Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Violetta the Great

Last season I wrote of the heroine of Verdi's La Traviata:
Violetta is a star who discovers that she can no longer be a person.
But which of these parts is the truth of her character? Is she a party girl struck by her soul as by a god, or a more sensitive spirit caught by circumstance in the whirlwind life? Verdi and his (insufficiently praised) librettist Piave do not say, but each soprano gets her chance to choose at the first act's close. Between the contemplative "Ah, fors'è lui" and its famous rapid-fire cabaletta "Sempre libera" all of Violetta's life is elaborated, tilted in one way or another by her singer's inclinations.

Anja Harteros, making her Verdi debut at the Met (her only part so far has been Mozart's Countess), clearly sided with the private version: hypnotically rendering "Ah, fors'è lui" with telling natural gestures and a voice that finally seemed to warm up, before launching into the cabaletta with flushed determination... and forced, not-truly-convinced body language. The fireworks of "Sempre libera" was not, as with some singers, the part where she finally woke up and engaged the role. Quite the opposite: though she acquitted herself just fine in the obstacles, they were just that -- her character's (vocal) attempt to go through the elaborate motions of her worldly existence.

How then did such a woman end up as a standard-setting party set fixture? Well, circumstance, of course. But Harteros characterizes this side of Violetta's fate as well, in a most unusual way. This is the true, astounding fact of her Violetta: she cannot but be grand in all she does. (And so all pay her homage, in the sadly limited way each knows.)

Hers is a Violetta with zero self-pity, zero overt tear-jerking. (And I do not mean to slight these things, which most expressively successful Violettas have used to huge effect here.) Yet it's not an instrumental version, divorced from feeling except at underlined big moments (the renunciation to Germont, "Amami Alfredo", the Act II finale, Act III's letter and "Addio del passato", etc.), nor a dessicated one limiting feeling by some notion of taste. Each crucial and extreme point (like all others in between) is felt, embodied, expressed by Harteros: only, at the same time, there rises in her (unforced) a proportionately powerful grandeur -- of body, of inflection, and not least of long arcing musical line -- as balance. It is unlike any Violetta the Met has shown in (at least) decades.

But it works. In the endlessly expressive breaths and phrases of her duets with Germont; the way her "Amami Alfredo" turns mercurially into an affectionate vocal caress; the way she, though nervous, wears the Baron's obscene wealth to Flora's party -- including an unmissable tiara -- easily, almost as a (demimonde) queen, making Alfredo's insult not just personal and womanly but also a sort of lèse majesté; the way her speech suddenly gains composure and firmness when Dr. Grenvil enters at Act III's start; the way her recitation of the letter approaches singsong, more a familiar bedtime poem than some huge cause for wailing; the way her voice nobly swells as she hands over her portrait; and in the almost sibylline manner she finds in uttering this (Alfredo's future) and, elsewhere in Act III, her own doom: in and through all of these (and other) touches is a compelling, thoroughly imagined, and tragic story told. And it's amazing how many lines and musical moments make new and surprising sense under this story: this isn't the only true Violetta, but it's certainly one that fits.

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Harteros is much helped by the sympathetic debuting conductor, Paolo Carignani (Milanese by way of Frankfurt Opera). He is a conductor with ideas, expressed sometimes by fluctuations in tempo but perhaps more characteristically in, for example, the light and singing orchestral introduction to "Un di felice". Carignani's ultimate potential we'll see later in the run (ideas from a new guest conductor sometimes take a while to materialize in full), but he seems promising.

The other principals, though they fit their parts, aren't exactly guys with big ideas. Tenor Massimo Giordano has the limitations of a stereotypical tenor: stiff and not a subtle actor despite some straight-ahead enthusiasm, he has a pleasant woody sound that's admirable but a bit monochromatic. (He's also self-involved, losing much of my goodwill afterwards with an almost Gheorghiu-esque bout of applause-milking.) Polish baritone Andrzej Dobber has a somewhat idiosyncratic, not-quite Italianate tone, but complemented Harteros admirably in their duets and well embodies the wooden rustic father (even the near-shouting at the close of "Di provenza" seemed in character, though it did show his vocal limits).

It's true, neither charged the stage proceedings while Harteros was absent: I spent a good amount of that time wondering what would happen if she'd played opposite a lover of great responsiveness (e.g. Polenzani, Vargas) or force-of-nature sound (Kaufmann, Calleja), and a Germont of unmistakable authority. But she is so different from them in spirit that the Act II end takes on an interesting new cast, with her hurt (and yes, given her collapsed but not debased mien after Alfredo throws the money, her suffering here is more contemplative than tortured in any case) also one from a disillusion -- from her one hope Alfredo's utter inability to comprehend her -- that foreshadows the disillusion with herself (and her dreams of life) at the next act's close.

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What's left to say? Harteros' voice took much of Act I to warm up, lacking its forceful carrying ring through the beginning; after that it still wasn't classically Italian but carried her shades of feeling on its vibrato and on her breath. To my mind it's a miracle that one who can be the rare sort of person Harteros' Violetta is onstage, opening long-unheard sonic-expressive vistas in the part, can also sing well and powerfully enough to be a star in this house. Perhaps it will take a bigger miracle for her to be more appreciated for this than bashed for the standard thing she is not, but I suspect those who actually see her -- and yes, you must -- will see.

UPDATE (3:35PM): Things I forgot to note -- Giordano sang his Act II-beginning cabaletta, "O mio rimorso" (sans interpolated high note at the end), but Harteros omitted the repeat of "Addio del passato". Stage Director Kristine McIntyre did fairly well preparing the revival, with additional business for the Baron and the Marquis to start Act I and Act II scene 2 respectively being nice touches.


  1. Wow -- thanks for the insight into the performance. I rarely wish I could come and see it, but after reading this, I do.

  2. Thanks for your comment! When I get into the character details of a performance, I wonder if I'm thereby trying my readers' patience.

    It's really too bad this can't be seen outside the city, on moviecast or otherwise.


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.