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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)

A conspectus of his life and a review of the audio and video recordings of his works.


Verdiís middle period: The eight operas from Stiffelio (1850) to Un ballo in Maschera (1859)

Part 1 Part 2 Part 4

By 1850, and following the premiere of Luisa Miller in Naples, the years that Verdi called his Ďanni di galleraí (years in the galleys) could finally be seen to be over. However, the composer did, from time to time, put himself under pressure by leaving too little time to become familiar with the characters of the libretto plot and also compose the music. His best and most successful future operas were most often those whose subjects he had mulled over for months or even years.

Whilst in Naples for Luisa Miller, Verdi had suggested that Cammarano, the local librettist, look at Victor Hugoís play Le Roi síamuse as a suitable subject for an opera. Verdi described the work as a beautiful play with tremendous dramatic situations. Back at Busseto he followed this up with suggestions that the librettist also look at Garcia Gutiérezís Spanish play Il Trovador. The composer also sent the librettist a detailed synopsis of King Lear. During this period of debating his next opera Verdi was offered the possibility of two Shakespearean subjects. The first was an offer by Benjamin Lumley, the London impresario, of an opera based on The Tempest and the second an actual libretto of Hamlet. Verdi, with contracts pressing considered that these, like King Lear, were too complex for the time available and he sought a subject that was less demanding. He had after all taken nearly a year over the composition of Macbeth, his only Shakespeare-based opera at that date.

Verdiís contracted commitments were two. The first was an opera for Ricordi, his publisher. This was to be given in the autumn of 1850 in any Italian theatre of the publishers choosing, except, at Verdiís continued insistence, Milanís La Scala. The second was for La Fenice in Venice. With time pressing Verdi proposed four subjects to the compliant Piave, including Le Roi síamuse that he had already suggested to Cammarano. Piave countered with a list including Stiffelius, based on a French play. The story concerns a protestant minister whose wife commits adultery in her husbandís absence and who forgives her from the pulpit choosing an apposite reading from the Bible. It is a melodramatic story packed with human emotions and inter-relationships as well as dramatic situations. With his success in conveying the intimate relationships involved in La battaglia di Legnano and Luisa Miller, his previous two operas, Verdi felt confident in his capacity to deal with the story. He also badgered Piave to study Victor Hugoís Le Roi síamuse; the subject obviously captivated him.

With the Ricordi commission pressing and placed at the Teatro Grande in Trieste, Piave produced the libretto of Stiffelio, Verdiís 16th opera quickly. The composer spent the summer months of 1850 on the work. The two travelled to Trieste for the premiere and hit big opposition from the Catholic Church who not only objected to the concept of a priest being a married man, but also that the congregation were represented kneeling in prayer! Further, Stiffelioís quotation from The Sermon on the Mount, as he publicly forgives his wife Lina her adultery was forbidden, as was her earlier address to her husband when she appeals Ministro, ministro confessateri (Minister, minister, hear my confession). Verdi considered that the changes demanded would emasculate the dramatic impact of the whole plot. He agreed to compromises with the censors as long as the dramatic situation and the thrust of his music were not affected. In other circumstances and where compromise was not possible, as will be seen with Un Ballo in Maschera, he packed his bags and took his opera elsewhere. With Stiffelio having been placed by Ricordi this was not open to him despite his frustration and anger at the necessary revisions. The premiere was given on 16 November 1850 and was well received with press comments such as tender melodies follow one another in a most attractive manner. All the performances in Trieste were sold out with the church scene omitted in at least three of them. In staging in other Italian cities Stiffelio was re-titled Guglielmo Wellingrode, its principal character no longer a 19th century protestant pastor, but a Prime Minister of a German principality in the early 15th century! As the Verdi scholar Julian Budden notes (Verdi, Master Musicians Series, Dent. 1984) the composer was used to having certain subjects rejected and seeing his works bowdlerised when revived in Naples and the Papal States. This was the first time, however, that he had suffered the mutilation of a work at its premiere. He determined that he would find a way of making it censor-proof. He did so in 1856 when he had Piave alter the locale and period of the work whilst he himself made significant modifications and additions to the music. The revised opera was titled Aroldo and premiered at the Teatro Nuovo, Rimini on 16 August 1857. It is dealt with below, as Verdiís 22nd title, in its appropriate numerical sequence.

