Opera Warhorses

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Dessay’s Scintillating Role Debut as Violetta in Pelly’s Imaginative Santa Fe “Traviata” – July 3, 2009

July 5th, 2009

French coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay, who had enjoyed previous engagements at the Santa Fe Opera as Pamina in Mozart’s “Magic Flute” (2006) and Amina in Bellini’s “La Sonnambula” (2004) chose the 2009 festival’s opening night for her role debut as Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata”, the first of 11 scheduled performances spanning the entire season, through its closing night of August 29th. The occasion permitted her reuniting with teams of French compatriots.

One was her husband Laurent Naouri, who is scheduled to be Giorgio Germont for the first eight “Traviatas”. Naouri played Escamillo in Bizet’s “Carmen” in Santa Fe Opera’s 2006 season and the title role in Verdi’s “Falstaff” in the 2008 season, meaning that Dessay or Naouri has represented their family in the New Mexico capital city in five of the seven seasons since 2003 (when Dessay appeared in a celebrity concert). Although both were present in 2006, this was their first opportunity to appear in the same opera.

The stage director and costume designer was Laurent Pelly, whose previous assignments in Santa Fe had been as the master mind behind three comedies – Offenbach’s “La Belle Helene”, Massenet’s “Cendrillon” and Rameau’s “Platee” (See Tom’s Review, Tom on Santa Fe Opera’s 2007 Season: the Second Fifty Years Commences!). His always provocative, but appealing, productions include a production of Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore” at Opera National de Paris, reviewed on this website (See Hayseed Hilarity: The Pelly “L’Elisir” in Paris – September 16, 2007).

Pelly’s famous collaboration with Dessay in the United States had been the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Donizetti’s “La Fille du Regiment” with Dessay as Marie and Juan Diego Florez as Tonio. That production will be revived this Fall in San Francisco (with Florez) and returns to the Met in Spring, 2010.

Others on the French team were the conductor Frederic Chaslin (Santa Fe Opera debut), the scenic designer Chantal Thomas and assistant costume designer Jean-Jacques Delmotte. Another Euro-collaborator was Christian Raeth (whose work staging Mozart’s “Idomeneo” at the Opera National de Paris’ Garnier Opera House and Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” at San Francisco Opera I had seen earlier).

Many contemporary production teams look for ways to develop unit sets for operas to minimize the need for scene changes and extra stage hands. Yet, some operas have disparate scenes that work against what I call the “puzzle box” unit sets.

A signature of the productions of zany comedies in which Pelly and Chantal Thomas collaborate is their use of irregular surfaces, with the characters hopping from surface to surface and moving behind the odd-shaped structures for unexpected exits and entrances.

One might assume “La Traviata”, which ends with Violetta’s death, would not be adaptable to the Pelly-Chantal comic treatment. Yet they instruct us on just how much of “Traviata” (which, virtually alone among operas, has two acts with onstage parties in full swing) can be presented frantically. In fact, we can define the structure of the opera as Act I (party), Act II (party’s over, at least for a while), Act III (party) and Act IV (party’s over forever).

Thus, the challenge for constructing a unit set in the Pelly-Chantal style was to differentiate the two Parisian parties (adding an elaborate chandelier and reflective surfaces for Flora’s home did the trick there), while having a believable setting for the Act II country hideaway and Violetta’s Act IV deathbed scene (the former worked and for the latter opinions will differ).

[Below: Laurent Pelly’s basic unit set for Santa Fe Opera’s “La Traviata”, here dressed for Act III with Violetta (Natalie Dessay) alone; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.]

Notes on the Performance

As Conductor  Chaslin led the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra in the ethereal “Traviata” prelude a pantomime takes place. We first see Alfredo (Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu) entering the set at stage right. He stares as a coffin is carried by four of Violetta’s male friends, followed by a procession of mourners dressed in black and carrying large umbrellas moving in single file from front stage right and disappearing to the middle back of the stage. (I imagine we are in the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, somewhere near the uneven surfaces around Vincenzo Bellini’s grave.)

Then we hear a wild shriek, which we soon understand is from Violetta (Natalie Dessay), dressed in an elaborate rose pink gown. (Dessay is developing the most awesome repertoire of extra-textual operatic screams of any soprano since Leonie Rysanek.)

