Time is the big villain in Verdi’s “La Traviata,” and in case you don’t get it, director Wily Decker puts a huge clock on stage even before the overture begins.
At 11 Saturday morning in the Fort Lewis College Student Union, a live transmission of the Metropolitan Opera matinée of “Traviata” will begin. It’s a starkly modern interpretation of the tragedy and the final revival of this version. Decker’s take premiered in Salzburg in 2005, and the Met has staged it before. Expect to see that clock, contemporary dress, spare, modernist rooms and lots of black tuxedos to contrast with a Violetta (soprano Sonya Yoncheva) in a red silk cocktail dress.
But that’s only Act II. We first meet Violetta, the toast of Parisian night life, at another party. She knows she’s dying but allows herself to fall for Alfredo (the intense American tenor Michael Fabiano). She agrees to run off with him to a pastoral fantasy in the country. But Germont, Alfredo’s father (baritone Thomas Hampson) arrives. His son’s behavior is ruining the family, so Germont negotiates an end to the affair. It’s a great scene and much depends on how it is played and sung.
What begins as high Romanticism turns into gut-wrenching Realism – except for that clock and its weighty symbolism. Does it simply represent time passing, fate or some combination thereof?
In Verdi’s lifetime, he wanted “Traviata” to be set in its own time. The opera is based on a famous stage play, which in turn was based on a popular novel: The Lady of the Camellias. Apparently, the novel, by Alexander Dumas, fils, was inspired by a true story about a high-class prostitute who came from nothing, became the toast of Paris and died at a young age.
In 1851, Verdi was in Paris and saw a performance of the play. When he returned to Italy to complete “Trovatore,” he had already sketched ideas for “Violetta,” later named “La Traviata.” From the beginning, he wanted a contemporary setting. The popular book and stage play were set in the present, and Verdi wanted his opera to have the same pungency. Squabbles inside the famous La Fenice in Venice ensued. Verdi didn’t get the time period nor the soprano he wanted.
La Fenice pressed for a 17th-century setting and the company’s aging, overweight, but politically powerful, soprano. “La Traviata,” or “The Fallen Woman,” premiered March 6, 1853.
The audience cheered Act I, but booed during and after the remaining two acts. The next day, in a famous letter, Verdi wrote a friend: “Last night was a failure. Was the fault mine or the singers? Time will tell.”
Revisions and recasting followed, and by Feb. 1, 1855, “Traviata” resurfaced to acclaim in Madrid, then Vienna and Barcelona. Along the way, the work was dogged by accusations of immorality. But it was hugely popular. Today, “Traviata” is part of every opera company’s repertoire, and since 2013, surpassed “Carmen” as the most-performed opera worldwide.
You’ll see that clock on stage through much of the production. The minor character, Dr. Grenvil (bass-baritone James Courtney) will be there, mostly silent. But in the final scene, when he examines the dying Violetta, he will finally sing. It’s a moment not to be missed.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theater Critics Association.