As was Verdiís habit when revising a scene or aria in an opera, he removed the revised or replaced pages from the manuscript autograph. To all intents and purposes, Stiffelio ceased to exist in a performance form complete with orchestration, although vocal scores were available. In the late 1960s orchestral parts for both Stiffelio and its bowdlerised version, Guglielmo Wellingrode, came to light in the Naples Conservatory; an integral performance of Stiffelio became possible after one hundred and fifteen years. This took place in a performing edition by Rubin Profeta in Parma on 26 December 1960 conducted by Peter Maag. This is the basis of the recording made by Philips in Vienna in 1979 as part of their early Verdi series under Lamberto Gardelliís idiomatic direction (422-432-2).

At the 1850 premiere, the role of Stiffelio was sung by the tenor Gaetano Fraschini who had created the roles of Zamero (Alzira), Corrado (Il Corsaro), Arrigo (La battaglia di Legnano) and would go on to create Riccardo in Un Ballo in Maschera. On the Philips recording the role is taken with significant dramatic thrust by José Carreras. Sylvia Sass sings the adulterous wife with full dramatic tone and involvement in one of her rare assumptions on a mainstream label. Matteo Manuguerra is a little blustery as Stankar the avenging father. Wladimiro Ganzarolli is surprisingly firm as Stiffelioís fellow priest as is Ezio Di Cesare as the seducer of Lina; both roles are shown as comprimario in the score. An alternative live performance from Trieste in December 2000, featuring Dimitra Theodossiou as Lina and Giorgio Casciarri in the title role, is available from Dynamic (CDS 362/1-2). I have not heard this performance but have read good reports of it.

Stiffelio was staged at Covent Garden in 1993 in the manner Verdi intended. Carreras took the eponymous role and the production, seen on British TV, showed the opera to be the dramatic and musically cohesive work that Verdi knew he had created. It was conducted by Edward Downes and featured Catherine Malfitano as Lina. In a later production at New Yorkís Metropolitan Opera, Domingo sang the name part. I believe the New York production used a later edition with further newly discovered music. Neither of these performances has yet appeared on DVD although that from Covent Garden circulates on the pay-per-view satellite station Arts World.

Verdi and Piave had spent time together in Busseto during the summer of 1850 when the libretto of Stiffelio was finalised alongside the opera from Victor Hugoís Le Roi síamuse, called by them at this stage La maledizione. Verdi was greatly stimulated by La maledizione and itched to start its composition; he may have made significant sketches during his work on Stiffelio. He considered Victor Hugoís play Ďperhaps the greatest drama of modern timesí and the jester Tribolet, later to become Rigoletto in his opera, Ďa creation Ďworthy of Shakespeareí. In Verdiís mind there could be no greater compliment.

Piave, a native of Venice, had assured Verdi that the Austrian censors of that city would not object to the subject. On arrival in Venice Verdi found that the censors did not merely object to the subjectís immorality, but also to such detail as a King being involved, that Rigoletto was a hunchback and that the body of his stabbed daughter was on the stage, in a sack, in the finale. Verdi packed his bags and returned to Busseto. Piave tried to re-cast the libretto to satisfy the censors, but Verdi rejected his efforts outright, considering that they nullified the dramatic impetus and thrust of the story and his composition. From Busseto he wrote to the President of the La Fenice offering a re-written ending to Stiffelio, with himself being present as for a new opera, in fulfilment of his contract to provide a new composition for its upcoming Carnival Season. Verdi also informed Piave that the librettist would not be paid the final part of his fee. Verdi was not merely angry but in high dudgeon.

With the Carnival Season already underway, Piave and the secretary of the La Fenice met the General Director of Public Order who made a number of concessions. The pair then hurried to Busseto on 30 December. In a six point document Verdi in his turn offered to compromise on a Duke instead of a King, but otherwise maintaining the original characters of Victor Hugoís drama and particularly a setting where the threat of a curse was meaningful. He also maintained the principle of Rigolettoís deformity and the presence of the stabbed Gilda in the final scene. The points were accepted by the censor and Rigoletto, Verdiís 17th opera opened at the Teatro La Fenice, Venice on 11 March 1851 with Felice Varesi, creator of Macbeth, in the title role.

