The last time I went to see Natalie Dessay at the Met – she was singing Lucia – we found ourselves sharing a box with Hei-Kyung Hong. She offered to share her cough drops with us. This morning when I went to see Natalie Dessay at the Met – this time as Violetta – Hei-Kyung Hong was there again. Only this time she was singing in Natalie's place. My favourite French pixie was, alas, indisposed; if only she'd asked Hong for a cough drop.
Ah, well, these things happen, and this was only the final dress rehearsal anyway (albeit a very full one) so I hope that, despite all the cynical speculation happening on Parterre, I might still have a chance to see Natalie's Violetta. (I've just checked the calendar and it turns out this chance hinges entirely on her singing opening night. Fingers crossed, then.) I liked the production and I'd like to see Natalie in it: I'm interested to see her in the role whatever the circumstances, but I suspect this very stripped back and crinoline-free take would be an especially good showcase for her.
Hei-Kyung Hong, however, is about as luxurious a cover as possible. I doubt anyone arriving halfway through would have guessed that she was anything other than the singer engaged from the beginning; after all, she's done a fair number of Met Violettas in her own right, not to mention a stack of other roles. (It's a big stack: the Met database lists 355 performances since her début in 1982.) She was lovely, especially in Act II, where she did some of the prettiest soft singing I've ever heard, and earns serious bonus points for singing such a huge role at such an early hour.
Weirdly enough this is only the second production of Traviata I've ever seen live. The opera is so entrenched in my brain – it was an early favourite and I was for a while obsessed with Anna Moffo's "Teneste la promessa" – that I feel like that can't possibly be true. But it is. I've seen Opera Australia's perennial Moshinsky production a number of times, with two sopranos and only one tenor, Aldo Di Toro, who always seems to persuade me that the opera might actually be about Alfredo.
Lo and behold, Matthew Polenzani had the same effect on me. I've only seen him once before, and that was a Schubert recital. Alfredo was such a complete change of pace that I wasn't sure what to expect, but Polenzani won me over quite conclusively: the longer he sang, the more I wanted him to keep singing, and his still-waters-run-deep characterisation was really quite wonderful. The big showdown at Flora's – as he threw money at Violetta and then himself to the floor – was especially moving, and a shocking transformation from the stiff and awkward suitor we'd met at the start.
In no way, shape, manner or form could Dmitri Hvrostovsky's Germont pass for the father of Polenzani's Alfredo; sophisticated older brother perhaps, or perhaps a suave mafioso. But in terms of credibility, that's a much easier obstacle to overcome than a cane and a feigned hunch, and Hvorostovsky has such bucketloads of authority – not to mention the kind of charisma that ought to be taxed – that it's no trouble at all to believe in the sway he holds over both Alfredo and Violetta. He sang masterfully throughout but "Di Provenza" was particularly exceptional and drew the biggest cheers of the performance. Quite honestly, even if Natalie disappears, I'd be tempted to go back just to hear that aria again.
Peter Gelb, in his announcement about Natalie, also dropped in a mild warning about Willy Decker's production which I'm sure is not everybody's cup of tea. It mostly worked for me, though: it's refreshingly uncluttered, both in aesthetic and psychology. I like the Ikea sets. And I'm always intrigued by directors who place characters onstage who usually wouldn't be there – not only does Decker include the principals in scenes they'd normally miss, he also has Violetta shadowed everywhere by a solemn and silent old man, who might be Fate, or Death, or Donald Sutherland, and eventually becomes Doctor Grenvil, making the character's grim prognosis that much more chilling. Actually this was a good day for the bit players: Maria Zifchak's Annina had such resounding beauty of tone that I kind of wished she had an aria.
It was the men who won this show for me: Polenzani, Hvrostovsky and let's not forget Fabio Luisi. You'd think a Ring Cycle would be work enough but no, there he is, conducting La traviata as well and doing it ravishingly too. Zippy tempi here and there – "Ah fors'e lui" in particular – but so finely textured and sensitive. I didn't realise until the music began just how much I was in the mood for a really good Traviata – I mostly blame Ruth Elleson for this and I think she knows why – and this fine group of artists ended up providing just what I needed.
One final highlight? Today was Open Day at the Met, and among the unusually large dress rehearsal audience were a lot of school kids, who reacted in delightfully unexpected ways. When Giorgio Germont slapped his son, they gasped as one...and when Alfredo ran in to embrace the dying Violetta, they burst into applause and cheers. Poor things must have been devastated when she died after all.