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Dispatch from New York: A 'Traviata' New Year at the Met with Marina Poplavskaya

January 2, 2011 |  8:30 am

Met NEW YORK -- The combination of an imported, Regietheater production from Europe and ticket prices as high as $5,000 looked like a risky wager for the Metropolitan Opera.  But Friday’s gala premiere of Willy Decker’s production of “La Traviata” delivered style, sparkle and stirring drama. (And in a nice coincidence, for New Year’s Eve, it boasted many Champagne flutes and bottles — plus a giant clock.)

America’s biggest opera house has had trouble in recent years as it has replaced beloved, old-fashioned productions with modern, concept-driven stagings, which have offended many longtime patrons. The safe bet on New Year’s Eve, then, would have been simply  to roll out its old, lavish Franco Zeffirelli staging of the beloved Verdi opera.

Instead, the Met took a gamble with a stripped-down production that took a number of liberties with the story and structure of the well-known piece.  And it paid off: When director Decker came out for his bow, there was minimal booing and overwhelming applause from the high-paying audience (which included Natalie Portman and her fiancé, Benjamin Millepied).

This alone is notable (given the chorus of boos that has greeted recent new stagings -- notably “Das Rheingold” and “Tosca”), but the true revelation of the evening was soprano Marina Poplavskaya’s portrayal of Verdi’s fallen woman. Decker’s concept requires a singer with both stamina and serious acting chops -- Poplavskya has both. Los Angeles opera-goers saw her Violetta in May of 2009, but in Marta Domingo’s traditional (and somewhat musty) L.A. Opera staging, the Russian singer seemed corseted. In this version -- where her character never leaves the stage -- Poplavskaya lets loose with an animal intensity that enthralled the black-tie Met audience (in Act 1 alone, she received four ovations before the curtain even came down).  Even with a few missed notes -- she and conductor Gianandrea Noseda seemed to still be working some things out on opening night -- the crowd loved her.

As impressive as Poplavskaya’s Violetta was at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (Times music critic Mark Swed described her as “a major sensation”), even those who saw and enjoyed her won't want to miss this new version.  As of right now, however, “Traviata” is not on the Met’s Live in HD broadcast season (perhaps because a DVD of the production from Salzburg -- starring Anna Netrebko -- was released in 2006). Anyone not planning to be in New York in the next month can listen to it on the radio Jan.  15. But although Decker and Poplavskaya’s “Traviata” is great to hear, it really demands to be seen.

-- James C. Taylor

Photo: Marina Poplavskaya in "La Traviata." Credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera