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The Met's New "Traviata"

01/03/2011 12:15 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The new production of Verdi's "La Traviata," unveiled New Year's Eve at the Metropolitan Opera, is pretty strenuous -- the singers have to do a lot of running, jumping and gymnastics. Given the Met's new adeptness at marketing, I wouldn't be surprised if they'll soon feature a "Traviata Workout" DVD in their gift shop.

The extreme physicality of Willy Decker's production stems from his contention that "the force of life, which drives every living thing toward death, [is] like a motor that can't be stopped." The miracle is that, despite the fact that she has to run miles around the stage -- in high heels yet -- soprano Marina Poplovskaya, in the title role, still sings a magnificent Violetta.

Instead of mid-19th century Paris the action takes place in a stylized arena, with a huge curved white wall that covers the whole back of the stage. At various times, in case you didn't get it, the bullring analogy is made quite literal.

This may seem odd for a story about a woman who sacrifices her own happiness for that of a woman she has never met -- the sister of her lover Alfredo. Said sister will not be able to make a respectable marriage as long as Alfredo is carrying on with this wanton party girl.

Like the nonhuman protagonist in a bullfight, Violetta has the odds stacked against her. To heighten the feminist subtext of the production and make her seem even more a victim, the entire chorus -- men and women -- are dressed as men, all in formal evening attire, which implies an elitist cynicism and condescension toward her.

The other big symbol on stage is a gigantic clock, a reminder that Violetta has tuberculosis. At times she struggles frenziedly with its hands, as if she could outwit time. At one point she is laid on the clock as if it were a sacrificial altar.

The only scenery other than these stark images are some contemporary rectangular sofas. In the big party scene that opens the opera the sofa is red. In the cozy domestic second act there are four sofas covered in flashy red floral slipcovers. During the scene in which Violetta yields to Alfredo's father Germont's request to give him up so his sister can marry well Violetta pulls off the slipcovers. (For a tubercular she really does push herself.) The sofas underneath are white, implying, I guess that she has regained her purity.

The stage movement is highly stylized. Violetta does a lot of acrobatics on the various sofas. At the moment when she is yielding to Germont the two are moving in opposite directions, parallel to each other and to the curved back wall. She is going clockwise, he counter. I'm not sure how this helps the drama

Often the admittedly intense stage pictures intrude on the music. I have always thought the Met makes a huge cut into its annual deficit at the bar by having very long intermissions. In this "Traviata" there is only one break, after the fairly short first act.

At the end of the second act, when Alfredo has humiliated Violetta at a party the curtain does not come down. Instead, after a pause, the orchestra begins the prelude to act three. As the orchestra plays this serene music all the partygoers have to exit slowly backwards through the only entrance, a huge set of doors stage right. I couldn't really focus on the music because i was worried about whether they would all make it through the doors before the act began.

One might say Decker's production is a "riff" on "Traviata," an intellectual exercise rather than an emotional realization of the material. He is commenting on it, not bringing it to life. It is a deeply serious approach. Often, in terms of stage pictures, it is starkly dramatic. But it keeps the material at a distance. At the very end of the opera, for example, when the characters have all been reconciled they stand yards apart on the stage, making a striking picture but not necessarily supporting the music or the plot.

Nevertheless it is not what we think of as Eurotrasn. Decker has not set it in Nazi Germany or the Continental Baths. It is a cerebral approach I can respect if not embrace.

Happily the singing gives the evening a vitality that transcends its "concepts." Popovskaya, who made such a strong impression as Elizabeth in Verdi's "Don Carlo" a few weeks ago, is equally commanding here. Strangely, she was at her least persuasive in her long first act aria, perhaps because she had so thoroughly absorbed Decker's concept of Violetta as a woman "resolved not to lose herself in emotions that have no future." Presumably in this aria she is struggling with that notion, but the battle does not seem difficult.

But as Violetta lets down her guard and as Popovskaya settles into the role she becomes more and more moving. Her voice is a wonder, especially in the higher regions. She is in total control -- musically and emotionally, especially in the long duet with Germont, who is sung powerfully by Andrzej Dobber. In the final act every note Poplovskaya sings has a tangible emotional weight. It is completely heartbreaking.

I have always admired the purity and beauty of tenor Matthew Polenzani's voice. Last night he sang exquisitely, but there was not a comparable passion, possibly because the production makes him too simply a pawn in the hands of either Violetta or his father.

The evening is beautifully paced by conductor Gianandrea Noseda. Verdi's scoring for "Traviata" is like chamber music, and Noseda conveys its drama and intimacy. The chorus, under the direction of Donald Palumbo. The chorus also has to do a lot of movement, which they handle well.

This "Traviata" marks the third installment in Met managing director Peter Gelb's effort to end the era of Zeffirelli, whose lavish productions dominated the Met for the last three decades .

The first round in this battle, last season's "Tosca," was a catastrophe. Point Zeffirelli. The new "Carmen" was by no means an improvement over the Z version, but the Z version was a fairly straightforward approach, so we can call that a draw. Zeffirelli's "Traviata," though beautiful, was unnecessarily extravagant. The starkness and intellectual integrity of this "Traviata" make it Gelb's first clear win.