The Met Opera returned its minimalist and modernistic production of La Traviata to the stage Thursday night with a thrilling Diana Damrau singing Violetta for the first time, an impressive Saimir Pirgu as Alfredo, and Placido Domingo bringing down the house in his own debut in the baritone role of Germont senior.
Damrau, who showed her coloratura brilliance earlier this season as Gilda in the Met's new Las Vegas Rigoletto, displayed her vocal dexterity as Violetta. From her defiant "Sempre Libera" at the outset to her anguished "Addio, del passato" at the end, Damrau gave full rich voice to a passion for life and the agony of its loss.
Domingo, the great tenor who has taken on a few other baritone roles, including Simon Boccanegro at the Met, was a revelation in his first outing as Germont. His Act 2 duets with Damrau, which form the heart of the conflict in the opera, were touching and tender and his rendering of "Di Provenza il mar" carried all the anguish of a distraught father trying to hold his family together.
Pirgu, who is gaining renown under the sobriquet of "the Albanian tenor," sang with fervor and increasing confidence. If he seemed a bit tentative in his opening "Libiamo" aria, the lyric and emotional quality of his voice grew stronger as the evening progressed.
La Traviata, based on the autobiographical novel and play La Dame aux Camelias by Alexandre Dumas fils, has endured as one of Verdi's most popular operas, and this year marks the 160th anniversary of its fiasco of a premiere in Venice. It has been performed nearly 1,000 times at the Met - it will be offered six more times this season - and there have been at least eight different productions since the Met opened its doors in 1883.
The current Met staging is by the German director Willy Decker. It features a unit set for all three acts - a tall, white, curved wall that spans the stage from wing to wing. The only prop at the outset is an oversized clock that rests on a bench running around it.
The action begins during the prelude. Violetta, in a fire-engine red cocktail dress, backs onstage through a huge door, collapses briefly on the bench, then staggers about the stage, kicking off her matching red stiletto heels while a solitary man sitting next to the clock watches her intently.
With the opening bars of Act 1, an army of revelers - the chorus, both men and women dressed in tuxedos - race onstage. A red leather couch that looks like it came from an IKEA catalog appears and some strong-shouldered among the group hoist Violetta aloft on it while she slithers about seductively.
The question that hangs over such stylized productions is whether in the end they overshadow the music or change the nature of the characters. In Decker's staging, for example, Violetta acts more like a strumpet than a courtesan, and basically taunts Alfredo rather than flirts with him. The problem with this interpretation is that it raises doubts about the veracity of Violetta's protestations of true love for Alfredo later on.
By eliminating big scene changes, Decker is able to run both scenes of Act 2 and all of Act 3 into one continuous sequence with barely a rest in the music. There are a few adjustments to the set - the red couch in the beginning becomes five couches in floral-patterned slipcovers or five white couches in later scenes - and the big clock moves around the stage.
In program notes, Decker explains that he sees La Traviata as an opera about death and time. Beyond the ubiquitous clock, the man who was sitting onstage at the start and who stalks Violetta throughout, representing a sort of Father Time or even a Grim Reaper figure, turns out to be Dr. Grenvil, the physician who attends her at her deathbed.
Beyond such symbolism, however, it is the music that defines the characters, and La Traviata has a rich blend of both the lyrical and dramatic, outbursts of joie de vivre offset with the sorrow of lost love and life's regrets. And the Met's excellent cast this season provides it all.