- Associated Press - Sunday, January 2, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - Five years after it premiered, Willy Decker’s minimalist version of Verdi’s “La Traviata” still has the power to shock.

And the shock begins before the curtain goes up. In fact, there is no curtain at all in the staging that opened at the Metropolitan Opera on New Year’s Eve.

Greeting the audience is a nearly bare stage, surrounded by a curved, grayish-white wall with a black oval opening at the top. A huge clock sits to one side next to Doctor Grenvil, a minor character to whom the German director gives a larger role, making him the specter of death toward which the heroine, Violetta, is hurtling headlong.

Any “Traviata” rises or falls on the strength of the soprano in the title role, since she is on stage for almost the entire opera as she changes from a hard-as-nails courtesan, to a woman giddily in love, and finally to a heartbroken object of pity dying of consumption.

Marina Poplavskaya grabs our attention by sheer force of will from the moment she makes her entrance during the prelude, staggering slowly backward in red dress, red shoes with stiletto heels and long blond hair, only to collapse beside the doctor. When she rouses herself to go to work during the first-act party scene (attended by a sinister mob of men and women dressed in identical black suits), the last thing she expects to find is true love, in the form of a guest _ Alfredo Germont, who has worshipped her from afar.

Their affair is interrupted in Act 2 by Alfredo’s father, who demands that Violetta relinquish his son to save the family honor and protect his daughter’s engagement. The Russian soprano is riveting in her swift transformation from playful lover to figure of grief. When she begs the elder Germont to tell his daughter about her sacrifice, in “Dite alla giovine,” she invests the phrases with limpid tone and delicate shadings of color.

Vocally she is not perfect. Some brittleness on a few high notes marred her showpiece aria “Sempre libera” (“Always free”), which she delivers standing on the back of a red sofa. Her upper register can sound full and vibrant one moment, worrisomely thin the next.

But the total effect is stunning. This is her second leading role in a new Met production in less than a month, following Elisabeth of Valois in Verdi’s “Don Carlo.” Based on these performances, she figures to be a major presence at the house for some time.

As Alfredo, American tenor Matthew Polenzani applies his sweet, modest-sized voice to a role that may not suit him. Polenzani, a peerless Mozart singer, never presses for volume, and a lot of his soft singing is lovely, but it’s a small-scaled performance that doesn’t stand up to the gale force of his Violetta.

When the production created a sensation at its Salzburg premiere in 2005 (documented on DVD), Anna Netrebko was partnered with Rolando Villazon, who matched her in intensity before his vocal collapse.

Polish baritone Andrezj Dobber also has a voice that’s a shade small for the role of the elder Germont, but the warmth and lyrical smoothness of his delivery help compensate. He cuts an unusually sympathetic figure and brings great feeling to the famous “Di Provenza il mar,” in which he urges his son to come home.

Conductor Gianandrea Noseda draws some exquisite playing from the orchestra, though a couple of times the singers went badly off the beat.

Decker’s staging is full of revelatory touches (along with some conceits he carries too far, such as the doctor’s constant reappearances, which become tiresome.)

Perhaps the most striking image is in the gambling scene, when the clock has turned into a roulette wheel and Alfredo humiliates Violetta by throwing his winnings at her (stuffing some of the money into her crotch) while his father looks on in horror. Instead of the usual crowded tableau, Decker has the chorus looking down from the oval opening above, focusing all our attention on the three principals alone on stage.

For the Met, importing Decker’s vision meant sweeping away yet another overstuffed production by Franco Zeffirelli. But unlike Luc Bondy, who seemed to convey a dislike for Puccini’s “Tosca” in his revisionist staging last season, Decker clearly respects “Traviata.” Presenting it in such a radically stripped-down way allows the audience to see it with fresh eyes.

There are eight more performances through Jan. 29, including a radio broadcast on the afternoon of Jan 15.

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