[Below: Violetta (Natalie Dessay) shrieks in joy as party hostess; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

The obviously tipsy Violetta is carried on the shoulders of a suitor, then walks over the heads of a group of assembled men, falling backward to be caught by them, as occurs when members of rock concert audiences wish to register their enthusiasm. (Dessay displayed this technique in the Pelly production of Donizetti’s “Fille du Regiment” at the Met.)

[Below: Violetta (Natalie Dessay) shows Parisians how to party; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Meanwhile, her compatriot Flora Belvoix (Emily Fons) grovels on the ground as the wild party rages above her. Violetta, though intoxicated, hops from one structure to another, almost losing her balance. In this debauched state, Gastone’s encouragement of Alfredo to sing a drinking song has a curiously sobering effect on this crowd. The party-goers move like swarms of fish opening  stage left for Alfredo’s Libiamo.

In my most recent previous “Traviata” review I suggested that the American companies that perform in large opera houses (such as San Francisco’s War Memorial) should cast spinto tenors, who project the large voices that are compatible with those spaces, in the role of Alfredo (especially if the Violetta is played by a spinto soprano, as one must now characterize Anna Netrebko).

However, Pirgu demonstrated that the case can be made for a leggiero tenor performing in an acoustically friendly place such as Santa Fe Opera’s outdoor Crosby Theater.  His light but full voice seemed a nice match for the silvery coloratura that Dessay projects.

In the San Francisco “Traviata” review, I also raised stage director David McVicar’s question, “Where in ‘La Traviata’ does any sex occur?” and described stage director Marta Domingo’s suggestive Act I ending.

However, Pelly has a different answer to McVicar’s question, when after Violetta invites Alfredo back domani she lies prostrate on her back and he embraces and kisses her. As they lie on a block, the chorus swarms in front of them, shielding their lovemaking from audience view. Then the partygoers shriek wildly and leave, Alfredo with them.

But all parties end, and the first act “Traviata” party leaves its hostess time to reflect. It is the music that Verdi wrote for this hostess’ reflections that the audience gets its first strong impression of the evening’s Violetta.

Since my recent reviews of the Violettas of two Russian sopranos, Marina Poplavskaya and Anna Netrebko, conjured my memories of the performances I attended of other famous Violettas of the past five decades  – most notably Leyla Gencer, Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills (and there were, of course, other significant Violettas as well) – some might be curious of my historical assessment of Dessay’s first Violetta. Since it is often said that each act of Violetta seems to require a different type of soprano, it is logical to approach such an assessment act by act.

This reviewer has commented at length about Dessay’s Lucia (See  Dessay’s Lucia di Lammermoor Delights in San Francisco – June 29, 2008) and Manon (See Kaufmann Astonishes, Dessay Enraptures, in McVicar “Manon”: Lyric Opera of Chicago – October 15, 2008). Both are showpieces of the coloratura soprano repertory. But coloratura refers to a style of vocal writing and singing that demonstrates vocal flexibility and control of such elements as trills, cadenzas and rapid chromatic passages.

In the past 50 years we have seen that sopranos of different vocal weight can excel in coloratura technique, with Sutherland with a dramatic spinto voice and Sills with a leggiero voice as two very different sounds.

Dessay’s voice is a lighter sound, somewhat like that of Sills. But it is a voice with phenomenol control. She can (and often does) sing  at full volume, but she can sing sotto voce and still be heard in a large opera house. Her legato passages are firm and even. Thus, she has the vocal instrument that allows her to express intense emotion even when standing perfectly still.

But she does not need to stand still to express emotion or to sing legato or coloratura passages.  A diminutive figure, she exudes energy, is a perceptive actress, and a great sport when it comes to very physical stage regimens.

No wonder that directors as different as Laurent Pelly, who revels in stage movement, and David McVicar, with his attention to the behavioral motivations of every individual human being on his stage, have such huge successes when Dessay is their leading woman.

So, the party has ended, and Dessay sings an introspective Ah fors e lui with breathtaking sotto voce passages keeping the audience on the edge of its seats, then a rollicking Sempre Libera with the coloratura brilliance that makes her such a formidable Lucia.

