Now despite last year's brouhaha, I do not think Saturday night's performance of La Traviata will turn out to have been Ruth Ann Swenson's last appearance at the Met: turns and returns have long been parts of big careers. But if this was her exit, it was a most satisfying one. She and colleagues Matthew Polenzani, Dwayne Croft, and Marco Armiliato combined for not just the most engrossing and musically satisfying performance I've seen in this production but a remarkably high audience teariness quotient.
She has not essentially changed what she does. It's still a vocal performance, and her basic stage affect remains the unhistrionic thing it was: her Violetta is not some temperamental, hyper-imaginative monster but a sort of demimonde den mother, not far from natively understanding Germont Pere despite her disordered fate. But it works: as in last season's remarkable Marguerite, Swenson has figured out the subtle inflections that let her voice almost naively carry Verdi's sense.
Perhaps it was some development of this voice: settled and now full from top to bottom of Violetta's range, its characteristic ringing clarity of timbre is still present, but seems now mixed with something a bit more textured -- more human. Or perhaps it was, as I suggested, the pain and bitterness of rejection itself that made for the focused emotional communication. Certainly the other singers did much: Polenzani was, again, transparently ardent and expressive -- one ideal of Alfredo -- while Croft, again, was a remarkable partner for the great Act II duets. (Others may have a more spacious or fresh voice -- though he sounded quite good on this night -- but Croft seems to inspire his Violettas to superior work on their part.)
Whatever the explanations, it was both memorable, affecting performance and event. Act II, with all of Violetta's pained phrases telling in swells of sound, was properly the heart of the show, and even skipping the second verse of "Addio del passato" could not dim the unpressed but honest pathos of Act III.
The evening ended in a shower of torn-program confetti, which some Family Circle Box attendee thoughtfully timed to fill the air for Swenson's curtain call. The cheers were loud, but the sniffles and sobs -- most from attendees who had no idea this could be her last bow -- perhaps a better tribute. I'll remember it all for a long time... but may she soon return.