Saturday, April 17, 2010

Wet eye, dry eye

La Traviata -- Metropolitan Opera, 4/13/2010
Hong, Valenti, Hampson / Abel

Tuesday was, for the most part, a "dry eye" Traviata night at the Met -- that is, despite much nice individual work, not wholly successful. Or perhaps I personally have been spoiled by the magnificence of Anja Harteros last season, for most of what I said in praise of Hei-Kyung Hong's Violetta three years ago still applies. She lacks force, but has the refinement and unforced, touching believability that more famous sopranos don't always have in full.

But this time it didn't add up to as much. Perhaps it was the unscheduled appearance, subbing for Angela Gheorghiu early in a run Hong was supposed to take over weeks after. Perhaps it was the further passage of time, eroding Hong's voice that small but decisive additional amount: her need to shepherd the voice through almost all of the first two acts is now quite evident. Or perhaps it was her fit (or lack thereof) with the night's colleagues. Whatever the ultimate reason(s), the show lacked the urgent energy that ignites and inflames audience emotions.

I suspect it was a combination of all these factors. Traviata needs a motor, and though that's often up to the soprano playing Violetta, a sufficiently ardent Alfredo or vigorous conductor can drive the show as effectively. Perhaps three years ago Hong's colleagues mattered less, but in her current lightened vocal state she needs assistance -- as Gheorghiu's spellbinding onstage energy does not -- and doesn't get it. Which isn't to say they're bad -- they just too much duplicate her virtues instead of complementing them.

James Valenti, one of the 2002 Met Council Finals winners, has matured into a musical bearer of the impressive liquid voice he showed eight years ago. He's perhaps a bit too musical, in fact -- or rather, perhaps too into his own musical control. Sometimes a bit of blunter, less exquisitely shaped singing would have been more effective. He's also extremely tall, which -- for the first time since John Hancock took over the Baron's part in 2006 -- took away the physical menace of Baron Douphol (whose immediate dislike of Alfredo one might take here to be the pique of a man used to towering over his rivals...).

Thomas Hampson has become a near-perfect Germont. There's something of the feminine in his virtues that doesn't quite work for Schumann's Dichterliebe (more on that later), but for this embodiment of upright society it adds an ideal touch. Hampson's Germont is a true believer, not just in the rightness of his plea (and in the order of things it represents) but in the later-proved-unfortunately-untrue assurances he offers Violetta in her renunciation. But it's the slightly smarmy Hampson manner that lets him convincingly marry this to real personal sympathy with the heroine -- and the lately-evident truthfulness of his suffering that gives his requests of her and his son real depth.

Yves Abel, the fourth conductor in this run, showed admirable refinement from the very first bars of the overture, but, while he was never quite lethargic, neither did he make up for the lack of any singer driving the onstage action (Hampson was closest, but Germont only appears for one act).

I missed this afternoon's broadcast, but it occurs to me that all the non-Hong cast might make perfect foils for Gheorghiu's opposite, un-passive approach to the Verdi classic.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.