Recently, I became aware that one of our local cinemas participates in the live broadcasts of select performances at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. The Met has been broadcasting about 10 performances per season for several years now. We were in London when I first heard of it in 2007 or 2008. But I hadn't realized until now that they were doing it in Hannover. The Met broadcasts the live performance via satellite in HD and includes exclusive interviews with the performers in the intermission.
Saturday (14 April 2012) was the last broadcast of the season and we saw La Traviata, one of my favorite operas (and a lot of people's too, I know). The music is stunning and memorable and emotionally laden. I know it quite well because we did the opera when I was the Opera Props scholarship recipient at the UW-Madison. I got to sing the thankless role of Annina, because as a 21 year-old Violetta was naturally way beyond my ability, but it was a great experience none-the-less. Regardless, I was quite excited to see a Met production of it as well as to hear a singer I admire sing Violetta: Natalie Dessay. I'd never heard of the other soloists, but the opera is a vehicle for Violetta anyway, it lives or (and) dies with her.
However, Dessay should not have sung that performance. Apparently, she missed her first performance on Monday last week because of illness but sang the second on Tuesday. I imagine she didn't want to miss out on the Live in HD performance, but she should have bowed out. She was clearly not well vocally and it got worse and worse. From the very beginning you could hear that she was protecting her voice, which in my opinion was probably worse than just singing full out and not worrying too much about weaknesses. Long delicate notes cut out more often than not and the money note at the end of the first act was a real struggle. Unfortunately, we, the audience members of the broadcast got a close-up of the struggle. There was one redeeming thing in the first act and that was tenor Matthew Polenzani who sang Alfredo, Violetta's love interest. Wow! What a fabulous, rich, open and expressive voice! A wonderful actor as well, who brought tears to my eyes in the duet in the first Act. Too bad he doesn't have a more prominent role in this opera. Finally, someone whose Italian (and I imagine any language he sings in) is understandable! This was unfortunately, not the case with Dessay and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who sang the role of Germont. Although, I'm not sure, had Dessay been well, if she would've darkend the vowels quite so much. Hvorostovsky's performance was additionally marred by the wheezing, gasping breaths he took between each phrase. Was he ill as well? Or is that a hallmark of his singing? Quite distracting in any case.
The chorus and the orchestra were first rate, as is to be expected. All minor singing roles were admirably sung. The set was quite minimalistic and modern in a timeless modern kind of way. Not at all disturbing, but definitely added nothing to the overall production. The staging and direction made it overall an extremely dark version, giving Violetta nothing to work with when things were meant to be going well and she and Alfredo happy.
Despite all the griping above, I did quite enjoy it, although not nearly as much as I would have, had Dessay been singing well. What a shame actually, because it's clear that she is a very good actress and the vocal weakness was distracting to her and ultimately to the audience and made it impossible to be completely immersed in the drama. A real pity. I look forward to attending more such Live at the Met productions in the future. They gave a preview of the next season and there are several I'd really like to see.