Despite having to live with his deformity that set him apart, and which doubtless would have contributed to his sense of grievance and bitter tongue, Rigoletto is one of the most profoundly human of Verdiís creations. His character is defined in the music of the great duets with his daughter Gilda. The first, in act one, is of fatherly love and concern, the second is of fury as he discovers her defilement by the Duke and the third of despair as he opens the sack and she tells him of her sacrificing of her life to save the man who raped her yet whom she loves. The vocal and histrionic demands of the role have drawn every great high baritone since its creation. A privileged few have set down their interpretations on record for posterity. To convey the cloistered and virginal Gilda, Verdi wrote the role for a light and flexible soprano, a voice-type that is rare in his works. To the rapacious Duke he not only gave the memorable aria La donne è mobile, destined to become the most famous tenor aria of all time, Nessun Dorma notwithstanding, but also the opening phrases of the most famous quartet in opera that follows, both in the final act. The Duke is one of the most gracefully lyrical of all Verdiís tenor roles, which might be seen in some way as compensating for the vileness of his character.

As far as recordings are concerned and for the first time in the Verdi canon, there is plenty of choice in both the audio and visual medium. With the advent of the LP each of the major recording companies issued a mono recording with their contracted artists. In the home of my youth in this period the focus was on the portrayal of Rigoletto himself. Our choice was between the superbly biting and incisive dramatic portrayal of Tito Gobbi on Columbia (later EMI) under Serafin and the equally impressive but more rounded tones of Giuseppe Taddei from the Italian Cetra company. The presence of Tagliavini as the Duke tipped our choice Cetraís way, he being far preferable to the less elegant Di Stefano. Lina Pagliughi, very experienced in the part on stage, sounds somewhat mature for the role and is rather thin-toned. We preferred that to Callas on the Columbia issue. In a role that she only ever sang twice on stage, Callas fails to represent the virginal naivety of Gilda. Her Caro nome is lacking in spontaneity giving an impression of artifice. There is dramatic compensation in her duets with Gobbi, particularly tutte le feste in act two. At the time of writing the Gobbi recording with Callas is available from EMI although not yet at a price commensurate with its age. However, Regis have promised a bargain priced version derived from LP sources. EMI, holders of the master tapes, may follow suit in their ĎClassics Seriesí in the same realistic price bracket.The Cetra performance is already available at bargain price from Warner Fonit (review).

With the advent of stereo the recording majors went on the roundabout again. An early stereo success was scored by RCA. It featured Robert Merrill as a dark-toned vocally smooth Rigoletto alongside the elegantly phrased Duke of Alfredo Krauss and with Anna Moffoís lyrical coloratura Gilda being one of the best on record. Solti, on loan from Decca, drives the drama hard but effectively (review). Regrettably, minor cuts in the score are a drawback. In 1971 Decca recorded an absolutely complete edition. They fielded the young Pavarotti singing with open-throated ardour, excellent phrasing and characterisation as the Duke. The featured Rigoletto is again an American, Sherrill Milnes, who sings powerfully and expressively. In her second recording of Gilda for Decca, Joan Sutherland sounds rather matronly and her poor diction is a drawback to set against the security of her coloratura and florid singing. The quality of the recording is excellent as is Bonyngeís sympathetic conducting. Not to be missed is Talvela in the minor bass role of Sparafucile, the assassin; hear his low note as he leaves Rigoletto in the alleyway near the latterís home (Decca 414 269 2). Some commentators find virtue in Giuliniís detailed conducting on the 1980 recording (DG 457 453 2). Cappuccilli, whilst singing in long-breathed phrases, doesnít convey, to my ears, the agony that Rigoletto goes through in the course of the opera. Ileana Cotrubas as Gilda is not ideally secure at the top of her voice whilst Domingo as the Duke is strong vocally but bland in characterisation. What Cappuccilli lacks in characterisation, Renato Bruson has in abundance under Sinopoli (Philips 462 158 2). The Gilda of Edita Gruberova is vocally secure if lacking in tonal beauty and variety, as is Shicoff as the Duke.

As far as audio recordings are concerned, my greatest regret is that the most elegantly sung Duke, that by Carlo Bergonzi, is paired with the most unidiomatic Rigoletto of ones nightmares, Fischer-Dieskau, on an early 1960s recording conducted by Kempe (DG). My colleague GF in his review of the Solti set also surveys contemporaneous issues and is far more sympathetic to Fischer-Dieskauís interpretation than I. However, Bergonziís singing of the Dukeís major arias from this recording, together with a brief extract from the act 2 scene where the courtiers tell the Duke of their abduction and also the quartet, are included on the two disc selection Carlo Bergonzi. The Sublime Voice (Decca 467 023-2).

