I decided to become a singer in the early 1980s after seeing Otello with Placido Domingo at the MET. It has been 9 years since I heard this magnificent singer live when the concert was not outdoors and amplified. I had also resisted paying to see him sing a baritone role. The MET’s Willy Decker production of Traviata was very enticing for the simple fact that Diana Damrau sings the title role. My girlfriend, a coloratura with a pure rich voice had not yet seen Damrau live and I insisted she sees the show. The darling woman sat in line for hours to get rush-tickets since we decided to go last minute and remaining tickets were in the hundreds of dollars. She was able to get two orchestra seats for a very reasonable price and there we were.
Willy Decker’s production featured a minimalist set shaped like a semicircular acoustic shell. Indeed it helped the singers’ voices noticeably. The production has Dr. Grenville in the role of a rather passive Green Reaper, in elegant modern dress and a large clock that supposedly keeps the remaining time of Violetta’s life. Other than that, the stage was furnished with one or several sofas depending on the scene. The time factor worked particularly well. The concept was limiting but in Damrau, with her usual balletic, quick energy (a little over-the-top at the beginning given the bare stage), the production had its most perfect advocate and motor.
Traviata is a taxing role that requires many skills: deft coloratura singing and a top Eb in the Sempre Libera, breath-taking cantilena in both Ah forse lui and Addio del passato (my girlfriend was moved to tears during the latter) and great stamina as she is onstage most of the opera and always in emotionally and vocally very taxing numbers. Beyond all that, the singer of the title role must be an actress of the first water, to make sense of two dramatic recitations within the stylized singing environment of an unusually tuneful opera, without sounding suddenly superficially melodramatic. The recitations must be natural and yet must be able to pack an emotional punch commensurate with the level of intensity found in the music of the opera. A very tall order! And this coloratura was born to sing this role. Several years ago, I argued on a the NFCS discussion list that Damrau was not only the top coloratura soprano of the day but on of the most inventive actresses of her time. Many did not agree. This Traviata brings an already celebrated artist to the level of sensation!
I had forgotten how Placido Domingo’s voice envelops the soul! It was its unique richness and intensity that made me choose to become a singer in 1982 and the voice sounds even richer in the comfortable baritone tessitura. Domingo was never a baritone in reality even though he sang some baritone parts in his parent’s Zarzuela company. This is a magnificent tenor voice that is fully developed and what is remarkable is that in a cast that includes the magnificence of Diana Damrau, Domingo’s voice was the most present and most exciting voice on stage and it is not only because of his legendary status. Domingo’s voice in his 70s is absolutely secure, with an even vibrato and absolute intonation. His command of the stage is undisputed and his characterization specific and unusually convincing. I dare say, I have not seen a Germont that has developed this character as thoroughly as him. And I have sung the role myself. It is still the most satisfying voice to be heard on the operatic stage today. Some voices mature like a great wine, Domingo’s voice would have to be commensurate with the 1961 Chateau Latour, considered one of the greatest wines of all time and coincidentally the year of Domingo’s Met, Vienna, Scala and Verona debuts.
The Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu has a nice voice that is still developing. This is an artist with potential both as singer and actor. His best sounds came when he sings with full emotional vigor, at which time the complete richness of his voice comes through and excites. Those moments were too few. Unfortunately for him, not being fully ripe does not work well when you share the stage with Damrau and Domingo. The Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted elegantly. He is among a new crop of conductors who understands how to balance an orchestra with singers. Every voice was audible at all times. He also has an impecable lyric sense, squeezing Verdi’s score for every melodic syrup that it has (not difficult with Damrau and Domingo carrying the tunes), yet he never lost the effervescent vigor of the Parisian party scene as is evocative in his brisk tempi in the chorus numbers.
The supporting cast was engaged and energetic with the voices of Jason Stearns and Kyle Pfortmiller as Douphol and D’Obigny particularly present and beautiful. The night however belongs to Damrau and Domingo, Double D for Dynamite!!!