Yannick Salvages Met’s Garish New Take On ‘Traviata’

Stage director Michael Mayer conceived the Met’s new production of ‘La Traviata’ as a flashback, the deathbed memories of Violetta (Diana Damrau), seen here in the prelude. Christine Jones designed the sets. (Jonathan Tichler / Met Opera)
By Vivien Schweitzer

NEW YORK — When the curtain rose on Michael Mayer’s garish new production of La Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera on Dec. 4, it was hard not to pine for the starkly beautiful Willy Decker staging it replaced. Mayer has said he was “very excited” by the idea of doing a new, very beautiful, very romantic La Traviata — “but in a modern way.” Yet his Traviata seemed more of a throwback to the cluttered period productions of the last century than one that, as Mayer hoped, would allow for “a modern sensibility.”

Alfredo (Juan Diego Flórez) and Violetta propose a toast. (Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

The staging looked dated even on its first outing, but the presence of the dynamic, collaborative, and down-to-earth conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin in the pit, leading his first performance as music director of the Met, symbolized a new direction. (Nézet-Séguin was initially scheduled to start his tenure in 2020, but began earlier after James Levine was suspended following accusations of sexual assault.) From the haunting violin theme that begins the Act I prelude, the orchestra played with a nuance, energy, and precision not always matched by Diana Damrau and Juan Diego Flórez as the love-struck protagonists Violetta Valéry and Alfredo Germont.

Nézet-Séguin conducted Damrau in her role debut as Violetta in Traviata at the Met in 2013, and Damrau and Flórez have sung together frequently in the bel canto operas that both have made a specialty. The chemistry between them seemed lukewarm at times here, however. Flórez sang expressively in a solid role debut as Alfredo, but his voice sounded underpowered compared to the lustrous baritone of Quinn Kelsey, who stole the show with a gorgeously sung portrayal of Giorgio Germont. Damrau sounded tentative in Act I, but sang with more conviction in the ensuing acts, concluding with a passionate, poignantly-shaded “Addio, del passato.”

Germont (Quinn Kelsey), daughter in tow, meets Violetta. (Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

The Decker staging rightfully focused attention on the amorous and familial relationships depicted in the opera, but the lurid sets (Christine Jones) and costumes (Susan Hilferty) and busy choreography of Mayer’s production proved an unwelcome distraction. Mayer, who directed the stylish production of Nico Muhly’s Marnie earlier this season, staged La Traviata as a flashback. The action unfolds in a single room, with Violetta’s bed always center-stage. During the prelude Violetta lies on her deathbed, snow falling over the image of a camellia projected on a scrim. Mayer evokes the inevitability of her death by depicting different seasons – a reasonable idea illustrated by flowers, blue sky, leaves, and clouds visible through a skylight. In Act II the walls were illuminated in shades of crimson after Alfredo threw his gambling earnings at Violetta, indicating her humiliation and his anger.

Party girls in ‘lurid’ costumes by Susan Hilferty. (Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

Other ideas were odd, such as adding Germont’s daughter as a silent character, an unnecessary metaphor for the respectability Violetta can never attain. (Germont presumably wouldn’t have brought his virtuous young daughter along to visit a courtesan.) In Violetta’s death scene, when the silent daughter drifted in wearing a bridal veil, it looked as if a ghost from Lucia di Lammermoor had accidentally wandered onto the set.

Kelsey earned the heartiest applause when the singers took their bows at the end of the night, joined by Nézet-Séguin and the entire orchestra on stage. Small bottles of Prosecco with the label “Vintage Yannick” were distributed in the lobby after the performance, a cute gesture that seemed to herald a new era, even if this production didn’t quite say “Farewell to the past.”

La Traviata continues at the Met through Dec. 29 and returns in April. For tickets and information, go here