On DVD there is choice to suit ones particular tastes as to production style. David McVicarís 2002 Covent Garden production includes Marcelo Álvarezís robust Duke alongside Paolas Gavanelliís powerfully acted and sung Rigoletto. Edward Downes on the rostrum brings out every nuance in the music. The costumes are in period with modernistic representational sets and plenty of Rabelaisian activity in the first scene (BBC/Opus Arte OA0829D). The sparsely set Verona performance of 2001 with Nucci as Rigoletto has recently been re-issued at mid-price. (TDK DV-OPRIGM [right]). A colleagueís original review can be found at here. Marcelo Álvarezís Duke also features in the December 2004 Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, recording with Carlos Álvarez not ideally steady in the title role (review). Of older recordings, in the Met production of 1977 John Dexter took the paintings of the Venetian painter Giorgione as a starting point. This is a typical traditional Met production with naturalistic sets and costumes appropriate to the period that Verdi sought for his opera. The performance features a lyric-voiced young Domingo as the Duke, a vividly acted if a little dry-toned Rigoletto from then veteran American baritone Cornell MacNeil and an affecting Gilda from Ileana Cotrubas. Both the tenor and soprano far surpass their performances for Giulini on CD. The colours have come up amazingly well, but the orchestra is set rather too distantly and loses some dramatic impact, a situation not helped by Levineís relaxed interpretation (DG 073 093 9) (review). Pavarotti fans will find his Duke on Jean-Pierre Ponnelleís film of the opera. It is in period costume and with location shots interspersed with some unusual stage scenes. The Rigoletto of the Scandinavian baritone Ingvar Wixell, with his stocky stature and chubby cheeks, fails to convince me visually. This has been reissued on DG (00440 073 4166) having previously appeared on the Decca label. Taking sound and picture quality into consideration, I find the Covent Garden performance particularly satisfying, although some may find the portrayal of various simulated sexual activities in the opening scene a bit raunchy. Marcelo Álvarez is always going to be a bit wooden in his acting, but the sound is better balanced and hasnít the slightly hard edge of the Barcelona performance which accentuates the voices at the expense of the orchestra.

From the start Rigoletto was popular with audiences although the censors, especially in the Papal States, did their best to emasculate it. In Naples it appeared as Clara de Perth with an altered text. Despite the virtues of its immediate successor operas, Il Trovatore and La Traviata, it was a long time before Verdi surpassed Rigoletto in compositional density of invention. As to the role of Rigoletto himself, Budden (The Operas of Verdi. Vol. 1) puts it succinctly when he states The name part of Rigoletto remains the greatest part ever written for a high baritone, by requiring every emotional stop of which the voice is capable. At the age of 38, Verdi had put his own stamp and a new face on Italian opera. The period of the ottocento was finished. Verdiís Rigoletto did for Italian opera what Beethovenís Eroica had done for the symphony fifty years earlier; it moved the genre along a significantly new path. There would be regressions along the way, but the new direction was clear.

After the third performance of Rigoletto, Verdi left Venice for Busseto and Giuseppina. The notoriety of the subjects of his last two operas, Stiffelio and Rigoletto, followed him into the rather puritanical provincial countryside. The pair moved into the property at SantíAgata. This involved Verdi moving his parents into another property, his father having been a poor manager of the farm. To compound matters Verdiís mother died in the June. The questioning among the locals grew as to why Verdi had brought Giuseppina to Busseto without the benefit of marriage. To Verdiís disgust they considered her a loose woman and ostracised her at church. Shortly after the couple had retreated to Paris for the winter of 1851-52 Verdi received a letter from Barezzi, the father of his deceased wife and whose beneficence had been essential in the composerís early studies and life. The letter questioned Verdi as to his relationship with Giuseppina. Verdi revered Barezzi and was hurt to the core. He replied at length without answering the points raised. It says much about the relationship between the pair that Barezzi accepted it and was soon on excellent terms with Giuseppina as well as Verdi himself. As to why the pair did not marry is not known. They had been living together for four years and she was his wife in all but name.

