La traviata, Metropolitan Opera, New York

It should have been Plácido Domingo’s night. Early in his career, opera’s chronic over-achiever undertook the romantic duties of Alfredo in La traviata. Later he descended to the pit to conduct Verdi’s masterpiece. On Thursday he played Giorgio Germont, making triple-threat history in the process.

He worked conscientiously, and hardly sounded like someone reportedly born in 1941. Unabashed advertisements gave him star billing. The audience gave him an instant ovation before he sang a note. Still, from at least one perspective, the results fell short of triumph.

The Met still lists Domingo as a tenor, and, though his top notes are gone, his tone remains reasonably strong, his timbre reasonably bright. He now concentrates on baritone roles, even though they challenge both his temperament and his lower range. As Alfredo’s intrusive father, he lacked the stern dignity dictated by text and tradition, suggesting instead the agitated stances of a superannuated lover. Vocally he chopped Verdi’s long legato lines into small pieces, ovation for “Di Provenza” notwithstanding, and he reduced the subsequent cabaletta (one verse) to a vague scramble.

Under the circumstances, the night belonged to Diana Damrau, venturing her first Violetta. Unlike her primary predecessors in Willy Decker’s controversial production – Anna Netrebko in Salzburg (2005) and Marina Poplavskaya here (2010) – the German soprano hardly looked consumptive in the famous red dress designed by Wolfgang Gussmann. Still, she staggered, clutched and lurched her way poignantly through the minimalist-symbolic staging. And, with Yannick Nézet-Séguin assuring equally inspired and inspiring leadership on the podium, she sang with rare passion and point, interpolating an easy E-flat at the end of the first act and fusing virtuosity with tragedy in “Addio del passato” (both verses). She mastered hysterical fioriture, arching lyricism and dramatic thrust, as needed. It has been a long time . . . 

Saimir Pirgu, her Alfredo, sang sweetly when not straining for undue impact. Exceptionally boyish, gently ardent and at ease in stratospheric flights, he also provided a telling, possibly intentional, contrast with the other tenor on duty.

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