La Traviata, the story of “the fallen woman” and her lover Alfredo, was intended by Verdi to be “a subject for our own age”, though he was impeded in this goal by the censorship of the time. He based his 1853 opera on the French play La Dame aux Camélias, which had premiered only a year before. However, Verdi was told that he would have to push back the setting over a hundred years, to the early 18th century, so as not to provoke any controversy. The story remained timeless, even if the context did not. However, with Willy Decker’s striking production, the characters seem modern, imminent, relatable, just as Verdi intended. And the universal aspect has not been sacrificed: the story and its characters seem as timeless as ever.

In Mr Decker’s opening, the stage is almost bare. During the prelude, the familiar opening chords of one of Verdi’s most well-known and well-loved operas waft over the stage, which hosts only a white bench lining a semi-circular white backdrop, as well as an enormous clock on the right side. Its sleek black hands count down to some unknown destiny. Sitting silently below the clock is an ominous-looking man who, the viewer gradually discovers, is meant to represent Death. Mr Decker has taken the dismal themes of the story and transfigured them into stark and stunning visuals: minimal and at times heavy-handed, but powerful nonetheless.

As the prelude continues, the ailing courtesan Violetta, portrayed by soprano Natalie Dessay in this 2012 reprisal at the Met, staggers in and kicks off her shoes, which are bright red to match her knee-length dress. Ms Dessay is at her best in this role, oscillating easily between flirtation and frantic distress. She is a spunky delight during Act I, twirling among the chorus, all wearing suits. In a controversial touch, Mr Decker has dressed even Flora and the other female party-goers in men’s clothes, emphasizing Violetta’s role as the courtesan. During the brindisi, she drinks from a champagne bottle and favors the chorus with occasional caresses or winking glances. Her voice is lively, betraying nothing of the torments to come.

During the Act I closing aria, Ms Dessay’s voice is unbelievable, almost inhuman. Once again she prances across the stage, declaring herself “Sempre libera”, despite her newfound affection for Alfredo, sung by Matthew Polenzani. Her voice flits miraculously up to the highest notes, determined and daring. In Act II, the set is still minimal, but the clock has been cloaked in heinous floral fabric, as have the additional couches now sitting haphazardly on the stage. After a visit from visit from Alfredo’s father Germont (Dmitri Hvorostovsky), Violetta’s voice becomes more ragged as her consumption worsens and she is coerced into giving up Alfredo.

All three singers (Dessay, Polenzani, and Hvorostovsky) are brilliant; their duets and the final trio are as imperative as the beautiful visuals. This production’s strongest points are the highly-emotional scenes between the two lovers, between father and son, and between Germont and Violetta, when Mr Hvorostovsky sings so sweetly and embraces Violetta “as a daughter”. The singing in the final scene, with its melancholy and passion, conveys all the heartbreak of Verdi’s story. The orchestra, conducted by Fabio Luisi, hammers out the ending after an adroit performance. With its trio of fine vocalists and Mr Decker’s courageous direction, this Traviata should not be missed.