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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
La Traviata - opera in three acts (1853)
Libretto by Francesca Maria Piave after Alexander Dumas’ play La dame aux camellias.
First performed at Teatro La Fenice, Venice, 6 March 1853
Violetta Valéry, Montserrat Caballé (sop); Flora, Dorothy Crebill (mezzo); Annina, Nancy Stokes (sop); Alfredo Germont, Carlo Bergonzi (tenor); Giorgio Germont, Sherrill Milnes (bar); Gastone, Fernando Iacopucci (ten); Doctor Grenvil, Harold Enns (bass); Baron Douphol,  Gene Boucher (bar); Marquis d’Obigny, Thomas Jameson (bar) Giuseppe, Camillo Sforza (ten)
RCA Italiana Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Georges Prêtre
rec. RCA Italiana studios, Rome, Italy, June 1967
With CD Extra containing libretto with English, German and French translations available via CD-ROM drive with systems requirements of Windows 98 SE or higher, 64MB of RAM, CD-ROM drive
RCA RED SEAL MASTERWORKS OPERA SERIES 82876 70778 2 [71.36 + 53.08]



At least as far as the eponymous tragic-heroine is concerned La Traviata is an opera of two distinct parts. In Act 1 the role demands a coloratura soprano of lightness and agility. Acts 2 and 3 on the other hand require a voice of greater significant weight and colour. These qualities are necessary if the singer portraying Violetta is to characterise adequately and express her emotional circumstances and mental state. 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 the Callas 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 an officially released EMI live recording of that performance the diva’s singing, in variable sound and without the stage images, is not wholly convincing. Her only studio recording of the role, for Cetra, recently remastered on Naxos (see review), has her superb interpretation caught when she was in prime voice. Despite the sonic limitations of the recording, and also to an extent the singing of her colleagues, it is the only realistic choice if you wish to add her portrayal to your collection.

Of the studio stereo recordings none can go down as perfect in respect of the singing of the three principals allied with a conductor having a feel for Verdian cantilena and phrasing. Joan Sutherland recorded the role twice. In 1963 she has Bergonzi, the Alfredo here, as her partner with Robert Merrill a sure-toned secure Germont pére singing mellifluously and with moderately good characterisation. Sutherland’s diction leaves something to be desired but this version is preferable to her digital re-make with Pavarotti a tasteful Alfredo, the issue being marred by the rough singing of Manuguerra as the Germont and by an over-resonant acoustic. Pavarotti had a second bite at the cherry with Cheryl Studer as a strong but hardly light-toned Violetta in act 1 (DG). Levine’s conducting is sympathetic but Pavarotti has lost the natural sap of his voice evident ten years earlier; Juan Pons is an ill-cast Germont. Many people favour the 1994 Decca live recording from Covent Garden with Angela Gheorghiu, Frank Lopardo and Leo Nucci in the principal roles. This performance is also available on DVD (Decca) and in that medium it carries off the laurels. In sound alone, the interpretive and singing limitations of all the principals, particularly that of Nucci, leaves something to be desired. This present 1964 recording has by far the most beautiful Verdi singing from two of its principals of any recorded Traviata. Caballé as a fragile Violetta with sotto voce coloratura in act 1 is most convincing. She moves with aplomb from fresh-voiced light bravura singing in response to Alfredo’s brindisi (CD 1 tr.3) through Violetta’s personal uncertainties of E strano and Follie! Follie (CD 1 trs. 8-9). She doesn’t throw off the coloratura of this scene in the extrovert Sutherland manner. Rather she uses sotto and mezza voce singing to good effect, bringing out the pathos of Violetta’s personal uncertainties and emotions as well as her awareness of her situation. Likewise Caballé’s range of expression and characterisation in Violetta’s confrontation with Germont pére, and her yielding of his demands to give up Alfredo (CD 1 trs. 13-17), is wholly convincing. Her Tenesta la promessa and Addio del passato (CD 2 trs 10-11) are, like her interpretation of Violetta’s death scene, overpowering in their vocal intensity. In all respects Bergonzi’s singing at least matches and often betters Caballe’s in terms of vocal beauty, legato and elegance of phrase. This is best exemplified in their duet Parigi, o cara (CD 2 tr. 14). Bergonzi not only has one of the most lovely of tenor voices he also has the musicality to go with it as well as an innate feel for a Verdian phrase. I have heard him criticised for blandness and certainly his acting on stage could be lacking, but in his many Verdi roles on record, and none more so than in this Alfredo, he clearly identifies with the part and his singing throughout is expressive and well characterised. If Sherrill Milnes as Germont does not quite reach the vocal heights of the other two principals he by no means lets the side down. This recording was one of the earliest of his many assumptions of Verdi baritone roles on record. His tone is a little tight at the top of the voice, which was, later on, an area of great vocal strength. His major limitation is of sounding too young for the role of Alfredo’s father. Better that though than sounding a dull dog or vocally rough as so many recorded rivals do. Milnes’ singing in the confrontation with Violetta and in the famous Di Provenza il mar (CD 1 tr. 20) has smoothness, clear diction and a wide range of colour and expression.

Given the vocal virtues of the principals, it is appropriate to ask why this well recorded performance does not rank alongside the all-time great recorded operas. The answer is as depressing as it is simple, the conducting of Georges Prêtre which varies between leaden tempi and periods of frenetic attack. He lacks that feeling for Verdian line and melody and the ability to realise the emotions in the music that Gardelli on the Arts Music set (see review) has in abundance. Few of Verdi’s twenty-eight operas convey the varying emotions of the story as that which the composer achieves in La Traviata. To have a conductor seemingly so completely unaware of that depth in the music is a considerable draw-back to the performance as a whole. This is despite the superb singing.

Excellent for its time, the RCA Rome recording is one of those to benefit from the company’s association with Decca engineers. The booklet has a track-related synopsis. A full libretto can be accessed from the enhanced CDs using a PC CD-ROM facility. Despite the conductor’s limitations, the vocal virtues of this performance leave it high on my list of preferred La Traviatas. Its re-emergence from the combined CBS/Sony/RCA archive, now under one corporate roof, is to be welcomed. I hope that that this issue portends a policy of making available many of the fine recorded operas that are to be found in that combined archive including many recordings that have few, if any rivals.

Robert J Farr







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