These domestic matters in Busseto took Verdiís mind off his next operatic project for some months. He had written to Cammarano from Venice, shortly before the premiere of Rigoletto in March 1851, proposing the subject of Garcia Gutiérezís Spanish play Il Trovador. The idea of two female roles in the play appealed to Verdi, particularly the character of the gypsy woman who he described as a strange woman after whom I want to name the opera, Back at Busseto he followed this up with suggestions that the librettist also look at Garcia Gutiérezís Spanish play Il Trovador. The composer perhaps saw her as the female counterpart of Rigoletto. Cammarano was dilatory in replying and was full of objections when he did so. Verdiís response was that the drama offered fine theatrical effects and above all something original and out of the ordinary. He further urged his librettist to be free and innovative in form, strictures really beyond Cammaranoís capabilities. In the end Verdi was forced to send his own synopsis of the action and this is in large measure the form in which we know the opera Il Trovatore. When Naples found Verdiís fee too steep for their cash-strapped situation, he proposed the opera be premiered in Rome if the censors accepted Cammaranoís libretto. At that point Verdi learned, through a friend, of Cammaranoís death. The Young poet Emmanuele Bardare, who had converted Rigoletto into Clara di Perth for Naples, undertook the completion of the libretto. Verdi paid Cammaranoís widow the full fee, plus a premium, as she was poorly provided for.

The various additions to the libretto of Il Trovatore required of Bardare show Verdiís intent on a two-diva opera, with the voices concerned being of distinctly different ranges and colour. Needless to say the censor quibbled about details. The Ďstakeí might be too vivid a reminder of the Inquisition and the words of the Miserere were altered, as strict Liturgical phrases were not allowed. With these relatively minor problems sorted Il Trovatore, Verdiís 18th opera, was premiered at the Teatro Apollo, Rome, on 19 January 1853. It was a resounding triumph with the final scene being encored in its entirety. There were odd cavils about the gloomy subject and the number of deaths. The opera spread rapidly and was even parodied with baby swapping figures in two of Gilbert and Sullivanís most popular works. Charles Osborne (Verdi. A life in the theatre) suggests that Il Trovatore, with its wealth of melody, dark orchestral colouring and almost brutal vigour is the height of Italian romantic opera and the apotheosis of the bel canto tradition with its concern only for vocal beauty, agility and range. Whilst those bel canto virtues are demanded in Il Trovatore, the thrust and dynamism as well as the tinta of the music call for distinctly bigger voices than Verdiís earlier operas or the works of other composers had needed previously. The baritone singer of Rigoletto or Miller will generally encompass the role of Di Luna with ease. The same cannot be said of the tenor role of Manrico in Il Trovatore compared with the Duke in Rigoletto or Rodolfo in Luisa Miller or indeed of any of the tenor roles in the composerís previous works. The role of Leonora, which Verdi filled out for a prima donna voice, demands flexibility in coloratura and the dynamic range and colour of a dramatic soprano. But it is the role of the gypsy Azucena that really marks out the opera. Verdi had never previously written so full and dominant a role for contralto or dramatic mezzo voice. It was to be the first of a series of memorable roles in his succeeding operas for the voice type. The vocal demands on the cast of Il Trovatore caused the great tenor Enrico Caruso to suggest that all that is needed for a performance are the four greatest singers in the world.

Carusoís opinion of the quality of singers required for a performance of Il Trovatore might be fairly near the mark. The problem in the early years of the LP record was that the singers most capable of realising the dream recording were often under contract to different recording companies in an era when an exclusive contract meant that. Despite those limitations, later relaxed, there is plenty of choice available of good audio performances going all the way back to the early days of mono LPs to the recent digital era. RCA was in early with a Met-based cast that has some fine, even old-fashioned, Verdi spinto singing from the redoubtable Zinka Milanov as Leonora. Her colleagues are some of the best around at the time, Jussi Björling as an elegant Manrico, Leonard Warren strong-toned as Di Luna whilst Fedora Barbieri is formidable as Azucena. Regrettably the performance is subject to the severe performance cuts common at the time (review). Barbieri repeats her interpretation of Azucena under Karajan in the1957 recording from La Scala with Callas, Di Stefano and Panerai as colleagues (review). Karajan opened up many of the traditional cuts and is a dynamic conductor. This performance is now available in EMI's Great Recordings of the Century series, with libretto and translation, and at bargain price with track-listing and related synopsis only (review). The early stereo era saw two outstanding versions. The first in 1962, again based on La Scala, is conducted with a touch too much affection by Tullio Serafin. Its great virtue is that it is blest with an all-Italian cast to join the vibrant La Scala chorus. Notable are Carlo Bergonzi as Manrico and the young Fiorenza Cossotto as Azucena. (DG 453 118-2). In 1969 RCA scored a triumph with Il Trovatore in a London-based recording of the full score, as was then the habit. Leontyne Price is an incomparable Leonora, the young Domingo a virile Manrico with Cossotto, again, and Sherrill Milnes completing a fine quartet of soloists. Zubin Mehtaís conducting and a clear recording leaves this performance very high on the recommended list (RCA 74321 39504-2). I was fortunate to see and hear Cossottoís portrayal of Azucena in the theatre. Her acting matched the thrilling vitality of her singing to give me one of the greatest Verdi interpretations to come my way in fifty years of opera-going. The flip-side was seeing Leontyne Price as Leonora. Her opulent tones and ability with a Verdian phrase were a delight, but she brought her own costume and walked through the part.

