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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
La Traviata. Opera in three acts (1853).
Bonus: interviews and rehearsals.
Violetta Valery, Anna Netrebko (sop); Flora, Helene Schneiderman (mezzo); Annina, Diane Pilcher (sop); Alfredo Germont, Rolando Villazón (tenor); Giorgio Germont, Thomas Hampson (bar); Gastone, Salvatore Cordella (ten); Doctor Grenvil, Luigi Roni (bass); Baron Douphol, Paul Gay (bar); Marquis d’Obigny, Herman Wallén (bar); Giuseppe, Dritan Luca (ten)
Chorus of the Vienna State Opera
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Carlo Rizzi
rec. live, Grosses Festspielhaus, August 2005
Staged and directed by Willy Decker
Television Director, Brian Large
Picture format: 16/9 Anamorphic
Sound formats: LPCM Stereo. DTS 5.1
Subtitles in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish and Chinese
First performed at Teatro La Fenice, Venice, 6 March 1853
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON DVD VIDEO 000440 073 4196 GH 2 [2 DVDs: 132:00 + 42:00]


The story of La Traviata is both stark and bleak but not that unusual in the demi-monde of France’s Second Empire. The libretto by Francesca Maria Piave derives from Dumas fils’ novel La dame aux camellias of 1848 and which was based on the author’s own experiences. A young woman uses her beauty to earn a living. She lifts herself from the overcrowded squalor of her childhood into a socially more affluent and elegant milieu by making herself sexually available to the highest bidder. But she has brought from her earlier life and living conditions the disease of tuberculosis. She knows she has the disease and what the inevitable outcome will be; it’s a question of when not if, and if that is not enough she recognises that it will end with her back where she started, in abject poverty.

The Salzburg setting by Willy Decker accentuates the starkness of the story of Violetta’s travels and travails. Apart from Violetta’s scarlet dress during her courtesan episodes, the only colours are the coverings of the settees in the young lovers country abode and the dressing gowns they wear as they cavort, kiss and fondle each other in the flush of their love. At other times the settees are stark white as is the curved cyclorama and the plain stone-like seat that fills its arc. Then there is the clock, large, white-faced with stark black figures and fingers. Its keeper, white haired and bearded in a black greatcoat, later turns out to be Dr Grenvil who periodically stalks the stage, or moves the fingers and, in act 3, cannot answer Violetta’s pleas for life when she realises Alfredo is returning to her and really did love her after all. As the watcher of Violetta’s remaining time on earth, the keeper of the clock gives Violetta a white flower when periods of true love intrude into her life. When pressures and her existence demand other directions for her, she dons her scarlet dress. The chorus are all dressed in black and when not looking down from over the cyclorama enter and move around like a shoal of fish, the odd member peeling off to sing the comprimario lines. This simple stark staging is meant to illustrate the bleakness of the outcome. Devoid of fripperies and distractions it succeeds to a disturbing degree. This staging is intent on being more than a setting of an operatic story involving vocal display. In its starkness it aims to tell the harrowing and bleak story of young lives in a period of gross social inequality and dubious morality.

Such a staging requires singing actors of considerable ability in order to bring out the agonies and all too brief ecstasies of the story. In two of the three principal roles, Anna Netrebko as Violetta and Rolando Villazón as Alfredo, it has them. Both are animated stage creatures of considerable acting and singing skills. She looks wonderful and acts to perfection a nubile and lovelorn young woman who subliminally knows her ultimate fate. Like all sopranos she finds some difficulty in the vastly different demands Verdi makes of his eponymous heroine in act 1 compared with acts 2 and 3. Add the physical demands Willy Decker makes on Anna Netrebko and her achievement is even more significant. There is some recognition of this demand in the omission of second verses in the final scene of act 1 (Chs. 7-10) when she also eschews the interpolated high B flat.

