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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
La Traviata - opera in three acts (1853)
Violetta Valery - Joan Sutherland (sop); Flora - Miti Truccato Pace (mezzo); Annina - Dora Carral (sop); Alfredo Germont - Carlo Bergonzi (tenor); Giorgio Germont - Robert Merrill (bar); Gastone - Piero de Palma (ten); Doctor Grenvil - Giovanni Foiani (bass); Baron Douphol - Paolo Pedani (bar); Marquis d’Obigny - Silvio Maionica (bass); Giuseppe – Angelo Mercuriali (ten)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino/John Pritchard
rec. Teatro della Pergola, Florence, November 1962. ADD
DECCA CLASSIC OPERA 475 7922 [61.06 +71.17]



After Rigoletto, and with his fame assured, Verdi could, both artistically and financially have afforded to relax and Giuseppina appealed to him to do so. His artistic drive allowed no such luxury. During the composition of Il Trovatore in 1852, which had no settled theatre or date for its production, Verdi agreed to present an opera at Venice’s La Fenice in March of the following year. When he eventually settled the details of the premiere of Il Trovatore in Rome this was delayed by the death of the librettist. The upshot was that at least the first act of the new opera, La Traviata, was composed contemporaneously with the later portions of Il Trovatore, operas wholly different in musical mood and key register. To make matters worse, Verdi had only six weeks between the premieres of the two works.
 
Whilst on a visit to Paris he had seen and been impressed by Alexander Dumas’ semi-autobiographical play La Dame aux caméllias based on the novel of the same name. The subject appealed to him but he recognised that it might encounter problems with the censors. Piave, resident in Venice was to be the librettist for the La Fenice opera, even before the choice of subject was made. Verdi put off the choice until the autumn, worrying the theatre about the suitability of the available singers. The theatre in turn wanted to get the censor’s approval of the subject to secure their own peace of mind. Piave produced at least one libretto, which Verdi turned down, before the composer finally settled on Dumas’ play. La Traviata was his 19th opera and up to that time his most contemporary subject.
 
Having spent the winter worrying about the suitability of the soprano scheduled to sing the consumptive Violetta, Verdi was also upset that La Fenice decided to set his contemporary subject in an earlier period thus losing the immediacy and relevance that he intended. Verdi was correct in worrying about the censors and the whole project was nearly called off when they objected. As to the singers, all went well at the start. At the end of act 1, with its florid coloratura singing for soprano, Verdi was called to the stage. The audience was less sympathetic about the portly soprano portraying a dying consumptive in the last act. They laughed loudly. The tenor singing Alfredo was poor and Varesi, who had premiered both Macbeth and Rigoletto, considered Germont below his dignity and made little effort. Verdi himself viewed the premiere as a fiasco. He did, however, compliment the orchestral players who had realised his beautifully expressive writing for strings, not least in the preludes to acts 1 and 3. Although other theatres wished to stage La Traviata, Verdi withdrew it until he was satisfied that any theatre concerned would cast the three principals in relation to their vocal and acting ability. The administrator of Venice’s smaller San Benedetto theatre undertook to meet Verdi’s demands. He promised as many rehearsals as the composer wanted and to present the opera with the same staging and costumes as at the La Fenice premiere. Verdi revised five numbers and on 6 May 1854 La Traviata was acclaimed with wild enthusiasm in the same city where it had earlier been a fiasco. Verdi was well pleased with the success, and particularly with the circumstances and location.
 
