Timely tribulations in the Met’s ‘La Traviata’

In the first few pages of “Heart of Darkness” (1899), Joseph Conrad’s narrator-protagonist Charles Marlow opines:

“It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there has never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over.”

One wonders how Marlow would interpret the events of “La Traviata.” Giuseppe Verdi’s masterpiece centers on Violetta, a charming Parisian courtesan weakened by a life-threatening illness. When the pure-hearted nobleman Alfredo professes his abiding love for her — he had visited her sickbed every day for a year — she struggles to choose between a life of safe, shallow pleasures and the promise of profound fulfillment offered by a love she thought a woman like her could never have. She takes the plunge and abandons cosmopolitan Paris for Alfredo, selling everything she owns to finance their humble life in the countryside. The pair’s fragile peace shatters when Alfredo’s father, Giorgio, beseeches Violetta to leave his son; the shadow of her former life, he implores, threatens Alfredo’s honor and his sister’s marriage prospects. Violetta is convinced that man’s inability to forgive her past will hurt the people she loves, so she departs again for Paris, resigning herself to a lonely death. By the time a guilt-ridden Giorgio reveals his plot to Alfredo, Violetta has just hours to live.

On Friday, “La Traviata” made its season debut at the Metropolitan Opera. Producer Michael Mayer revived the controversial staging of last season’s production, which also marked Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s inaugural show as the Met’s new music director. The current cast stars soprano Aleksandra Kurzak and tenor Dmytro Popov as Violetta and Alfredo, with baritone Quinn Kelsey as the formidable Giorgio Germont. Kurzak’s silky soprano shone bright through Violetta’s famous coloraturas but lost clarity and pitch at the highest registers. Nevertheless, her performance was heart-wrenching. Kelsey’s Giorgio was a well-chosen audience favorite. The young baritone delivered a masterful performance, balancing the power and sensitivity at the heart of the show’s complex antagonist.

As much as anything else, “La Traviata” is a story about reality. Violetta lies at the heart of multiple cross-cutting contradictions originating both within and without her. Throughout the opera, she dances across the lines between sickness and health, hope and harsh reality, her own self-deprecating pragmatism and Alfredo’s quixotic devotion to her. She wields tremendous power over the fates of others and is simultaneously imprisoned by their perceptions of her. In fact, Violetta is alone in her understanding that social realities are malleable, and that power over them is akin to power over the real. She leaves Alfredo not because she believes herself unworthy of him, but because she recognizes the intransigence of those who do. Cultural perception conquers all. 

The Met’s past two productions of “La Traviata” are closely entwined in a string of high-profile accusations of sexual misconduct against some of the opera house’s biggest stars. Just last month, tenor Piero Pretti supplanted golden boy Vittorio Grigolo to portray Alfredo in the second half of the current production. The change came after Grigolo allegedly groped a female performer onstage while on tour in Tokyo with London’s Royal Opera.

Grigolo’s spectacular rise and fall tell a familiar tale. He’s a character we’ve seen before — charismatic, irreverent, alluring. He’s handsome. He rides motorcycles. His lush, liquid rendition of “La donna è mobile” from “Rigoletto” captured this writer’s heart. Audiences warmly embraced Grigolo’s splendid freshness. Opera houses clamored for him to fill the shoes of crossover megastars like the late tenor Luciano Pavarotti.

But nothing gold can stay. The Royal Opera House, which had given Grigolo his first big break, now sounds what could be the death knell of his career. Gone are the days when such radiant star power shielded men like Grigolo from the profoundly damaging repercussions of their actions.

At the Met, “La Traviata” has transcended its own narrative of oppressive social reality to become an artistic and symbolic frontier for real cultural change. The recent termination of legendary conductor and music director emeritus James Levine following an investigation concluding that he had “engaged in sexually abusive and harassing conduct toward vulnerable artists in the early stages of their careers” left behind both a painful legacy and an identity crisis. Mayer’s rendition of “La Traviata” is the company’s first attempt at forward motion since Levine’s fractious departure. In a word, the Met is exploring the contours of its new reality.

Detoxifying the rancid air of opera culture will require opening a window. Closed-door institutions of high art like the Met and their attendants must be subjected to the same standards of conduct as members of the outside world. This homogenizing transvaluation has always complicated discussions of harassment and abuse perpetrated by brilliant and creative people. Is the rarified air of exaltation the only habitable atmosphere for their genius? Must we accept this and other claims made to protect abusers as “confounded fact[s]?” Violetta believes so, but “La Traviata” does not. Neither, thankfully, does the Met.