“There’s no weakness in Violetta, no weakness,” says soprano Marina Poplavskaya, who stars in Willy Decker’s new production of La Traviata. She’s referring to the indomitable will of the character she portrays, despite the fact that she succumbs to tuberculosis over the course of the opera. It’s one of the reasons Verdi’s heroine has been winning over audiences and commanding their respect for more than a century and a half.

“It is obvious that Verdi is extremely on her side,” Decker says of the tragic courtesan. “He follows her like an obsessed lover through the piece.” Decker too wants all eyes on Violetta, and to that end he has created a production, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda, with a simple and elegant visual style that removes any barriers between audience and heroine.

“My visual approach is quite spare,” the director says of his strikingly beautiful stage set, designed by Wolfgang Gussmann. “You will find an empty room. It’s all stripped down to a very basic form, almost empty. For me, a set has to be a clear background for strong characters. And the more details you take away from them—props, furniture, and other things—the more you can concentrate and focus on the character and on the psychological side of the piece.” This restraint extends to Decker’s general approach: his Traviata is not re-set in any new (and potentially shocking) milieu. “I try not to set the piece in another moment, but to free it from historic aspects to make it very human and direct.” This clarity suits Poplavskaya’s realization of the character perfectly: “My reactions are sincere,” she explains, “because there are no couches and pillows. I don’t pretend to be Violetta—I live in the situation.”

For the soprano, who stars opposite Matthew Polenzani as Alfredo and Andrzej Dobber as Germont, this situation is strikingly modern. Violetta, Poplavskaya feels, is very close to today’s audiences. “La Traviata is very contemporary,” she says. “And it proves that Verdi lives in our times. The piece will stay with us for centuries—it will never get old-fashioned.”

Verdi would no doubt be pleased with this assessment. His original intention with La Traviata was to create a stage work with a woman at its center who was so obviously different from the standard operatic heroine. And he wanted the story set in his present day. The issues in the drama (overdrawn bank accounts, urban versus provincial values) were overtly contemporary rather than legendary or pseudo-historical. Conventions won out, however, and Verdi allowed the opera to be set in the past, around 1700. (There may also have been a purely practical reason for this: contemporary dress productions were tempting targets for thieves among underpaid choristers and stagehands). Setting the drama in the mid-19th century only became standard after the turn of the last century, by which point the “present” had become the “past.” But the argument isn’t about what style of wig (if any) best suits Violetta. What is crucial is that Violetta seem—as Verdi radically intended—like someone you might know.

This notion is central to Decker’s vision. “To get to the essence of a piece,” he says, “I try to take away the especially historic aspects, because I want to bring things closer to audiences nowadays. If you look at Violetta as a person from 19th-century Paris, the character automatically gets away from you into a historic distance.”

Regardless of the opera’s specific time setting, however, Decker acknowledges that the familiarity of the piece presents a challenge to new ways of staging it. The essential visual theme Decker landed on when thinking about his approach is the idea of the circle, a shape that is suggested by Verdi’s music. “[The score] starts with the end. So the piece comes back to where it began,” Decker explains. “The basic form of human life is a circle. And this piece goes about human life in a very essential way, so I found that this would be the basis for my approach.”

The circularity of the set is emphasized by the looming presence of a large clock that is the predominant prop on the stage. Poplavskaya’s Violetta interacts with the clock as if she were in a fraught relationship with it: at first it reminds her to be in the present, “to give everything for the moment,” she says. But when, at the end of Act I, she has a glimpse of the possibility of true love, she realizes that she has to separate herself from the tyranny of time—and she actually stops the hands of the clock. She wants something better for herself.

Nevertheless, time, for Violetta, equals death—with which she has an ambivalent relationship. Her fear of death, and her longing for it as a release from a world into which she has never perfectly fit, hovers on stage in the person of Doctor Grenvil. The Doctor is an intriguing character in the libretto—a minor character, to be sure, but he shows up frequently and at key moments. In this production, Decker makes Grenvil a counterpart for Violetta—on stage for almost the whole piece and clearly a personification of death. “Whenever she sees him,” Decker explains, “Violetta is reminded of the fact that she is dying. So she hates it when he comes. But she also knows he represents her ultimate release.”

The audience’s responses to Decker’s production of La Traviata in Salzburg and elsewhere have been overwhelmingly favorable—even sensational. The director credits the enthusiasm to a respect for the power of the work itself and of its endlessly engaging heroine. “If audiences feel your interest is only in the piece itself—and not to make yourself important by experimenting with it—then you have the possibility of a good result. Audiences like it when you are true, and when you are clear, and when you are strong in what you say.” —William Berger

This article was first published online in December 2010 and in the Met’s Playbill in January 2011.

Read an interview with Willy Decker and Marina Poplavskaya about the new production.