Placido Domingo repeated his recorded assumption of Manrico in Giuliniís 1984 recording of Il Trovatore. With many portrayals of Otello to his credit he is in fuller voice than on the earlier RCA issue, but with some slight loss of lyrical ardour. Rosalind Plowright matches Domingoís vocal strength whilst Zancanaro as Luna sings with fine legato and elegant phrasing. The growing dearth of Verdi voices is exemplified by the casting of Brigitte Fassbaender as Azucena. More used to singing the likes of Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus, she had never sung the role on stage and cannot match either the Verdian patina or Italianata of her colleagues or recorded rivals. I personally find Giuliniís conducting rather studied and lacking in spontaneity (DG 423 858-2). EMI recorded their then golden couple of Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu as the lovers in 2001. She is lovely to listen to, but lacks characterisation whilst his throaty emission does nothing for Manrico. Thomas Hampson sings well as Luna whilst the Russian Larissa Diadkova is a strong Azucena. (review). For Pavarotti fans the news is not good as far as audio versions are concerned. Neither of his recordings for Decca have much to recommend them. I also find too many vocal limitations in the Sony recording of 2000 under Muti (S2K 89553), whilst Andrea Bocelliís efforts owe more to subtle engineering than his spinto abilities. His voice is reedy and lacking in variety of colour. He also lacks a sense of Verdian phrasing in this opera (Decca 475 366-2).

If Pavarotti fans really cannot do without their own favourite tenorís interpretation of a role famous for its high C, the DVD market is their answer with the tenor singing in a traditional Met production conducted with verve by Levine. Both the production and the tenor are a bit static. His rather portly figure and wooden acting do not make for the ideal troubadour whilst Eva Marton as Leonora is a little heavy vocally and Sherrill Milnes as Luna is unusually variable. Dolores Zajick as Azucena is on a par with the great Italian mezzos who have essayed the role with distinction (DG 073 002 9). My favourite Azucena, Fiorenza Cossotto, gives a characteristically vivid portrayal on the 1985 recording from Verona. Alongside her, Rosalind Plowright is excellent as Leonora and Giorgio Zancanaro is a visually and tonally elegant Luna. Franco Bonisolliís Manrico is from the can belto school; viscerally exciting and the audience love it, but if you have perfect pitch you might not. It was Bonisolli who sulked out of Karajanís last recorded effort when the conductor returned to the Vienna State Opera in 1978. By the greatest good luck Domingo was available and jetted in. His thrillingly acted and sung portrayal, no unwritten notes or any held indecently long from him, is matched by Raina Kabaivanskaís Leonora and Pierro Cappuccilliís long-breathed Italianate Luna. Fiorenza Cossotto repeats her memorable Azucena. The old maestro Karajan may have lost something of the dramatic bite of his La Scala audio recording of thirty years earlier, just re-issued by EMI, but he still has the right feel for the work and a Verdian phrase. Regrettably Karajan makes a couple of cuts and the Vienna audience applaud frequently and loudly (review).

A few years prior to the composition of Rigoletto, Verdi often complained of the pressures on him and he frequently suffered psychosomatic illness as a consequence. After Rigoletto, and his fame assured, he could, both artistically and financially have afforded to relax and Giuseppina appealed to him to do so. His artistic drive allowed no such luxury. Initially Il Trovatore had no agreed theatre or date for its production. Verdi agreed its premiere for Rome, but this was delayed by the death of Cammarano. Meanwhile, in April 1852, following a visit by Brenna, secretary of La Fenice, Verdi agreed to present an opera at that theatre in March of the following year. Also, whilst in Paris he had accepted a commission for an entirely new work for The Opéra to coincide with the Paris Exhibition of 1855. Whilst on that visit to Paris he had seen and been impressed by Alexander Dumasís semi-autobiographical play La Dame aux caméllias based on the novel of the same name. Whilst it was agreed that Piave would be the librettist for the La Fenice opera, no choice of subject was made. Verdi put off the choice until the preceding autumn, worrying the theatre about the available singers. The theatre in their turn wanted to get the censorís approval of the subject to satisfy their own peace of mind. Piave produced at least one libretto, which Verdi turned down, before the composer settled on the Dumas play. The opera was titled La Traviata; it was his 19th opera. After Stiffelio it was Verdiís most contemporary subject.

