Monday, April 16, 2012

Dessay Teaches Humility during Traviata's Met HD

The last broadcast of the 2011-2012 Met's HD operas, La traviata, was disappointing on many accounts and sublime on others. Firstly, W. Decker's direction was uninformed by Verdi's own work and overall unfulfilling. Honestly, I do not mind stark minimalist stagings. I did not mind that, in the opening scene, everyone on stage was dressed in black suits (including the female singers); all except for Violetta -dressed in red. I can appreciate when the stage director expands my understanding of the standard repertoire, so I liked the androgynous choir.
However, when the staging goes against the libretto, one must draw the line. At the beginning Act II Violetta's pantomime did very little to alleviate her presence on stage. Violetta is not supposed to hang around while the tenor sings about his love for her and, most certain, not when he finds out that Violetta has sold her jewels to sustain their idyllic countryside life. Violetta does not belong in the scene, period. In the next scene, at Flora's party, the bailaoras and toreros were missing in action. Never mind that the lines sung by the choir did not match the actions; I want my ballet back! To top it all, Act III was absolutely incomprehensible for someone who might not be familiar with the plot, and confusing, at best, for the rest of us who have a fairly good grasp of the story. For the benefit of those who did not have the pleasure: There was no bed, no window to open, and los carnavaleros erupt on stage -is there anything sacred? Ah, and the doctor is death. Confused?
There were some  welcome new understandings provided by the staging. The ubiquitous camellia harkening back to Dumas' novel was a clever touch, as was the massive clock on stage ticking away -representing Violetta's impending death. The old man standing around and interacting with Violetta was a bit confusing. In Act III, "death" sang, and it was no other than Dottore Grenvil. Can anyone explain that one to me? The healer is death? The imagery (metaphor, metonym, economy?) eludes me.
If instead you closed your eyes, you were in for a treat. Matthew Polenzani as Alfredo was surprising revelation. I had heard him in Zauberfloete and Meistersinger as well as many times with the May Festival in Cincinnati, but I did not know this side of him: He was in great vocal shape and I enjoyed his interpretation -I saw a naive side of Alfredo which I had not noticed before; so, thanks! Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Germont was imposing but not exciting. 
The real interesting story was Natalie Dessay's Violetta. I had the pleasure of hearing her live as Violetta, in Santa Fe, on my birthday, and she was wonderful (but again, I think she is wonderful no matter what, after all she is Jewish and loves Callas ... ). However, that day in August 2009 in Santa Fe, I noticed that she struggled in Act I. On Saturday, she struggled again. During Act I, Dessay's acting was phenomenal but she missed the high E flat at the end of "Sempre libera." It happens: Great stars are entitled to make mistakes. 
But what rarely happens is that great stars admit their mistakes in front a worldwide audience. Dessay did just that. Right after she missed the high note, Voigt interviewed Dessay on camera. It was evident how upset Natalie was. Dessay said, "I missed the high not, I'm sorry." I never expected that from an artist at the pinnacle of her profession (she offered no excuses). I almost cried. It made me think about what our our tradition teaches during the High Holidays about asking for forgiveness and I realized that often I have assumed that during the rest of the year we are exempted. But we are not ... With her example, Dessay showed me that we must practice humility and self-contrition daily, in everything we do. What a remarkable artist and human being! Dessay's exemplar humility made her portrayal of a conflicted dying woman who forgives so much more poignant and believable -that I truly enjoyed, admired and appreciated. 


  1. Oh I so agree! The reason I love Natalie Dessay no matter what she sings or how well she does is that she's never afraid to admit the truth about her work. She's so humble and always approaching everything from ground zero. I feel very sad that she is taking a sabbatical in 2015 and may not sing after that, but at the same time she deserves a big rest. The opera world works its singers so unbelievably hard and the pressure is so great - and audiences can be so cruel to aging legends. It's wonderful human beings like Natalie that remind us that life is precious and that we are all simply human, after all.

    P.S. Natalie's Violetta is probably the most moving I have ever seen...the letter reading and death scene get me every time!! And sadly there are not many other operatic roles that suit Natalie like Violetta written for a unique voice like hers.

  2. Thanks for reading and for your comments. I'm sorry to hear she might not come back after her sabbatical. I'm glad I made the trips when I did so I could see her live as Amina, Manon, Violetta and Lucia. Always thankful for the opportunity to be touched by true artists.