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Verdi, La traviata (Concert Performance):
Soloists, chorus and orchestra of Chelsea Opera Group, Conductor Gianluca Marcianò. Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 21.2.2010. (JPr)

It has been a few years since I attended a performance by the Chelsea Opera Group and the judicious mix of singers of different vintages, the venue and the green and white programme (that is far from error-free) haven’t changed much. The audience seemed to be much the same too – a mixture of the elite from Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea as well as opera lovers from the Home Counties: here they all were again, if a little older.

So plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, except that the big difference was the choice of opera: untypically not a rarely staged rarity but a familiar staple of the repertory. COG’s current Newsletter, which was handed out with the programme, went to great lengths to explain this change, including statements like ‘Having performed many of Verdi’s early operas ……. recently we felt it important to show where they were leading to, so we can put them in perspective’. La traviata is only a middle period work though, and while Verdi was experimenting with his approach to integrating plot with the music rather more than he did in his earlier works, this opera is not that far removed from the earlier offerings. COG also said that its ‘supporters would welcome a low cost opportunity to enjoy wonderful opera’ while in fact, it was reasonably clear that the willingness of COG regular, Nelly Miricioiu, to perform the role of the courtesan, Violetta, was the primary reason ‘that La traviata in concert was a great idea’.

With a concert depending on one singer in particular there is always the risk that the ‘star turn’ which the capacity audience has come to hear might succumb to illness … and this was almost the case here. Miss Miricioiu had an announcement made that she was suffering from an ‘acute head cold’ but would ‘do everything within her power to make it an enjoyable evening for everyone’. Probably for her many admirers in the audience, her actual presence was enough to please and I did wonder if the announcement was something of a diplomatic request for our indulgence given the imminent trials of ‘Sempre libera’. Cold – or no cold – at this stage of her career, Miss Miricioiu’s coloratura was unlikely to be all that it once was and there was also some chopped up phrasing that was a problem in her whole performance: she unwisely attempted the optional E flat at the end of Act I and got nowhere near it. Having surmounted this hurdle though, a singer of her experience could not fail to be affecting as the wronged woman swayed by the temporarily misguided paterfamilias Germont’s request to give up his son. Her last act farewell and death was very poignantly and emotionally sung. However, this turned out to be Grand Opera at its old-fashioned grandest - all facial expressions and sweeping arm gestures - and Miss Miricioiu was better listened to than looked at.

To her credit - and that of the other three main principal singers – they sang mostly ‘off the book’ but did attempt to dramatise the story to some degree. And while Violetta in Dumas’ story was in her early twenties when she died, the realistic world of opera often demands her to be played by an older woman. However any real drama was lacking in this traviata since there was little or real emotional connection between Violetta and Alfredo, at least, not until he leant over his seated, dying inamorata for ‘Parigi. O cara’. It happens too that Cosmin Ifrim, Miss Miricioiu’s compatriot Romanian tenor, was unfortunately too baby-faced which this made their interactions look more like mother and son, than those of lovers. Alan Opie’s Germont was rather overly stern throughout and if all the other singers involved been told to learn their parts more thoroughly (as they should have been) a much better attempt with a real semi-staging should have been possible.

Having said this, Ifrim, making his UK debut, was the discovery of the evening. His voice is bright, clear – though not overly loud – and has easy, secure, top notes. His ‘De’ miei bollenti spiriti’ was the showstopper, culminating in a perfect top C. Sadly I fear he is a little on the short side to be convincing on stage in other than smaller, more character, roles … but then such is life.

Alan Opie’s consummate stagecraft and well-schooled Verdi baritone made for a mightily impressive Germont even if he overdid the vocal gravitas too much on occasion. Sadly though, his veteran status seems to mean that he is seen far too infrequently on Britain’s opera stages while continuing his distinguished career mostly abroad. Of the rest of the singers, Anne-Marie Gibbons was a notable Flora and Joanne Roughton-Arnold, one of Ms Miricioiu’s pupils, sounded like a possible Violetta of the future while taking the small role of Annina.

Some dubious initial woodwind tuning notwithstanding, the amateur Chelsea Opera Group orchestra was a revelation under the young Italian conductor, Gianluca Marcianò. From the opening veiled strings of the Prelude onwards, this was musically a performance that any leading opera house would be proud of. Maestro Marcianò occasionally indulged his leading soprano rather too much here and there and at times failed to give his tenor the cueing he was looking for, but these were only minor blemishes. He led the whole ensemble, including a valiant, equally amateur, chorus, though a mature, finely balanced, spirited and passionate account of this Verdi masterpiece.

Jim Pritchard

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