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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
La Traviata (1853)
Licia Albanese (soprano) Violetta Valéry; Jan Peerce (tenor) Alfredo Germont; Robert Merrill (baritone) Germont; Maxine Stellman (mezzo) Flora Bervoix; Johanne Morland (soprano) Annina; John Garris (baritone) Gastone; George Cehanovsky (baritone) Duopol; Paul Dennis (bass) Marquis d’Obigny; Arthur Newman (bass) Doctor Grenvil; chorus; NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini.
Broadcast performance from New York City in November 1946. AAD
MUSIC AND ARTS CD4271 [163’52]

This Traviata is a fascinating, infuriating, often touching and sometimes illuminating experience, valuable for providing yet another piece of the jigsaw as we try to figure out who and what Toscanini really was. Well, here we can certainly hear him sing, shout and, er, shout even louder. Oh, and croak, too (he sings Annina’s ‘Per voi’ in Act 2 for some reason (CD1 track 8). To be fair, he is silent for most of the time (and he had complete justification for his noises - this was, after all, a dress rehearsal). But anyone contemplating this as an alternative Traviata (or even, perish the thought, as their only Traviata) should be warned that it is not a performance or recording per se. Toscanini’s cries of ‘crescendo coro’ at the end of Act 2 really do wear once one has heard them once.

Toscanini’s fidelity to the score is ever in evidence, as is his care for detail. The Prelude is echt Toscanini - he is not as interior as some, yet still he manages to project a feeling of ‘rightness’ - such is the force of his own conviction. Of course, there is the recording to consider in all this, not so much a problem in the Prelude, but distinctly shrill in busy scenes - and there is none busier than the opening party scene. Toscanini and his forces positively fizz here, though.

Licia Albanese’s Violetta is appropriately young-sounding, yet still capable of great emotion, Technically, she impresses at ‘Ah, forsè lui’, separating the syllables affectingly. Yet she can sob rather melodramatically (try towards the end of Act 1), a trait neither convincing nor endearing. Until the final act, Albanese seems far happier in the more sparkly, florid passage-work that Verdi allots her. Her strength seems to lie in her interaction with other characters, not only with Alfredo (see below), but also with Giorgio Germont (imposing bass Robert Merrill) in Act 2. Albanese and Merrill clearly interact deeply on the emotional plane, and Toscanini injects real tension into the air here (not to mention the occasional shout of ‘crescendo’). At ‘Non sapete’, Albanese is nearly hysterical, and Toscanini’s accompaniment reflects this in its agitation. She climaxes towards the end of the opera, though, in those touching scenes, and fragments the line perfectly as life escapes her. Her death comes as the only possible end to this remarkable opera, whose trajectory moves from carefree party to one of the most moving scenes on all opera.

Jan Peerce is Alfredo. He does have presence, there is no denying that. Try his lusty but not overdone ‘Libiamo’ (CD1 track 3, complete with Toscanini’s duetting along!) and then compare and contrast with the duet with Violetta. Note here also how well his voice and Albanese’s match so well (CD 1 track 4, especially their little cadenza, 4’40-5’01). Peerce is at the height of his powers at ‘Di Provenza il mar’ (CD 1, track 10), where focus and diction work well together. (A little sob at the end might detract, as might Toscanini’s groaning along.)

Robert Merrill is an imposing Germont père; Maxine Stellman takes the part of Flora, and very appealingly, too - her voice is nice and rounded, and acts in good contrast to Violetta’s. Unfortunately Arthur Newman’s Doctor is throaty (as if the sound was made there and couldn’t quite get out). John Garris as Gastone is on the thin side, tonally, and uses little vibrato.

The chorus (unnamed) is excellent, tripping along nicely as Zingare. Throughout one is left admiring Toscanini’s expert pacing (there is no doubt he hears each part in relation to the whole).

The claim on the front of Music & Arts box is a bold one. ‘A complete performance, unequalled in its dramatic impact ..’. Sales talk, certainly. Yet Toscanini’s Traviata retains its fascination, and its power.

Proof-reading is again problematic from this source, especially serious in such obvious a place as the back of the product - Giorgio Germont is ‘is father’ ((H)Alfredo’s?!); Robert Merrill is Robert ‘merrill’; Alfredo is ‘Afredo’.

Worth hearing, if only to hear the creative process in action.

Colin Clarke

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