La Trav and other less salubrious topics
The delicate, easily disturbed and faint-hearted should look away NOW. (You can skip down to the opera review.)
GROSSNESS ALERT. DON’T SAY I DIDN’T WARN YOU.
So, what is the worst thing? The very, very worst thing?
Think about it a minute. I can wait.
Hint: It has to do with dogs.
Do I see a certain dawning horror in your eyes?
Yes. That’s right. It’s when your plastic bag breaks and you find yourself holding a NAKED HANDFUL OF DOG SHIT.* And have I mentioned lately that hellhounds, due to their little digestive issues, tend to produce squishy excreta?
I was also wearing fingerless gloves at the time. So maximum vileness, disgustingness and destruction of personal property.**
I WILL NEVER USE THIS BRAND OF PICK UP BAGS AGAIN. Part of the complete scenario here is that I know these bags are, ahem, crap, but I was loath to throw out the rest of the packet not because it was a waste of my money—pick up bags are cheap—but because I worry about all that additional plastic in the environment that town-dwelling dog-owners produce and so I’ve gone on using them checking them carefully first. HITHERTO the breakages have been visible as soon as you drag the thing open to use it. Not today.
And no, we weren’t even on the river walk at the time, with nice easily available water.
I will spare you the details of the rest of the walk home. In this case hurtle is an understatement.
* * *
I wasn’t sure even La Traviata, my favourite opera, could save this day. When I was failing to get to Manon last week due to the remains of the lurgy I was telling myself that NOTHING was going to stop me going to La Trav this week. NOTHING. And in fact nothing did. Not even the need to keep washing my hands every five minutes.
It was Natalie Dessay’s first Violetta† and I’m a big fan of Dessay—she’s an actor as well as a singer, so you don’t have to close your eyes and concentrate on the music. And she had Matthew Polenzani as her Alfredo—and Dmitri Hvorostovsky as her Papa Germont. What could go wrong?
Well, the first thing is the production—it’s the famous Willy Decker Red Dress, Big Clock and Doctor Death production. I’m embarrassed to say I’m not sure if I’ve seen it before or not. I don’t like surreal††, so it’s not naturally going to, ahem, sing to me. And there was a lot of it I didn’t remember—but there was quite a bit I seemed to remember so . . . whatever. Maybe that’s all part of the surreality. At least with this team a lot of it did work. One of the built-in problems with La Trav is that Alfredo, the romantic hero, is a nasty, spoilt, self-centred little wet. I don’t know how he does it, but Polenzani is good at making wet-tenor characters you badly want to slap understandable and appealing. He managed it here, but this is also one of the things the production (I think) gets right: he is really persecuted by the dissolute crowd Violetta hangs out with and you can sympathize with him going a little off the rails.
Another inherent problem is that the only reason you know Violetta is dying of consumption is because the plot says so.††† What you see is some singer strong enough to carry an extremely demanding role. In this production Violetta totters onto the stage during the overture, spends some time bent over coughing (silently) and has her first encounter with Doctor Death. So you’re set up for the situation. And you see her pull herself together and morph into the heartless courtesan as the party starts. (This is the sort of thing Dessay is really good at too.) And she periodically addresses herself to the doctor during the action, which reminds you that she’s under a death sentence. I thought this worked really well.
The things that didn’t work so well . . . in the first place, poor Dessay was having an off night. You could hear it, and during the intermission interview she said as much—and you could see her dismay in her face. I’d guess her to be a perfectionist, possibly beyond the perfectionism any Met singer needs, and here she is in her first Violetta, which is one of the plum soprano roles, at the Met, and on the Live in HD night broadcast across the globe. . . she’s having to nurse her voice along and still isn’t quite succeeding. Her speaking voice sounds like she has a head cold, but that wouldn’t necessary screw up her singing voice. Except that it did.
After a killer first act—Alfredo’s wooing and her response is especially effective—I thought most of the second act sucked pond scum. The basic stage set is very stark, which is fine, and the beginning of the second act, when Violetta and Alfredo are tucked up in their jolly country love-nest, everything is draped with great swathes of fabric covered in big fat pink and red cabbage roses. Duh. Okay. Got it. They’re wearing dressing-gowns of the same stuff and—first mistake—our hero, under his dressing-gown, is wearing an ordinary business shirt and boxer shorts. This is not a look even a major heart-throb could bring off, and the pudgy Polenzani does not succeed. The business of Alfredo finding out that Violetta is bankrupting herself to keep him in the style to which he has become accustomed is bungled . . . and then Papa Germont shows up. Violetta is still in her dressing-gown. What? She’s an effing courtesan and this is the seriously bourgeois dad of her lover. She would be rupturing herself to be as proper as possible—and when he starts out being rude and she says that she’s a lady in her own house—done well this is terrific putdown but SHE’S IN HER DRESSING-GOWN. And . . . the awful truth is that I was not convinced by my hero Dmitri. He sang well but . . . but . . .
And then when she realises he’s asking her to give up Alfredo forever SHE TAKES HER DRESSING-GOWN OFF and trails around in her slip. Oh gods how I hate the wandering around in your underwear to indicate vulnerability and innocence thing. (She does it again later at the party. OH STOP IT.) The face-off between dad and son is no better. This is an inherent problem that this production did not solve. Dad starts the ‘come home to your loving family’ routine just as Alfredo has read the letter from Violetta saying she’s leaving him, so he’s not at his most relaxed and persuadable. And the poor actor playing Alfredo doesn’t really have anything to DO except fulminate for several minutes while dad sings. I’ve never seen this done persuasively. In this case they made it worse by Papa slugging his son . . . and then instantly dropping back into his ‘all is forgiven’ refrain. What? Who needs to forgive whom here? Papa Germont is the most awful thug to begin with. He doesn’t need any help.
The third act was a mixed bag. I was smarting from the second act—and there’s no way to get around the fact that the reason the Germonts come to see her is because they know she’s dying and won’t mess up Papa’s snug little middle-class life much longer. Although the surrealism does mean that they get away with the doctor saying authoritatively ‘she has only hours to live’ which kind of whacks your suspension of disbelief in most stagings; and that there isn’t a bed solves the problem of whether Violetta, with only hours to live, gets out of it and runs around or not. And Dessay is a very, very good actor. I usually do burst into tears at the end—indeed I feel all coitus interruptus if I don’t—but I didn’t have to think about it this time. I was totally heartbroken.
Oh, and that second leg-warmer is almost done.
* * *
* I admit this may tie for first place with projectile diarrhoea indoors, which I also have some direct experience of, but despite the sheer grossness factor the really distressing part of that isn’t the clean up but the throat-closing, heart-squeezing worry about your critter.
** Can These Gloves Be Saved? Probably not. I’ll boil the right one a few times, but . . . probably not.
*** I’ve washed my hands so often the skin is coming off.^
^ Will I Ever Use My Right Hand Again.+
+ Probably. Typing one-handed is a ratbag. And while I can use chopsticks with my left hand, it’s not a fun time.
† At the Met, anyway. I think she said in the intermission interview it was her first ever.
†† I like practical fantasy. I like the magic to have rules, and I want to know where the latrines are and if they’ve got good drainage.
††† And whoever wrote this year’s synopsis is a moron. It begins: ‘Violetta Valery knows that she will die soon, exhausted by her restless life as a courtesan.’ SHE’S DYING OF TUBERCULOSIS, YOU CRETIN. Her lifestyle is certainly contributing to the speed of her decline, but if that were all that was wrong with her she’d last a good while yet.
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