At the very least the first act of La Traviata was composed contemporaneously with the later and amended portions of Il Trovatore, operas wholly different in musical mood and key register. The delay in the premiere of Il Trovatore, brought about by the death of the original librettist Cammarano, and the necessity for new verse from Emmanuele Bardare, meant that Verdi had only six weeks between the premieres of the two operas. He had spent the winter worrying about the suitability of the soprano scheduled to sing the consumptive Violetta. He was also upset that the La Fenice decided to set his contemporary subject in Louis XVI period, around 1700, thus losing the immediacy and relevance that he intended for the audience.

Verdi was correct in worrying about the singers. At the end of act 1, with its florid coloratura singing he was called to the stage. The audience was less sympathetic to the portly soprano portraying a dying consumptive in the last act and 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 considered the premiere a fiasco. He did, however, compliment the players of the orchestra 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, he withdrew the opera until he was satisfied that any theatre concerned would cast the three principal roles for both vocal and acting ability. The administrator of Veniceís smaller San Benedetto theatre undertook to meet Verdiís 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 in the score 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 both by the success, and particularly the circumstances and location.

La Traviata is now recognised not only as one of Verdiís finest operas, but one of the lyric theatreís greatest music-dramas. Its vocal demands on the eponymous heroine are considerable and diverse between the three acts. The first act demands vocal lightness and coloratura flexibility whist 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 lyrico-spinto voice, but also colour and dramatic intensity as well as a histrionic ability beyond many singers. These qualities are particularly needed as Violetta recites the poignant phrases in Teneste la promessa (You have kept your promise) as she reads Germontís letter indicating Alfredoís return and Addio del passato as she realises itís 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 before finally raising herself from her bed for one vocal outburst as she collapses and dies in his arms.

From the earliest days of audio recording the role of Violetta in La Traviata has drawn the greatest sopranos of their generation to set down their interpretations. In the days of 78s Rosa Ponselle set the highest standard (Naxos 8.110 032/3) whilst in the age of LP Maria Callasís recordings from the 1950s have induced much critical debate. Her only studio recording was made in 1953 for Cetra, now re-mastered by Naxos (review). In this performance her singing is freshly voiced, whilst her interpretation of the florid music of the first act, the lyricism of the second and the drama of the third is superbly portrayed. Her other recorded performances derive from live occasions at La Scala in 1955 with Giulini conducting (EMI CMS 6 66450-2) and Lisbon under Ghione (EMI CDS 5 56330-2). Both these recordings have Callas singing with quality colleagues, unlike on the Cetra recording, but both suffer from stage noises and inferior sound. It also has to be said that the diva shows some vocal deterioration by the time of the second of those live performances despite a highly admired histrionic interpretation.

As to stereo recordings of La Traviata, my latest count shows in excess of twenty. I personally continue to be fond of Joan Sutherlandís first recording made in 1962. She is in fresh voice although her diction could be better. A major appeal of this recording is its completeness; all cabalettas and verses are included. Another joy is Carlo Bergonziís wonderful tone, phrasing and legato as Alfredo (Decca 470 440-2 and as a Double Decca on 460 759-2). Fortunately for the recorded legacy Bergonziís quality interpretation is repeated with his presence on the 1967 RCA recording alongside Montserrat Caballéís affecting Violetta and Sherrill Milnes as an impressive Germont. For sheer beauty of vocalisation of Verdiís score this recording takes some beating, but it is let down by Prêtreís conducting (review). RCAís earlier, 1960 recording, features Anna Moffo in her signature role. It has been reissued in superbly re-mastered and hybrid SACD/CD form. The recording sounds better than it ever did on LP or on earlier CD issues. It suffers the theatre cuts common at the time and the diva lacks the vocal vitality that others convey. Richard Tucker as Alfredo is no match for Bergonzi or Domingo (review). What Prêtre lacks as a conductor both in supporting his singers and conveying the pathos in the preludes and last act, Carlos Kleiber has in profusion in his 1977 recording with Ileana Cotrubas a fragile and affecting Violetta and Domingo an ardent Alfredo; Milnes reprises his fine Germont (DG 445 469-2).

