It would take a small book to detail all the backstage intrigue and cast changes that helped sabotage the Metropolitan Opera's new La Traviata production, originally conceived for opera's dream couple Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna. Perhaps in the end it didn't really matter who sang, since Franco Zeffirelli, who also designed and directed the Met's last Traviata, was always going to be the star of this one as well. He also turns out to be the principal villain. Once again, Zeffirelli has more or less abandoned the cast -- and Verdi's opera, for that matter -- to revel in his obsession with interior design. Can this be the same man who, 40 years ago, helped Maria Callas create her legendary Violetta? Hard to believe. A designer-director once considered a theatrical genius has by now pretty much disintegrated into a window dresser.
Violetta's overstuffed salon is just a teaser for the country villa we behold in Act Two, as huge as a Mussolini train station and cluttered with china bric-a-brac and a jungle of plants -- no longer a kept woman, Violetta is apparently trying to decide whether she should open a nursery or a whatnot shop. Flora's party takes place in a garish hotel lobby choking in lace and spangled red drapery, an appropriately tacky setting for a bullfight ballet that must be seen to be believed, complete with ballerinas dressed as cows in tights and high heels. Zeffirelli saves his most childish coup for the last scene. Violetta's sickroom rises on a stage elevator to return us to the Act One salon so that the dying woman can rush downstairs and expire in Alfredo's arms -- a mindless scenic innovation that does absolutely nothing for the opera. Perhaps all this irrelevant decoration would not seem so irritating if Zeffirelli had paid any attention to the drama or the people who make it live. On the contrary, the whole vacuous production looks like a revival perfunctorily thrown together by a hack house director.
The three principal singers on opening night, clearly not the Met's first choices, had neither the stage savvy nor the vocal charisma to compete with Zeffirelli's décor and make sufficiently strong statements on their own. Patricia Racette is a sympathetic, generous performer, but her soprano lacks color, nuance, and easy agility, and she has only just begun to explore Violetta's complex character. Marcelo Alvarez seems just as callow as Alfredo, a tenor with a lovely lyrical quality but only a vague idea of what to do with it. As father Germont, Haijing Fu has difficulty simply sustaining a steady tone while quietly fading into the scenery. As usual when presiding over what he senses to be a lost cause, James Levine rushes through the score with appalling insensitivity. Nobody wins in this ill-fated Traviata, Verdi least of all.