta in other stagings of this production).
Deborah Voight was again our “hostess” (replete with commercials I have to admit) and told the movie-house audience that we could go over to facebook and offer our views or go to Twitter #metfaves & register our favorites for this year. I looked at my blogs & discovered after all I’ve written separate blogs on the HD operas from the Met only 13 times over 3 years (plus 1). It seems more because I write about HD operas from Europe which we’ve seen in movie-houses in DC, and operas we’ve seen at Glimmerglass & Castleton (see operas). So I can’t remember (separate out) what I saw so very accurately even this year but this is what I tweeted (with the 129 characters enlarged a bit for coherence): Luca Pisaroni as Caliban & Leporello. Marina Poplavskaya as Marguerite and Dessayas Violetta and Renee Fleming as Rodelina. Favorite productions: Traviata, Faustus, Enchanted Island, Don Giovanni. Then I came back and added another: Joyce Didonato as Sycorax, Danielle de Niese as Ariel. As will be seen after all I’m not gone on the Wagners, nor those with Nebtrebko. I too (like many people today) find myself drawn to baritones & deeper-voiced males than the tenors and yet except for Simon Keelyside I don’t remember their names. I did like Andreas Scholl, but I had to look up his name and remember him basically as the man who sang Rodelina as the countertenor who partnered my favorite diva Renee Fleming.
I did feel I had participated in a long opera season, including a development of habits (bringing my New York Style Cream Soda, my books), recognitions as when the same people sitting in the same areas of the auditorium over the year. Very satisfying.
We’ve picked out 9 of the 12 for next year that we must see. At $20 a seat, a ten minute drive at most away, it can’t be beat.