La Traviata is now recognised not only as one of Verdi’s finest operas, but one of the lyric theatre’s greatest music-dramas. Its requirements of the eponymous heroine are considerable and diverse between the three acts. The first act calls for vocal lightness and coloratura flexibility for the demanding twelve-minute finale of E strano…Ah, fors’e è lui (How strange … perhaps he is the one. CD 1 tr 6) and Follie…follie! (It is madness. tr. 7). The second act needs a lyrical voice capable of wide expression and some power. But in act three Violetta needs not only the power of a lirico-spinto voice, but also colour, dramatic intensity and a histrionic ability beyond many singers. These qualities are particularly needed as Violetta recites the poignant phrases in Teneste la promessaAddio del passato (You have kept your promise. CD 2 tr. 8) as she reads Germont’s letter indicating Alfredo’s return. Again they are called for as she realises that it’s all too late. Violetta has then to express her joy at seeing Alfredo before colouring her voice as she gives him a portrait of herself to pass to the virgin he will marry. All this before finally raising herself from her bed for one last vocal outburst as she collapses and dies in his arms.
 
Joan Sutherland who, three years earlier had wowed the world with her Lucia, easily accomplishes the act 1 coloratura. But in act 2, her poor diction and rather mooning style, with the voice too far back in the throat, lets much of the dramatic confrontation with Alfredo go for nothing. She does manage to inflect emotion into Violetta’s solos in act 3 with a particularly poignant rendering of the letter scene. Bergonzi’s Alfredo in this recording is one of his best assumptions on record. His voice is at its lightest with near perfect legato and with phrasing that other tenors can only aspire to. He launches Alfredo’s Brindisi with aplomb (CD 1 tr. 3). He fully encompasses the emotions of act 2 as first Alfredo luxuriates in his and Violetta’s existence in the country in Lunge de lei and then realises who is paying the bills (CD 2 trs. 8-10) and then what his father is demanding. Despite my enthusiasm for those contributions from Bergonzi, it is in the duet Parigi o cara with Violetta (CD 2 tr. 11) that he and Sutherland really produce the vocal goods and do justice to Verdi’s magnificent and painfully dramatic creation. As Alfredo’s father Germont, Robert Merrill is vocally secure, refulgent of tone and expressive. As I indicate, some of the drama of Germont’s act 2 confrontation with Violetta is lost because of Sutherland’s singing style whilst his singing of Di provenza il mar (CD 2 tr. 2), as he tries to tempt Alfredo back home, is exemplary and a great strength of the performance. The lesser roles are never less than adequate with Piero de Palma’s Gastone and Giovanni Foiani’s Doctor Grenvil more than that. John Pritchard conducts with a nice feel for Verdian cantilena and gives the singers time for their phrasing whilst not losing dramatic impetus. The recording is on the warm side without muddying the clarity of the orchestra and singers.
 
In its last CD manifestation this performance was presented as a Double Decca with a detailed track-related synopsis. Here it has a front cover reproduction of the original LP issue, a synopsis in English and French together with a full libretto in Italian with English translation. At this price level it comes into direct competition with other recent re-issues from a similar period. Anna Moffo’s 1960 performance is presented in spectacular Super Audio Surround Sound format. In her signature role she is found in only modest voice and alongside the rather coarse Germont of Richard Tucker. Like this issue it also features Robert Merrill as a vocally strong and steady Germont. Far better all round, also from RCA, is that featuring Montserrat Caballe as Violetta alongside Bergonzi’s second recorded Alfredo and with Sherrill Milnes as a young-sounding Germont. In my review I described this issue as one of the best sung Traviatas on record; only the plodding conducting of George Prêtre spoiling it from being among the very best versions. This Sutherland version, as well as having a very strong male cast and a full libretto, is also complete, with all repeats and cabalettas. In this respect it was one of the first recordings to give Verdi’s score in full. This then became the standard pattern except for the likes of Freni’s assumption of 1973 that was made in association with a film. Sutherland’s second recording of Violetta finds her sounding rather too mature (Decca 430 491-2). Pavarotti’s Alfredo is vocally ardent rather than stylish as Alfredo and Manuguerra is a much coarser Germont than the mellifluous Merrill on this earlier issue. Lovers of La Stupenda need look no further than this well presented re-issue.
 
Robert J Farr
 


 


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