If Natalie Dessay makes a spectacular theatrical debut as Violetta in the Santa Fe Opera’s new production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata, and she does, it’s no thanks to Director Laurent Pelly’s spectacularly inept staging of the work, about which more later.
The international opera world has been anxiously awaiting Dessay’s account of this challenging role. It’s well-known to be one of the repertory’s most feared tests of the soprano voice. As Violetta’s character moves from the gay courtesan of act one to the haunted, dying figure of the finale, Verdi’s vocal demands deepen from lighthearted coloratura soprano to full-throated lyric soprano to, for some singers, a weightier spinto soprano in the last act.
Dessay has commented that the role requires two, maybe three sopranos. One of the great coloratura sopranos of our time, she simply nails the first-act Violetta in a definitive reading of the character, one familiar to audiences from her excerpted performances of “Sempre libera,” terrifying in its desperate ferocity. Last spring, in a UNICEF benefit concert in Paris, Dessay sang the demanding second act duet along with Laurent Naouri as Giorgio Germont. But only last Friday night did she sing the Violetta of acts three and four for the first time.
Without question, Dessay is an enormously gifted actress. She had initially trained for a career in ballet and on the stage. Then her vocal talent emerged. Her portrayals of Lucia, Manon, Zerbinetta and many others remain unrivalled for their high-voltage energy and dramatic insight. She brings both qualities to her SFO Violetta. In hectic high command at her hot-pink entrance, shrieking like a peacock as the chorus boys carry her onstage, Dessay is a spitfire, a demimondaine to be reckoned with. With her poignant “E strano,” she encounters for the first time the weirdness of love, then returns to her former coloratura cynicism.
A butterfly aware it has only 24 hours to live—that’s how Dessay has described Violetta. Therein lies the horror of Germont’s demand that she abandon her lover, his son Alfredo, for the sake of his daughter’s honor. Dessay totally commands the role here with her light-voiced, but supremely touching, part in the great second-act duet. That floating, self-sacrificing plea to Germont, “Dite alla giovine,” is for me, both vocally and dramatically the climactic moment of Dessay’s portrayal.
Pathetic moments remain to be played, from the emptiness of her forlorn presence in act three to the ultimate pathos of the dying, abandoned Violetta in the last act. Frankly, Dessay, a consummate actress, lacks the vocal heft that many great Violettas of the past have brought to the role. This is one of Verdi’s paradoxes: He asks that his singer, near death, deliver the most intensely felt, most dramatically powerful lines of the score.
Still, Dessay delivers the drama lyrically, with profound sadness and self-understanding. Her “Addio, del passato” is a bleeding wound. The final “Rinasce” nearly breaks our hearts. Without doubt, her Violetta—though still a work in progress in some ways and to some degree controversial—is an incandescent creation of subtlety and depth.
I wish the same could be said of Pelly’s staging and Chantal Thomas’ set. The latter, a jumble of gray blocks and inchoate monoliths, is physically dangerous for the cast and an insult to the eye. Although seemingly meant to suggest, say, Père Lachaise Cemetery and a landscape of death, the stage picture intrudes fatally upon the action. Pelly, a wizard with comic opera, seems at a loss here. His clumsy funeral procession, a cliché, obliterates the overture. A distracting set adjustment spoils the poignancy of the last-act prelude. Groping and dishevelment dominate the party scenes. All the women are tarts and all the men are lechers in an overdrawn, oversimplified parodic demimonde.
The young Albanian tenor, Saimir Pirgu, sings Alfredo with energy but not much magnetism or finesse. Pelly seems content that he be only a callow cad, limited to stock gestures. Naouri’s Germont is, in Pelly’s version, an icy, manipulative monster of ego. While Naouri sings with intelligence and strength, his tightness of voice and its slight nasality confirm the character’s lack of humanity.
Frédéric Chaslin, reportedly Dessay’s choice as conductor, makes a powerful debut with the SFO. His reading of the score, wonderfully supported by the orchestra, seems a marvel of subtle clarity, its every inflection registered with precision and grace. Todd Levy’s clarinet solos deserve special praise.
This La Traviata marks General Director Charles MacKay’s production debut with the SFO and, in purely musical terms, it’s a beauty. As emphasized earlier, it’s a major debut for Dessay, too, whose portrayal of Violetta embraces the two great operatic polarities: l’amour and la morte. For well over a century Alexandre Dumas’ heroine has been embodied by the great actresses of the French stage: Réjane, Bernhardt, Printemps. Perhaps now another name can be added: Dessay?
9 pmWednesday and Saturday, July 8 and 11
Through Aug. 29
Santa Fe Opera