The second act takes place at Violetta’s country home. To stage the scene, a grassy slope, bordered by a gnarled tree, is superimposed on the portion of the unit set nearest the audience.  The country house is not seen, and both the house’s inhabitants and visitors conduct their business in the outdoors. The remainder of the unit set is used for entrances and exits (those of the Elder Germont usually from and to the top of the set).

Alfredo sings his double aria, both parts spared from any traditional cuts. Violetta is in a white shirt and pants lying in the grass. She is playfully cuddly with Alfredo, before the plot circumstances require his departure.

[Below: Alfredo (Saimir Pirgu) in their last idyllic moment in their country retreat; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

The party-goers move like swarms of fish opening  stage left for Alfredo’s Libiamo.
In my most recent previous “Traviata” review I suggested that the American companies that perform in large opera houses (such as San Francisco’s War Memorial) should cast spinto tenors, who project the large voices that are compatible with those spaces, in the role of Alfredo (especially if the Violetta is a spinto soprano as one must now characterize Anna Netrebko).
However, Pirgu demonstrated that the case for a leggiero tenor performing in an acoustically friendly place such as Santa Fe Opera’s outdoor Crosby Theater.  His light but full voice seemed a nice match for the silvery coloratura that Dessay projects.
In the previous review, I also raised stage director David McVicar’s question, “Where in “La Traviata” does any sex occur?” and described stage director Marta Domingo’s suggestive Act I ending.
However, Pelly has a different answer to McVicar’s question, when after Violetta invites Alfredo back domani she lies prostrate on her back and he embraces and kisses her. As they lie on a block chorus swarms in front of them, shielding their lovemaking from audience view. Then the partygoers shriek wildly and leave, Alfredo with them.
But all parties end, leaving their hostess time to reflect, and it is at this point where one judges the Violetta of the evening.[Below: Violetta (Natalie Dessay) and Alfredo (Saimir Pirgu) in their idyllic country hideaway; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

The Elder Germont (Laurent Naouri) arrives in an Edwardian top hat and overcoat. One of the features of Pelly’s direction, especially notable in the interaction between Dessay and Naouri is that all of the opera’s characters sing to each other, wherever they are on stage. They do not try to position themselves so that they always are in view of the conductor while singing, nor are they positioned merely for their voices to be heard most advantageously.

[Below: Germont (Laurent Naouri) is affected by the generosity shown by Violetta (Natalie Dessay) towards his family; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Although every act of this opera tests the skills of a singing actress, it is the second act encounter between Violetta and Giorgio Germont in which those skills must be employed to portray convincingly a woman who transforms Alfredo’s angry and suspicious father into an admirer.

In more conventional productions, a rather stodgy provincial gentleman arrives at the country house, and begins to warm to Violetta as soon as she counters his first remark that offends her, and is won over when she shows him her bills of sale of her possessions.

We understand that 19th century provincial families required conformity to social conventions among all of their family members, but we are as personally detached from this interchage as if we were sociologists observing an alien culture.

In this production, the wildness of Pelly’s first act party may help 21st century audiences better relate to the inherent power of the Violetta-Germont scene.  No matter how sophisticated about modern attitudes towards marriage and family honor we might be, how many of us would really want our sons or daughters associated with this particular party crowd?

(One can think of 21st century celebrity families, where the party-boy or -girl reputation of one of the family members might even today plausibly cause problems for the marriage of a brother or sister.)

With such a background, the initial hostility of Naouri’s Germont to Dessay’s Violetta is understandable and his changed attitude when he begins to understand the difference between the actual person and the celebrity reports of her behavior is something to which we can more easily relate.

(Note the similarity between this Violetta’s understanding of how she has compromised Alfredo and his future, with  that of Magda’s in Puccini’s “La Rondine” towards Ruggero and his provincial family.)

The emotional intensity of the acting between Naouri and Dessay is extraordinary, ending with her Violetta grabbing his lapels as a little girl might and his Germont holding her head in his hands, with a hint of his understanding why his son is so attracted to her, then turning away to control himself.

The remainder of the act has more emotional bombshells to unleash the singing actor – Violetta’s duet with Alfredo, that she knows is a farewell and he does not, Alfredo’s receipt of Violetta’s surprising letter that she is leaving him, and Giorgio’s unwelcome consolation of his son. Dessay, Pirgu and Naouri projected the emotional state of these characters – Violetta and Alfredo, both deeply depressed and in states of shock and the Elder Germont, much relieved and capable of clear thinking – effectively.

