Last season Willy Decker's radical restaging of Verdi's "La Traviata" took the Metropolitan Opera by storm, with soprano Marina Poplavskaya giving a vocally flawed but dramatically riveting performance as the doomed courtesan Violetta.
This season seemed to promise more of the same with the title role taken over by Natalie Dessay, who is noted for her acting ability and has struggled with vocal problems in recent years.
But Dessay canceled Friday night's opening because of a cold, and understudy Hei-Kyung Hong went on instead _ providing a virtual mirror image of what might have been: lots of gorgeous singing, not so much spontaneity or spark.
Hong remains a marvel of vocal freshness and allure after nearly 30 seasons at the Met. The rapid passage work of "Sempre libera" held no terrors for her, and the purity and control of her "Addio del passato," with its long-held final A-natural, was like a master class in technique. The one drawback was a weak lower-middle register, which occasionally made her all but inaudible.
Hong, in her early 50s, looks terrific, her trim figure fitting with no difficulty into the red dress that Violetta wears throughout much of the evening.
Dramatically, she had mastered most of the moves in the German director's minimalist production (not even a sick bed for Violetta in her death scene!) _ a remarkable accomplishment considering she had performed it on stage for the first time at the dress rehearsal a few days earlier.
But there was something a bit by-the-numbers in her performance that kept her Violetta from taking hold of our imagination as a living, suffering heroine. She didn't quite capture the desperate exuberance of the opening scene, or the depths of pathos in Act 2 when Violetta agrees to relinquish her lover, Alfredo. And her reading of the letter from Alfredo's father in the final scene _ a moment savored by great singing actresses _ made little impact.
It was a pity, since this production, more than a traditionally furnished and costumed one, requires a lead singer who can command the stage not just with her voice but with her personality.
Repeating his portrayal from last season, tenor Matthew Polenzani sang elegantly as Alfredo (including a ringing high C to cap his cabaletta). His voice seems to have grown in size, too, with no loss of beauty. He worked hard to convey his character's passionate nature, but with his plump figure and reserved bearing, he was never quite convincing as the ardent young lover.
The most powerful performance came from baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Alfredo's father, Giorgio Germont. From the moment he entered in Act 2, he took possession of the stage with his sneering contempt for the immoral lifestyle into which he believes Violetta has lured his son. While he worked on her emotions to make her give up her lover, Hvorostovsky showed his character gradually softening as he gained sympathy and even respect for his opponent.
His trademark burnished sound and ability to spin long phrases without taking a breath have rarely been heard to better effect. He deservedly won a huge ovation for "Di provenza il mar," the familiar aria in which he begs his son to return home.
Fabio Luisi conducted the orchestra in a performance that seemed more brisk and efficient than imbued with feeling, though the preludes to the first and last acts were lovely.
Decker's deglamorized production, originally mounted in Salzburg (where it made a star of Anna Netrebko), is packed with interesting ideas that continue to work well a year after its Met premiere: the stark, curved walls with oval opening at the top that serve as the single set; the menacing partygoers, men and women dressed in identical dark suits; Dr. Grenvil, representing Death, constantly reminding Violetta of her approaching mortality, along with the giant clock that ticks away the minutes of her life.
Dessay is still scheduled to sing the remaining seven performances, including next Saturday's matinee, which will be broadcast live on the radio and shown in HD in movie theaters.