The phrase “E strano…” recurs at key moments in “La Traviata,” and the striking achievement of the Metropolitan Opera’s season-opening revival of Verdi’s opera was to make this familiar tale seem strano — strange — again, even amid the stuffy, overupholstered trappings of Franco Zeffirelli’s much-maligned 1998 production.
The saga of the courtesan with a bad cough has been recycled endlessly in the century and a half since Alexandre Dumas fils gave immortal life to her in his novel “La Dame aux Camelias.” She has long since ceased to resemble a plausible human being — if ever she did — and entered the pantheon of theatrical cliches. She’s most often seen these days on opera stages, in the form of Violetta Valery. So it was strange, moving, even unsettling to witness Renee Fleming breathing unforgettable humanity into the character, in a performance of great psychological fluency and emotional clarity. Had she not been spinning out one gorgeous phrase after another, you might almost have forgotten that she was singing.
The story of Fleming’s withdrawal from the production’s premiere back in ’98 has entered opera lore. At the time she seemed to get better notices for withdrawing than her replacement did for singing. Some critics felt that this celebrated Mozart and Strauss singer would risk damaging her voice by undertaking this famously challenging role, which requires not just the kind of smooth legato singing that Fleming was renowned for but also dazzling coloratura.
Whether Fleming would have received back then the rapturous notices for her singing that greeted her last week is obviously impossible to say. But she surely couldn’t have delivered the theatrical performance she is giving now: In its delicacy and intricacy, it was clearly the work of a woman who had lived with the role in her heart, if not in her voice, for many years.
That daunting first act, for instance, is often just a showcase for exciting vocalizing, but Fleming swiftly brought the audience into the conflicted soul of Violetta, revealing moment by moment the shifting sensations behind the singing. Amused but eventually unsettled by the slightly gauche ardency of Ramon Vargas’ Alfredo (sung with bright, pure tone), the sensitive, yearning Violetta gradually emerged from behind the flashing eyes and flirting gestures. The coloratura runs of “Sempre libera,” in which Violetta vows to resist the allure of romance and dedicate herself to a life of sensual pleasure, were not just a display of giddy bravado but the desperation-tinged effusions of a woman trying to convince herself of something she knows to be a lie. Violetta’s fear of being drawn into emotional engagement with life, which she knows to be slipping out of her grasp, was made touchingly clear.
The second act, in which Alfredo’s father Giorgio, played by the redoubtable Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovksy, impores Violetta to leave Alfredo to save the family from disgrace, was still more affecting. Fleming and Hvorostovksy may well possess the two most purely beautiful voices in opera today, and they blended together gorgeously in the aching, long-lined duet in which Violetta promises to give up Alfredo and gently implores Germont to let her sacrifice be known to the more fortunate girl, Alfredo’s sister, for whom she is making it. The conducting of Valery Gergiev, perhaps too propulsive at times in the first act, was attentive to his singers in this musically rich scene, and for the remainder of the evening.
The price Violetta has paid for her selflessness was signaled with eerie simplicity at the top of the final act, when she lies dying in her musty boudoir. (Musty but bi-level, in the most outlandishly unnecessary touch of Zeffirelli’s production.) Fleming scaled back the plushness of her voice, adding a hollow inflection that made clear how much energy disease and disappointment had drained out of Violetta. Tonal richness slowly returned as Violetta bid farewell to life in an exquisitely sung “Addio del passato,” but with haunting gasps sometimes punctuating the pianissimo phrases as the character seemed to close in on herself permanently.
Most piteous of all was Violetta’s last, delusional lunge toward life, as the voice surged upward with sudden vibrancy again and she hurried excitedly between Alfredo and Giorgio. Here was yet another Violetta, one we’d never seen before: a hopeful, eager, uncalculating young girl. Her subsequent collapse seemed all the more shocking. It brought home with painful force the sad inevitability — the strange inevitability — of life ceasing to exist, of the song of experience being suddenly stilled.