Germont’s much-maligned cabaletta, now certainly the least performed piece in the opera, was included and I thought worked fine delivered by Naouri in Pelly’s staging. Of the three “Traviatas” I reviewed since late May, the Los Angeles and Santa Fe Operas included it and the San Francisco Opera did not. My vote is still with its inclusion.

The third act is another party act, this time centered in the home of Violetta’s friend, Flora. I have also suspected that this act is the most taxing for stage directors, with two dances – not just any dances but two separate dances each with a specified theme and accompanying comments from the chorus. If you follow what Verdi wrote, there is then the requirement for the chorus and minor characters to disappear for several minutes, allowing Violetta and Alfredo a duet (traditionally cut for decades, but in this millenium usually included), and then everyone’s return to Flora’s main hall for one of Verdi’s great ensemble numbers.

Pelly’s approach is one of the most successful solutions to the dilemma of how to get through the melodious but often less engaging early parts of the act to its gripping denouement. He enlists the manic party-goers of the first act (excepting three of the first act revelers – Violetta, Alfredo and the Baron Douphol, played by Wayne Tigges – who, though present, are hardly in a party mood) in the most successful incorporation of the dances into the action that I have yet seen. (The actual dancers in the opera are Kristin Osler and Kyle Lang, whose principal assignment is playing the revelers heard outside Violetta’s room during the final scene.)

Pelly does this by  turning the women choristers (whom we can assume are all courtesans, since no “respectable” woman would likely be there nor even have been invited) into the gypsy fortune tellers. They strut and pose more than dance but they still form a chorus line.

Men in black tie evening dress (i.e., the male chorus and the men in the smaller named roles) crawl towards the fortune tellers, paper currency in hand to bid for individualized attention later in the evening. The Marquis d’Obigny (Tom Corbeil), who intends to be naughty with the fortune tellers, is pulled over Flora’s knee and spanked. The matador, instead of being a ballerino doing a Spanish dance, is portrayed by dancer Lang as the wild high jinks of another of the men in evening dress. The other named party-goers with names were Doctor Grenvil (Harold Wilson) who appears in the final quintet and Gastone (Keith Jameson).

[Below: the women at Flora Bevoix’ party pretend to be gypsy fortune tellers; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Then, on cue, the choristers swarm offstage, and Alfredo and Violetta begin their duet. In Pelly’s third act, this is not just an opportunity for Violetta to warn a defiant Alfredo to depart and avoid any confrontation with the Baron, but it becomes a sexual encounter, with passionate caressing, at one point with Alfredo on top of her.

[Below: Violetta (Natalie Dessay), having arrived at Flora Bevoix’ party, seeks to a way to warn Alfredo of his personal danger; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Then the Elder Germont, one of the most imposing party crashers in the history of the arts, appears, and Verdi’s great trio with full chorus takes place. In my review of the Lyric Opera’s presentation of the David Hockney production of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”, I had made special reference to the inspired work of Lighting Designer Duane Schuler. As the lighting director for this “Traviata”, one was aware of his contributions throughout.

One of the striking Schuler images worth special note is the creation of a triangle of spotlights, in which we concentrate on Violetta, on Alfredo, and, at the top of the stage, Germont, the three souls who have an emotional bond with each other and the audience.

In Pelly’s concept, as Act III ends, the stage darkens and the set is transformed (with the orchestra playing the orchestral introduction to the final act) from Flora’s party scene to Violetta’s sickbed. During this orchestral interlude, all of the blocks are covered with linen and a bed is brought in.

Many directors find within the final act opportunities to reflect a surreal world for Violetta’s dying moments, and Pelly followed this course. Since this is a basically uncut production, the beautiful quintet with Doctor Grenvil and Annina joining Violetta, Alfredo and his father is included, but is followed by Annina and the three men all moving backwards to the edge of the stage, finally leaving Violetta alone for her death.

[Below: The dying Violetta (Natalie Dessay) feels that life has been restored to her; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.]

Natalie Dessay will be recognized as one of the great Violettas of our age. Any opera lover with the ability to get to Santa Fe Opera for one of the remaining ten performances of July and August 2009, should make sure they see her in Laurent Pelly’s fascinating production.

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