Pavarotti fans had to wait for a recording of his Alfredo until Deccaís 1980 digital recording with Sutherland by a then too matronly Violetta and Manuguerra a coarse Germont (430 491-2). He did get the opportunity to reprise the role in 1991 alongside the Violetta of Cheryl Studer under James Levineís baton and recorded in the Manhattan Center, New York with the Met orchestra and chorus, all well caught (DG 435 797-2). Although Studer had not at that time sung the role on stage, she gives an appealing, vocally secure and distinctive rendering in all three acts. Pavarotti still has plenty of sap in his tone alongside the addition of some vocal coarseness. A sixty-five minutesí long highlights CD had the virtue of limiting Juan Ponsí monochromic and flaccid Germont (DG 437 726-2). Three years later, reviews of Richard Eyreís production at Londonís Covent Garden, featuring Angela Gheorghiuís debut as Violetta and Solti conducting his first ever La Traviata, caused the BBC to alter their schedules to transmit a performance. Gheorghiu looks, sings and acts wonderfully, albeit somewhat carefully in the act 1 coloratura. Her presence on stage for most of the opera vitiates Frank Lopardoís penny-plain Alfredo and Leo Nucciís stiff Germont. Available in both audio (Decca 448 119-2) and DVD formats (review) it is, in my view, a performance better seen than merely heard. Other favourite sopranos who are worth hearing as Violetta, and at super bargain price, include Victoria de los Angeles

(review) and Mirella Freni (review).



Universal, on their DG label, have followed the earlier Decca example of issuing a live performance in both audio and video formats with the recording of the latest wonder couple, Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón, as the lovers in Willy Deckerís modern dress minimalist staging from the 2005 Salzburg Festival. Although Netrebkoís coloratura in act 1 could be better, hers is a visually attractive and vibrantly acted Violetta whilst Villazónís Alfredo is an outstanding histrionic interpretation. Thomas Hampsonís wooden acting and inexpressive singing as Germont is a drawback. The physicality and vibrancy of the acting of the two lovers make this performance better seen than heard despite the production idiosyncrasies and sparse sets. (review). When La Gheorghiu made a temperamental withdrawal from Pier Luigi Pizziís 2003 production at Madridís Teatro Real, it gave Parisian Norah Ansellem her big chance and she has gone on to reprise her interpretation at some of the best addresses. The split-stage used by the producer raises more questions than issues it illuminates, at least as far as the DVD is concerned. Supposedly set in Second World War Paris, the odd Nazi uniform passes with barely a notice. José Bros is more than adequate as Alfredo, whilst Renato Brusonís Germont, well past his vocal sell-by date, is a superbly acted portrayal (review).

Other recent DVD issues include that from Veniceís La Fenice of the re-opening production of 2004 after a decade of closure following a disastrous fire. Unaccountably, the theatre gave the conducting of the re-opening production to Maazel, never a sympathetic Verdian, rather than their Musical Director the late Marcello Viotti. Patricio Cioffi is an affecting Violetta although not without some signs of strain. Robert Carsonís production has a crude mime of Violetta laying on a bed as men pass by thrusting money at her. With Alfredo as a society photographer, and Germont looking like a company director, the audience voice their disapproving view at the end (review). This La Fenice version is for the ultra modernist only. Peter Hallís 1987 Glyndebourne production presents a more traditional view of the opera in opulent sets and costumes by John Gunter. Maria McLaughlinís emotionally searing Violetta is memorable. Walter McNeil and Brent Ellis, like her, are not international names but the end-product represents the reality of both the music and the drama of Verdiís La Traviata. The performance was filmed without audience and with added sound effects (Arthaus Musik 100 112). When I saw the production on tour in October 1988 it featured the then 25-year-old Roberto Alagna as Alfredo. The tour was his debut in the role and his tightly-focused, carefully controlled and seamless tenor singing drew wide praise.

A few years after the glorious trio of Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata, Verdi, when asked to name his own favourite among his operatic compositions, is said to have replied speaking as an amateur, La Traviata, as a professional, Rigoletto. La Traviata is the probably the best-loved opera in the Verdi canon, notwithstanding that several of his later operas surpass this great middle period trio in terms of musical inventiveness and sophistication. But only Aida has ever approached that trio in terms of popularity.

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