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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
La Traviata - Opera in three acts (1853)
Violetta Valery, Anna Moffo (sop); Flora, Anna Reynolds (mezzo); Annina, Liliana Poli (sop); Alfredo Germont, Richard Tucker (tenor); Giorgio Germont, Robert Merrill (bar); Gastone, Piero de Palma (ten); Doctor Grenvil, Franco Ventriglia (bass); Baron Douphol, Franco Calabrese (bar); Marquis d’Obigny, Vito Susca (bass) Giuseppe, Adelio Zogonara (ten)
Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Fernando Previtali
rec. Rome Opera House, Italy. 16-25 June 1960
Libretto with English available on specified website.
SACD/CD and Super Audio Surround Sound format.
RCA RED SEAL LIVING STEREO SERIES 82876 82623 2 [64.04 + 48.46]


In my recent review of the 1967 RCA recording of La Traviata, featuring Montserrat Caballé, Carlo Bergonzi and Sherrill Milnes I regretted that such fine vocal performances from the principals should have been marred by leaden conducting (see review). What I failed to point out was that as far as RCA were concerned it was second time unlucky with this opera in the studios in a space of a few years. Even in those halcyon LP days, recording companies did not repeat the expense of major opera recordings without some thought. The set under review was meant to highlight the late American soprano Anna Moffo in the role with which she became most closely identified. She had already made an impact in Europe on record and film before she made her American debut in 1957 as Mimi alongside Björling. The role of Violetta introduced her to the Met in 1959 and she starred in a lavish new production when the company moved to their present home in 1966; in all she sang the role Violetta sixty one times with the Met company. Anna Moffo was a woman of considerable beauty. On stage she had the ideal ‘figure du part’ and acting ability to convey Violetta’s many moods and ultimate tragic death. But on record alone, without the visual impact of her appearance and acting, the result is more problematic. 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 weight and colour. These qualities are necessary if the singer portraying Violetta is adequately to characterise and express her emotional circumstances and mental state. Without over-stressing the issue, Anna Moffo fails to convey Violetta’s actions and plight in any of the three acts on this recording. Perhaps most disappointing is her shallow coloratura passages in the finale to act one where she tries to give too much colour to the opening and pays for it later (CD 1 trs.8-10).

The RCA policy at this time was to record their opera repertoire using principals well versed in their roles in Met productions. Initially the recordings were made in the USA at somewhere like the Manhattan Center, New York, as with the recent Naxos 1952 Il Trovatore remastered by Naxos (see review). With costs in the USA becoming prohibitive they set up in Rome and recorded each summer, initially in the Rome Opera House, and later in their own studios when the opera orchestra went over to EMI. The principal colleagues to Miss Moffo in this recording are those with whom she sang regularly at the Met, Richard Tucker as Alfredo and Robert Merrill as his father. Tucker is very penny plain, lacking in characterisation and a tendency to finish phrases rather coarsely. His tone colour is pleasingly lyrical considering the heavier spinto roles that were often his fare at the Met by the time of this recording (CD 1 trs.3 and 11). Merrill, who is often berated for lack of vocal imagination and even woodenness, sings with full steady refulgent tone and good characterisation. Notably, he does not hector Violetta, as so many baritones do, in their initially confrontational meeting (CD 1 trs. 13-17). His Di Provenza il mar (CD 1 tr.20) is a pleasure to listen to and one wishes he were not deprived of the extra verse of no non udrai rimprovero as Germont tries further to persuade his son to forsake his life with Violetta.

One of the plus points of the Rome connection was the use of the Rome Opera chorus and Italians in the comprimario roles. On this recording Piero de Palma and Franco Calabrese are heard to good effect as Gastone and Douphol respectively whilst the chorus play a vibrant part in the two party scenes (CD 1 trs 2-7 and CD 2 trs. 1-7). Whilst Fernando Previtali tends to linger from time to time he shows more understanding of Verdi’s cantilena than Georges Prêtre on the 1967 recording.

Richard Mohr produced many of RCA’s Rome recordings of this period. I believe that by the time of this 1960 recording, with RCA and Decca closely linked commercially, he had the benefit of advice from the Decca engineers, who were without equal. Certainly, the playback quality of this recording is of the first class for its period and far superior to others made in Rome by RCA later in the decade. That may be due to the technical work and remastering policy. Time and more re-issues will tell. In a technical note, John Newton of Sound Mirror Inc., extols the virtues of three-channel recording and states that playback of these CDs in the SACD multi-channel mode enables the listener to hear exactly what the engineers did at the original recording. I have played these hybrid discs in both modes and the sound is very realistic with plenty of presence and a realistic balance with some bloom round the voices. Newton gives details of the technique used including short signal path and premium Siltech cabling to specifically chosen dCS converters. He continues: this DSD program is essentially identical to the analog tape.

As well as the technical note, the accompanying booklet has a track-listing, an essay on the relationship between the opera and Alexander Dumas’s play La dame aux caméllias (libretto provided by Francesca Maria Piave), artist profiles of the three principals in respect of their role assumptions at the Met and a synopsis, regrettably not track-related.

Robert J Farr


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