About halfway through the second act of Verdi's La traviata at the opera's second Met performance of the season, soprano Sonya Yoncheva went from being a really good Violetta to being a great Violetta. Her first act had been quite good – playing in Willy Decker's brilliant, unsentimental, cold production first seen at the Met in 2010. The partygoers are a vile bunch, both women and men dressed as men in black suits, and Yoncheva entered and acted as if this was just another in a chain of awful parties, a re-run of her present life. Her singing was loud but brilliant, the voice rock solid (save for a smudge run or two in "Sempre libera"; her coloratura is proficent but not quite her strength), and her blasé attitide a fine foil for tenor Michael Fabiano's almost disturbingly passionate Alfredo.
But in the second act, she was carefree (Decker's direction has the couple playing hide-and-seek during the usually alone "De’ miei bollenti spiriti") until the entrance of the elder Germont, here played by the huge-voiced, commanding Cuban-American baritone Nelson Martinez, who had stepped in for an ailing Thomas Hampson. Suddently Yoncheva's Violetta knew, unmistakenly, that the recently discovered joy in her life was ebbing along with her health. She began shading her phrases and singing at less than full voice. Her posture changed and she became a tragic figure. Her “Amami, Alfredo” perhaps missed some of the darkness that other voices can bring to it, but it came as a cry of desperation and moved the audience to applause. Her final act, performed on an all-but empty stage lit in a sickly, pale blue, found her attempting more white-toned, pianissimo singing – not quite fully formed – but by then, individual notes no longer mattered. This was a superb portrayal.
Tenor Michael Fabiano, wild with love and an impetuosity that made him sing sharp at times in Act 1 was brilliant thereafter. The cabaletta “O mio rimorso” was sung with dangerous emphasis and was capped with a glorious high C. His rage in the gambling scene was horrifying – Decker asks the Alfredo not only to throw money at Violetta but to stuff it up her dress. It paints a very ugly tone for the rest of the act, clearly what Decker was aiming for. Apologetic and broken, Fabiano sang like an angel in the final scene. Nelson Martinez, the wild card, may not be much of an actor, but the pitch-perfect voice boomed forth and his Germont went, correctly, from bully to sympathetic. He’d previously sung only at the Met as Monterone; one hopes this garners him leading roles. The world can use a new, fine baritone.
The remainder of the cast was in on the specialness of the evening – Met debutante Rebecca Jo Loeb, small of stature but with a big personality, made a fine Flora, and Dwayne Croft’s Baron Duphoul impressed. Nicola Luisotti got big, handsome playing and singing from the Met Orchestra and Chorus but he opted, at times, for tempi that left feelings behind – one would have loved to hear Mr Martinez not rushed through “Di Provenza”. But with such magnetism on stage, in such a riveting production, nobody could complain.
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