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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
La Traviata - Melodrama in three acts. Text by Francesco Maria Piave
First Performed: 6 March 1858, Teatro La Fenice, Venice
Violetta Valery, Mirella Freni (sop); Alfredo Germont, Franco Bonisolli (ten); Giorgio Germont, Sesto Bruscantini (bar); Flora Bervoix, Hania Kovicz (mezzo); Annina, Gudrum Schäfer (sop); Gastone, Peter Bindszus (ten); Barone Douphol, Rudolf Jedlicka (bar); Marchese d'Obigny, Heinz Reeh (bass); Doctor Grenvil, Han-Joachim Lukat (bass)
Chorus of the Staatsoper Berlin
Orchestra of the Staatskapelle Berlin/Lamberto Gardelli
Studio recording 1973, Berlin
ARTS MUSIC - ARTS ARCHIVES 43031-2. [57.02 + 63.39]

 

La Traviata, at least as far as the eponymous tragic-heroine is concerned, is an opera of two distinct parts. In Act 1 the role demands a lyric soprano of lightness and agility and with secure coloratura. Acts 2 and 3 on the other hand require a voice of greater weight and colour. These qualities are necessary if the singer portraying Violetta is adequately to characterise and express the emotional circumstances and mental state of the character. Since Mercedes Capsir in 1928 over 25 sopranos have set down their interpretations on record, some more than once. Regrettably a record does not always catch a singer in her vocal prime. Many critics revere Callas’s performance at La Scala in 1955 under Giulini’s baton as a non-pareil histrionic experience. For better or worse that performance was not taken into the studio. Even on officially released EMI live recordings the diva’s performance, in variable sound and without the stage images, is not wholly convincing. Of the studio stereo recordings one of the best sung is that with Caballé as a fragile Violetta with sotto voce coloratura and Bergonzi as the most elegant Alfredo on disc (RCA). Regrettably Prêtre’s conducting is leaden. The best-conducted versions are those by Muti, Kleiber and Solti. Muti (EMI) eschews any unwritten decoration and Scotto’s coloratura in Act 1 is not wholly convincing. Her Alfredo is the elegantly phrased but nasal Alfredo Kraus. Carlos Kleiber (DG) is the most accomplished conductor but Cotrubas as Violetta is too fragile by far for the dramatic confrontations of Act 2 and the emotionally heartrending realisations of Act 3. Solti, in the 1994 live recording from Covent Garden (Decca), has Angela Gheorghiu as the most accomplished Violetta of recent times; Lopardo is an adequate Alfredo and Nucci a rather vocally wiry Germont père.

The conducting on this present issue is equal to the best. Lamberto Gardelli trained under the great Tullio Serafin. His pacing of the drama, support for his singers and sheer musicality shine throughout the performance. His Violetta is Mirella Freni. In the period of this recording, made I believe for TV, she was at the zenith of her considerable vocal powers as arguably the outstanding lyric soprano of her generation. It was the period she recorded her Mimi (1972) and Butterfly (1974), both for Decca under Karajan; interpretations and recordings hardly bettered since. Freni had become a Karajan favourite with the 1963 film of La Boheme. In 1964 she sang her first Violetta under his baton at La Scala, a mere three years after her Covent Garden debut in the light lyric role of Nanetta in Falstaff. It was a step too far too soon and she flopped, badly. Some have blamed the Callas legacy at La Scala for the audience and critical reaction. Other dependably objective commentators questioned her vocal and histrionic suitability for the role. Freni bounced back the following year, with her calling card Mimi at the Met and the damage to her burgeoning international reputation was limited. She was tempted back to Violetta by Giulini and had a deserved success in the role at Covent Garden in 1967; since when it has not played a prominent part in her repertoire.

Listening to this performance I cannot understand the Freni-in-the-role doubters who extol Scotto’s recorded assumptions. At the party in Act 1 she is light-toned and suitably frivolous (CD 1 trs. 3-4). In the coloratura of this act she is perhaps more exact than spontaneous and wisely eschews the unwritten high E flat. But it is her interpretation of Violetta in Acts 2 and 3 that make this recorded assumption one of considerable achievement. Her confrontation with Germont père (CD 1 trs. 12-17) that is at the heart of the drama shine with vocal characterisation of the highest order; first she is affronted by his suggestion and imputations and then agonises over her decision. Her Act 3 Teneste la promessa and Addio del passato (CD 2 tr. 13) are delivered with richly coloured and covered tone. To this add Freni’s wonderful control of legato and breath allied to total involvement in the characterisation of the situation. This listener was left emotionally bereft. To follow is Violetta’s death scene and Freni loads even more feeling and poignancy into her singing. Aided by Gardelli’s conducting Freni’s Act 3 Violetta is simply one of the best assumptions on record.

Violetta is only one of the three prima roles in the opera. Franco Bonisolli sings her lover Alfredo. On stage, and doubtless on TV, he cut a fine handsome figure. His Alfredo is ardent and at times excessively so. Not renowned for vocal sensitivity his phrasing can be choppy and his tone throaty (CD 1 trs. 9-10). He does manage to fine down his large voice somewhat for an appealing Parigi o cara without erasing memories of what the more sensitive Bergonzi and Pavarotti (Decca with Sutherland) do with the phrases in that duet. As Germont père, Bruscantini is rather dry-toned but gives a very characterful and appropriate portrayal of the implacable father. Unlike Milnes on the RCA issue he sounds appropriately old enough to be Alfredo’s father without being vocally wavery. His biting incisive tone in the Act 2 confrontation with Violetta would frighten all but the most resolute young woman. His arrival at the party when he denounces his son for insulting Violetta is formidable (CD 2 tr. 8). Although Sesto Bruscantini’s voice has lost much of the sap of his younger self, his voice does not spread under pressure. His tone does however get throaty in reaching for the lower notes. His Di Provenza il mar (CD 2 tr. 3) is rather too careful and lacking in spontaneity. Overall a professional rather than endearing performance by a great singer with over 100 roles in his repertoire.

As well as a track listing the booklet has an essay on the background and composition of the work and a good plot summary, which, regrettably, is not track-related. The essay and plot synopsis are given in English, French and German. There is a full libretto without any translation. The recording is clear and open in a natural and airy acoustic with a good balance between orchestra and singers.

This recording has been absent from the catalogue for some time. It deserves to be back. It stands equal among many other recorded performances of the work whilst Freni’s Violetta is among the most characterful on record. Her Act 2 and 3 portrayals can stand comparison with the best. At its modest price Freni’s fans need not hesitate. Nor should others. Thoroughly enjoyable and highly recommended.

Robert J Farr



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