Two spontaneous eruptions from the audience just about said it all as the Metropolitan Opera revived Willy Decker's brilliantly stripped-down and de-romanticized production of Verdi's "La Traviata."
Placido Domingo, the 72-year-old tenor taking on yet another baritone role, was warmly applauded when he walked onstage Thursday night in his first appearance as Giorgio Germont, father of the young hero, Alfredo.
And when the opera was over and soprano Diana Damrau stepped forward to take a solo bow as the heroine, Violetta, many members of the near-capacity crowd leaped to their feet in one of the more heartfelt and sustained standing ovations in recent memory.
Damrau deserved every bit of it. Her singing from start to finish was nothing short of sensational, from the blazing coloratura pyrotechnics of "Sempre libera" to the lyrical pathos of "Addio del passato." Her bright, silvery voice rose above the ensembles with ease, and her soft singing was a model of restraint. Most of all, she made the touchstone role her own, with shadings and inflections that set her apart. One example was the way she responded to Alfredo's late plea that they leave Paris together so she could regain her health: "Parigi, o caro," she echoed, but her subdued, wistful tone told us she knew it was a vain hope.
Dramatically, the German soprano worked hard to fulfill Decker's vision of an exhausted, consumptive courtesan compelled to put on her red dress and high-heel shoes to entertain her savage admirers. If other singers have brought more elegance and charisma to their physical embodiment of the character, few have equaled her in portraying Violetta through her music.
That this was Damrau's debut in the role makes the achievement all the more remarkable. After she had basked awhile in that standing ovation, she broke into a broad grin and jumped up and down several times, waving her arms exuberantly. Who could blame her? Damrau's triumph, coming on the heels of her splendid Gilda in Verdi's "Rigoletto" last month, solidifies her position as one of the Met's most important stars.
As Alfredo, Violetta's one chance for a loving relationship, Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu looked every inch the ardent suitor and sounded like one, too — once he got past a shaky "Libiamo." In the later scenes, his voice took on a lovely bloom that meshed beautifully with Damrau's vibrant sound.
Then there was Domingo. He looked smashing, tall and dignified with a shock of white hair, and his portrayal of the stern father was unusually tender and melancholy. He sounded — well, like an older version of the tenor who used to sing the role of Alfredo, except with a somewhat restricted range. Much of the music came out sounding gorgeous, but many low notes were mere whispers, and he occasionally had to break up a phrase to take a breath. The showpiece aria, "Di Provenza il mar," is placed well for his voice and made a big hit with the audience, but the deeper-lying cabaletta that followed it was mostly swallowed up.
Conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the Met orchestra managed to make one of opera's most familiar scores sound fresh and exciting.
There are six more performances through April 6.