NEW YORK -- Yannick Nezet-Seguin already knows what it’s like to be pelted with roses during Metropolitan Opera curtain calls. But last year’s floral flourishes were outdone at Tuesday night’s opening of La Traviata, when he got hit with a double shower of glittering confetti.
It was his first new production at the Met since becoming music director this year.
Of course, such stunts are planned. But backing this one was a genuine audience appreciation, and not just because of Nezet-Seguin’s decision to arrive two seasons earlier than anticipated, after the sudden departure of predecessor James Levine.
Nezet-Seguin presided over a Traviata that was perfectly successful on superficial levels and, more important, that delivered the core operatic experience with spontaneity, freshness, and originality — all qualities the Met is sometimes accused of lacking amid its HD-simulcast corporate polish.
As though Nezet-Seguin hadn’t already won over the orchestra, he invited the musicians out of the pit and onto the stage during curtain calls. The only other time I’ve seen that was in a Das Rheingold at the Berlin Staatsoper under Daniel Barenboim.
As though the audience wasn’t happy enough with star Diana Damrau’s performance of Shakespearean stature, patrons were given small bottles of sparkling wine as they exited with a special “Vintage Yannick” label. Meanwhile on iTunes, the Met has released a recorded capsule history of Nezet-Seguin performances, from his 2010 debut in Carmen to this year’s Elektra.
What might the Met’s future with Nezet-Seguin look like? Though direction and design are out of his hands, his choice of collaborators is not. If this production is a harbinger, he’ll deliver super-solid musical values while challenging the Met’s conservative streak more gently than in the past.
Unlike European opera-lovers, Met attendees are on the conservative side. The previous updated, dressed-down Traviata by Willy Decker wasn’t widely beloved. (At one point, the tenor wore boxer shorts — usually not a plus.) Broadway’s Michael Mayer, who was in charge of this new production, delivers the glitz factor, though with intelligent dramatic underpinning.
The Christine Jones-designed set was a stage-filling dome-shape space that did equal duty as Violetta’s deathbed bedroom, the scene of two parties, as well as her country house (where she retreats with the love of her life before his dad breaks it all up and she flees back to the city). The idea that she is forever trapped in the same place was made by her bed being in the middle of it all, no matter how incongruous it was in non-bedroom settings.
That was sometimes maddening. But the bright turquoise in party scenes reflected a lesson learned long ago on Broadway: No matter how earnest the dramaturgy, New Yorkers need a show that looks terrific.
Casting was both solid and risky — that latter factor represented by star tenor Juan Diego Florez, a Rossini specialist whose move into the heavier role of Alfredo yielded highly artistic singing though the voice itself was hardly robust enough to match his onstage colleagues.
The emerging Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey wasn’t just a success: Thanks to his large, supple voice with gruff undertones appropriate to the character, he had the biggest ovations of the evening.
Soprano Damrau — who has been featured in Nezet-Seguin’s recording of Mozart operas — has been singing the central role of Violetta for a while, but having monitored her past performance on YouTube, I can say her Tuesday outing was such a leap forward this will be her new signature role, if it isn’t already.
In her finely detailed characterization, vocal lines you’ve heard hundreds of times had fresh, new meaning, sometimes the opposite of what’s conventional. Yet every second rang true.
Her clean, crystalline voice and physical gestures were all of a piece. Unlike so many Violettas, Damrau never asked you to feel sorry for her and had you loving her rebellious outbursts of anger over being robbed of happiness.
This goes to the top of my Traviata pantheon. (Note: She has never been to Philadelphia. That situation must change).
Nezet-Seguin may also be having a leap forward. Because he doesn’t conduct a lot of Verdi with the Philadelphia Orchestra, his evolution on that front is hard to chart. Gone were his speed-demon tendencies. But his attention to the momentary needs of the singers was apparent in his tempo flexibility and chamber-music-like ability to turn instrumental solos into duets with voice.
As any given scene progressed from character to character, so did the color of the orchestration. Not for the first time in opera was his treatment of the orchestral passages (such as the Act I prelude) oddly undercharacterized. I’ve often wondered whether — admirably — he gives singers the priority with his rehearsal time.