Anna Netrebko’s voice is that of richly centred and well-coloured lyric coloratura soprano. She uses her voice with sensitivity to the vocal line and with consummate characterisation. Whilst the divisions of her coloratura need work her vocal expressiveness in act 1 is extensive and wholly illuminating of Violetta’s changing moods. It didn’t really need her to fling a champagne glass at the wall. Her tone and vocal nuance on the words, together with her facial expression and body language, had already conveyed Violetta’s desperation and frustration. Perhaps Netrebko’s most expressive singing and lovely legato was kept for Teneste la promessa and the reading of Alfredo’s letter (Ch. 34). Her vocal nuance in this scene is immensely moving. Sadly, the last scene leading to Violetta’s death left me curiously dry-eyed. Violetta’s giving of her portrait to Alfredo in Prendi, quest’e l’imagine (Ch. 39) with the request that he give it to a future virgin wife, passed with barely a notice by Willy Decker. This is one of the most poignant moments in opera! Likewise Violetta’s laying on the now horizontal clock face was no substitute for a bed or couch; nor was the removal from the stage of the clock as a precursor to her death. This final scene, as with the gypsy’s dance and Alfredo’s throwing money at Violetta and being disowned by his father, is not well handled by the director and given the up-front focus required. In a production less physically demanding, and surrounded by a less stark setting, Anna Netrebko has the vocal and histrionic skills to give a memorable Violetta. As it is, her interpretation in this staging is nearly, rather than actually, great.

As the infatuated Alfredo, Netrebko has the ideal partner in Rolando Villazón. Lithe and athletic he has a magnetic stage presence to match his considerable singing skills. His strong but not large voiced lyric tenor has a baritonal hue His open mouthed singing and elastic face can at first be visually disconcerting, but his elegant phrasing and natural stage presence overcome any limitations. Somewhat unusually, even incongruously, Violetta is present but mute as he sings Lunge de lei (Ch. 11) at the start of act 2 as both delight in the sensual pleasures of love with the odd snog and frolic between verses. Whilst these actions illustrate Alfredo’s passion and infatuation the incongruity comes when Violetta is physically present when Annina spills the beans that Violetta has gone to Paris to sell her jewels to meet their living expenses. This makes a mockery of the words and some of what follows. Villazón’s conveying of Alfredo’s changed mood as the realisation of their financial position, and Violetta’s sacrifice, comes to him is vocal artistry of the highest order. Also impressive is his ability to vary the tonal weight of voice he brings to the changing and varied dramatic situations of the role from the brio of the act 1 Brindisi (Ch. 4) through the anger and drama of the meetings with his father (Chs. 23 and 31) to the sheer beauty of his phrasing and vocal expression in the duet Parigi o cara (Ch. 36). With good self management his will be a long and distinguished career marked by a rare combination of fine singing paired, as it so rarely is among tenors, with really great acting skills.

The third principal singer in this opera is Alfredo’s father Germont. I am somewhat tired of superannuated and vocally geriatric baritones being cast in the role. Bruson, in the recent modern dress Madrid staging ( and Nucci (for Solti, Decca DVD) at least look the part of Alfredo’s father, even if their vocal resources are threadbare as in the former instance. In this performance, Thomas Hampson looks more like Alfredo’s elder brother rather than his father. He substitutes a semi parlando hectoring on Verdi’s carefully crafted melodic lines for any semblance of legato. Thankfully his Di Provenza il mar (Ch. 22) does not get its second verse. I have expressed some doubts in the past about Hampson as a Verdi baritone but was impressed by his di Luna in Il Trovatore ( In this performance I find no positives in either his vocal or histrionic representation.

Carlo Rizzi’s brisk conducting of the first two acts suits the stark staging and, at times, frenetic activity. He slows down for the last act. This should have allowed Anna Netrebko to better convey the emotional roller-coaster of the final scenes. In the end the finale of this production didn’t pull my heartstrings as they are by Pier Luigi Pizzi’s modern dress Madrid staging with Norah Amsellem’s well acted and sung Violetta and by Angela Gheorghiu on the Decca DVD of the 1994 Covent Garden production by Richard Eyre. Willy Decker’s staging overcomes many self-inflicted incongruities to convey something of the tortured soul of this story, but loses his way in the last act. For me that means a failure of Verdi intentions and of the whole reality of his portrayal of Violetta’s tragic and emotionally tortured life.

Robert J Farr


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