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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
La Traviata - opera in three acts (1853)
Violetta Valery - Norah Amsellem (sop); Flora - Itxaro Mentxaka (mezzo); Annina - María Espada (sop); Alfredo Germont - José Bros (tenor); Giorgio Germont - Renato Bruson (bar); Gastone - Emilio Sánchez (ten); Doctor Grenvil - Lorenzo Muzzi (bass); Baron Douphol - David Rubiera (bar); Marquis d’Obigny - Marco Moncola (bar); Giuseppe - Ángel Walter (ten)
Chorus and orchestra of the Teatro Real de Madrid/Jésus López-Cobos
rec. live, Teatro Real de Madrid, 22, 26 March 2005.
Set and costume design: Pier Luigi Pizzi
Director: Pier Luigi Pizzi
Television Director: Angel Luis Ramirez
Picture format: 16/9 Anamorphic
Sound formats: LPCM Stereo. DTS surround
Subtitles in English, German, French, Spanish and Italian
Libretto: Francesca Maria Piave after Alexander Dumas’ play La dame aux camellias
First performed at Teatro La Fenice, Venice, 6 March 1853

When this staging was new in 2003 the twelve scheduled performances were divided between three divas with Angela Gheorghiu carded for the first four. La Gheorghiu arrived and spent a little time in rehearsal before declaring the production immoral and departing Madrid! This drama gave the Parisian soprano Norah Amsellem, initially set for later in the run, not only her debut as Violetta but the first night too. Pier Luigi Pizzi sets the opera in the 1940s, a fact stated in the extensive and interesting bonus interviews, but not, as far as I can see, anywhere else. With German military personnel in uniforms bearing Nazi insignia roaming amongst the guests at Flora’s party, I presume occupied Paris and its environs are involved. As to immorality, the nearest I got was in the opening scene. Here the stage set is split into two parts. The left appears to be a bedroom as Violetta prepares herself for the party. Through the doorway of the adjacent bathroom, the back view of a woman, attired only in her briefs, is seen putting on her face in front of a mirror. The party takes place in the opulent salon on the right of the stage. The scene is one of colour and the dresses of the ladies are resplendent, unoccupied GB was nothing like this during World War Two! The colours of this resplendent production are well caught by the cameras and conveyed here.
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 significantly greater weight and colour. These qualities are necessary if the singer portraying Violetta is adequately to characterise and express her emotional circumstances and mental state. Norah Amsellem enjoyed a critical success on the opening night although some found her coloratura in act 1 a little strained. Since those 2003 appearances she has appeared in the role in Richard Eyre’s 1994 Covent Garden production that featured La Gheorghiu with Georg Solti conducting (Decca CD and DVD - see review). With this additional experience under her belt, Amsellem gives a highly successful sung and acted interpretation in this March 2005 reprise, with the same principals, of her debut production. Her voice is a strong flexible lyric soprano with a touch of metal. It is not as lovely an instrument as Caballé on the recently reissued CD (see review) but she attacks the coloratura of the act I finale with conviction and vocal security (Disc 1 Chs. 9-10).
It is in acts 2 and 3 that Amsellem’s interpretative and acting skills shine out, first when she meets Alfredo’s father, who is initially stern and implacable towards her (Disc 1 Chs. 15-18), and later as she receives Alfredo’s letter briefly recovers, and then dies (Disc 2 Chs. 3-9). The second act is set in a very modernistic house with a curved metal staircase and chairs; if this is art deco I wonder why the period didn’t last longer. The set would not go amiss in a multi-moneyed footballers pad! Renato Bruson, whose acting matches that of Miss Amsellem in this critical scene, sings Giorgio Germont. He really looks an older man. Bruson will not see sixty again and his appearance owes nothing to make up. Always a consummate actor, he portrays to perfection Germont’s initial implacability, and eventual mellowing towards Violetta. Regrettably, his vocal state is no longer a match for his acting ability and his weak legato, and occasional spread of tone under pressure, are drawbacks. Nonetheless his Di Provenza il mar (Disc 1 Ch. 24) is justifiably received with applause. During the whole of this scene Amsellem lucidly conveys the agony of Violetta’s emotions and her generosity of character. She starts Ah! Dite alla giovine (Disc 1 Ch. 19) on a very effective thread of tone and builds the pathos of the sentiments quite brilliantly with tonal colour and expressive variety. She uses similar skills in reading Alfredo’s letter in Teneste la promessa and Addio del passato (Disc 2 Chs. 3) whilst lying on her bed in a room with outside balcony. But it is not only her singing that makes this last act so poignant and harrowing. Her portrayal of Violetta’s death-dealing consumption is not conveyed by her facial pallor alone. With haggard face and lank hair she looks truly dreadfully ill. Her body language and movement is of somebody with one and a half feet in the grave and who wholly recognises that reality. Also convincing is her singing and acting in Violetta’s temporary recovery when Alfredo arrives. Together they go out into the fresh air of the balcony and sing an impassioned Parigi, o cara (Disc 2 Ch. 6). The effort is too much for Violetta and helped by Alfredo she returns to the bedroom to lie down. She gives Alfredo her picture as a memento with the request he pass it to whichever young virgin he gives his love to. In her final death throes Violetta has a surge of energy, runs out onto the balcony, collapses and dies. It is as good an acted and sung portrayal of this heart-rending finale as I have heard and seen in a long time (Disc 2 Chs. 6-8).
As Alfredo, José Bros’s rather tightly focused tenor has limitations as does his somewhat limited acting ability. He sings softly from time to time whilst drawing on vocal heft when needed. He never forces his tone and shows vocal sensitivity in support of Violetta in their duets as well as singing a fair Lunge da lei and De’ me bollenti spiriti (Disc 1 Chs. 11-12). I do not wish to damn his contribution with faint praise for I can think of many present-day tenors who would have driven their egos and big voices through the sensitivities of several scenes in this production. At the end of the day he cannot caress a Verdian phrase like Bergonzi, but then who can. He is certainly as good as Lopardo on the Decca issue whilst Roberto Sacca is no better on the recording from the 2004 reopening production at Venice’s La Fenice (TDK) (see review).
Jésus López-Cobos conducts competently without convincing me that he is a natural Verdian. For no good reason he sanctions small cuts including one in the tenor cabaletta. The booklet has an essay on the opera and its premiere. This relates Verdi’s time with irrelevant references to the composer’s difficulties in his hometown of Bussetto when he was living as an unmarried couple with Giuseppina. More explanation as to the thinking behind this production would have been helpful, as would Chapter numbering of the scenes and individual arias.
Amsellem’s dramatically acted and well-sung portrayal of one of the greatest roles in the operatic repertoire makes this performance, in an updated but not way-out setting, worthy of recommendation.
Robert J Farr


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