Friday, April 9, 2010

Prendi, quest'è l'immagine

Squeezed into sold-out standing room at the top of the Met on Wednesday night, I finally made it to "La Traviata" (photo New York Post)! Update: production photos may be found here. My opera glasses were virtually glued to my face... except of course for when I was plying my handkerchief. The production was, often almost-too-literally, dazzling (I was reminded again of how much Franco Zeffirelli likes glitter.) ETRO was credited in the program for providing fabrics for Violetta's apartments... and it showed. I coveted her pillows like anything. (Perusing their website did not reveal a "Buy Traviata pillows here!" link; clearly an oversight!!) I do like Decker's production; "the old order changeth, yielding place to new, / lest one good custom should corrupt the world" and all that, but I am glad to have seen this in all its borderline-kitschy resplendence. The gowns were a sight to behold, but Alfredo's costumes were gorgeous. I want his blue coat! And his boots! Maybe when I am an eccentric professor. Also, I have no quarrel with ornate 1850s demi-mondaine apartments and country houses. Oil portraits in Act I vs. watercolor landscape medallions in Act II; hazy, gilt-framed mirrors vs. natural light pouring in from the garden... nice touches, I thought. Here is a collage of musical excerpts, with pictures.

Unfortunately for my morbid curiosity, but probably fortunately for my enjoyment of the evening, Leonard Slatkin was out as conductor, replaced by Steven White in his Met debut. He was applauded with a general fervor which I suspected carried shades of Schadenfreude, and which, I confess, I did not completely share. I didn't feel as though I discovered anything through his conducting. And there were a few instances where there seemed to be just a hair's difference in tempo between orchestra and singers. But, there it was, and it didn't distract, and the Act III overture was handled with admirable delicacy. Tenor James Valenti was my other question mark of the evening. Curious, I had checked out his YouTube channel in advance, and been favorably impressed, but laptop speakers are... laptop speakers. I had heard positive buzz about him in the gossipy Rush Tickets line, it's true, but the gleefully censorious opera ladies had merely informed me that he was very good-looking. Well, I'm not above a spot of rejoicing, but could he sing my Alfredo? The answer, from his visibly-infatuated entrance onwards, was yes. (Not that I'm not spoiled, but aren't we all?!) "De' miei bollenti spiriti" was my favorite moment--I couldn't help smiling back at the pure delight, the pure beauty, pouring from "Io vivo, io vivo quasi in ciel!"--but he sang with lovely tone and phrasing all around. His Alfredo didn't seem as impulsive or hot-tempered as some recordings I've seen/heard; just very sweet, and just a tad hapless. Aprile Millo, no less, praises his performance on her blog, with a nod to his "Byronesque" appearance as well. (Aprile Millo has a blog!!! What? I mean, this woman is Aida, etc. etc. etc.; surely she's too immortal to be writing a blog? Well, she does. Thanks to Taminophile for the indirect discovery.) I couldn't judge from the top of the house, but in a dizzy haze of Verdi-exaltation I tottered round to the stage door and discovered that a) autograph-hunters make me nervous b) Hampson and Plishka had departed in record time c) Gheorghiu fully lived up to diva reputation and d) yes, Valenti is good-looking, and has lovely manners... I could almost hear my grandmother saying "Handsome is as handsome does."

Gheorghiu. What can I say? This is one of the operas I'm most familiar with; I love it; and usually when I listen to my recording it's an experience of listening for new nuances in the music or the text or the interpretation... I'm not about to fall down and worship and say hers was the be-all and end-all of Violettas, but this performance did a strange thing: it brought a sense of what I've heard theater people call "first-time-ness." At one level, I knew what was going to happen... but everything was happening in that moment, before my eyes, and I was involved, inwardly begging for Germont Père to soften before it was too late; deeply, deeply moved by the plight of la traviata, this woman with the troubled, loving soul. In Gheorghiu's hands, too, fear became a keynote of the role in a way I had not anticipated or, I think, previously experienced. So often her breath came nervously and short (seemed to, I should say!) but she clung so desperately to her own strength. All these pronouns are very confusing; I never doubted that Gheorghiu was in control of her voice. While there were a few moments where her delivery meant that I struggled to catch syllables, it was clear that she knew what she was doing and meant to do it. And that's confidence-inspiring. And the frenetically traversed spectrum of emotion was done so well. In her scene with Germont Père (sung with steely sonority by Thomas Hampson) I was handkerchief-dabbing from "Dite alla giovine" onwards. And I'll confess (yes, I am that girl who cries at movies, too) that at "Prendi, quest'è l'immagine," I just wept. Hopefully silently, for the sake of my nice German standing-neighbors, but copiously. And at the end, when Violetta rises, she turns to Annina, smiling--"In me rinasce..."--and when she feels "Ah, ma io, ma io ritorno a vivere!" where else would she turn but to her Alfredo (who is now as ever totally focused on her), with her arms outstretched, to stagger, ecstatic, into his embrace--"O gioia!" And although I'm used to "E spenta! O mio/rio dolor!", Violetta got the last word here, as Alfredo caught and held her, and then, inevitably, the orchestra chord came and she fell back in his arms and he sank to the ground with her, bent over her, cradling her. Oh, Verdi, you broke the tenor!! And my heart. And that's as it should be.

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