Nézet-Séguin conducts the Met's "La Traviata"

Metropolitan Opera's "La Traviata" with Diana Damrau as Violetta and Saimir Pirgu as Alfredo.
Metropolitan Opera's "La Traviata" with Diana Damrau as Violetta and Saimir Pirgu as Alfredo. (KEN HOWARD / Met)
Posted: March 18, 2013

NEW YORK - Tracking conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin requires maps of North America and Europe, though he's close to the city that's loving him back in this month's guest appearances: a Metropolitan Opera La Traviata revival that's likely to be hotter than most new productions.

The three principal singers all made debuts of sorts Thursday: Soprano Diana Damrau sang her first Violetta, Plácido Domingo added another baritone role to his repertoire with Germont, and Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu, as Alfredo, sang his first major role here. So Nézet-Séguin had a lot of accommodating to do. And he did it with humility.

Though plenty of sopranos scale the vocal and dramatic demands of La Traviata, nobody owns it these days - though Damrau may well be the Violetta we've been waiting for. Her opera roles have been coloratura songbirds, but she is also a smart, seasoned recitalist; no surprise that her Traviata vocal lines were probed with great color and meaning.

In the great Act I "Sempre Libre" soliloquy, in which the jaded courtesan Violetta weighs true love against her party life, Damrau met the music's steep athletic demands with accuracy and brinkmanship, even taking the optional high E-flat at the end. And when Verdi repeats his great tune, she continued exploring Violetta's shifting psychology by radically changing the music's inferences, recoiling from her onstage suitor in terror, realizing how much her life is about to change.

Such dramatic presence wasn't sustained in Act II (Damrau reportedly nursed her 4-month-old child at intermission), but was back, full tilt, for her death scene, which she sang in a state of fevered fantasy rather than the more usual self-pity.

Tenor Pirgu is a major talent with a boyishly light voice and a statuesque presence - a particular advantage in this updated, abstracted, pared-down Willy Decker production that has him in his boxer shorts during Act II (and that seems obvious and heavy-handed on repeated viewings). As Germont, Domingo had the notes for this baritone role, but they're far from his vocal center of gravity. He pulled it off, if barely, compensating with dramatic intensity.

So the night belonged to the singers rather than to Nézet-Séguin. He held back the orchestra determinedly during big vocal set pieces, allowing the singers to do their best, leaving only the preludes to Acts I and III for him to shine. Which he did, with beautifully molded phrases one associates with Arturo Toscanini recordings.

Additional performances: Monday, Saturday, March 30 and April 3 at Lincoln Center. Information: 212-362-6000 or www.metoperafamily.org.

Contact David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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