In 1852, during the composition of Il Trovatore, Verdi
agreed to present an opera at Venice’s La Fenice with Piave, a
resident of Venice, as the librettist. To the frustration of the
theatre and librettist the composer constantly put off the decision
as to the subject of the new opera. However, whilst on a visit
to Paris Verdi had seen and been impressed by Alexander Dumas’s
semi-autobiographical play La Dame aux caméllias based
on the novel of the same name. The subject appealed to him, but
he recognised that it might encounter problems with the censors.
Eventually he decided to go ahead with the subject and La Traviata
became his nineteenth opera. It was the most contemporary subject
he ever set, was premiered at La Fenice on 6 March 1853. La
Traviata is also unique in Verdi’s oeuvre in being wholly
Verdi spent the
winter of 1852 worrying about the suitability of the soprano
scheduled to sing the consumptive Violetta. He was also correct
in worrying about the censors. The whole project was nearly
called off when they objected. Verdi was also decidedly upset
when La Fenice decided to set his contemporary subject in an
earlier period, thus losing the immediacy and relevance that
he intended. As to the singers, all went well at the start.
At the end of act I, with its florid coloratura singing for
the eponymous soprano Verdi 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. Verdi had been
right to worry and he considered the opening night a fiasco.
After the contracted series of Fenice performances he withdrew
the work, only allowing stagings that were true to his vision.
The fact that it was the smaller Venice theatre that first agreed
to meet his demands, and where the opera was rapturously received,
was a particular pleasure as well as vindication of the composer.
In the booklet accompanying
Renée Fleming’s assumption of the title role (see review)
the diva contends that Violetta is the perfect role in the entire
soprano lexicon and that by which most sopranos have, historically,
been measured. More importantly she takes the view that each act
of La Traviata makes its own particular vocal demands on
the soprano singing the title role, a viewpoint that is generally
accepted. Act I demands vocal lightness and coloratura flexibility,
particularly for the demanding near twelve-minute finale of E
strano…Ah, fors’e è lu (CD 1 trs.8-9) and Follie…follie!
…Sempre libera (tr.10-11). For the first scene of Act II,
Fleming believes an Italian verismo voice capable of wide expression
and some power is needed. This is in the context of Alfredo’s
father confronting Violetta and turning the emotional screw by
talking about the threat Alfredo’s liaison with Violetta poses
to the marriage of his daughter (CD 1 tr.16). In Act III, poignancy,
dramatic expression and colour are the order of the day. Limpid
lyricism is called on as Violetta recites the phrases in Teneste
la promessa …. Addio del passato (CD
2 tr.11) as she reads Germont’s letter indicating Alfredo’s return
and as she realises it is all too late.
Renée Fleming was
in her forty-fifth year when she made her debut as Violetta at
the Met. Renata Scotto, the diva in this performance, was a mere
eighteen years of age when she sang the role in her stage debut
on Christmas Eve 1952 in her home town of Savona. She substituted
for Callas as Amina in La Sonnambula at the Edinburgh Festival
in 1957, making her Covent Garden debut as Mimi later that year
and as the eponymous Butterfly at the Met in 1965. On record
Scotto sang Glauce to Callas’s Medea in the 1957 La Scala recording
of Cheubini’s Medea. She went on to record a number of
major roles for DG and EMI in the following years including Violetta
in Traviata for the former, issued in 1963. She became
a firm favourite at the Met as an outstanding singing actress.
In the manner of Callas she was more concerned with characterisation
than with vocal beauty for its own sake. This is evident in her
recording of Butterfly conducted by Barbirolli (see review)
when I wrote Scotto sometimes over-characterises the girlishness
of Butterfly and has the odd raw note at the top of her voice
when under pressure. The upside of her interpretation however,
is that she lives and breathes all of Butterfly’s many emotions
leaving the involved listener ‘gutted’ at her final tragedy.
The same is true of her performance of Violetta in this recording.
Her coloratura in act one is not perfect with the odd raw note.
Likewise in acts two and three there is some spread in her tone
when she puts pressure on the voice. But, as in her Butterfly,
there is a big upside in that she is a very believable Violetta.
The listener hears all of Violetta’s many emotions as Scotto portrays
the uncertainties, agonies and final hopelessness and death of
the character. Her portrayal lacks the vocal freshness of her
earlier DG recording but has far greater emotional depth. This
quality marked much of Scotto’s stage and recorded portrayals.
She is perhaps best appreciated in her staged performances caught
on DVD, often from the Met where she became a firm favourite because
of her total acting and commitment to characterisation. Examples
are her Luisa (see review)
and Manon (see review).
It is a case of warts and all with Scotto. As far as audio recordings
are concerned her vocal variability perhaps contributed to a period
of neglect by the record companies until she was ‘rediscovered’
by CBS who recorded a series of her vivid portrayals in the late
as Alfredo, as on other of her recordings, is the ever-tasteful
Alfredo Krauss. He phrases with elegance in the act one Brindisi
(CD 1 tr.3) and is ardent in his declaration of adoration (CD
1 tr.12). His voice, with vocal beauty and character, blends
with that of Scotto in Parigi o cara as the two sing
of a dream of life together in Paris before the realisation
of Violetta’s dire state (CD 2 tr.14). Regrettably, time has
taken its inevitable toll of his voice which is somewhat dry
and lacking in sap. He also tends to abbreviate the end of some
phrases. As Alfredo’s father Germont, Renato Bruson was at that
time the foremost Donizetti baritone whilst also venturing into
Verdi. His Falstaff, recorded in 1982 is a superbly sung
and acted portrayal (see review).
At this stage of his career he sings with burnished tone and
musicality in Di Provenza il mar (CD 1 tr.24). Sadly
though he does not seem able to give the vocal resonance and
colour the role requires for Germont’s dramatic outburst in
Act II Scene 2 or when imposing his will on Violetta. It is
a role in which his portrayal in more recent DVD performances
dominates via his acted presence; regrettably his vocal state
is no longer pristine (see review
1 and review
Whilst Verdi did
not always succeed in getting what he wanted from stage productions
he would have warmed to the principles that Riccardo Muti brings
to the podium. He always seeks to be true to a composer and
Verdi in particular. Consequently there are no unwritten high
notes interpolated and the performance has no cuts. However,
whilst I find that his well sprung rhythms add vitality compared
with the turgid conducting of Georges Prêtre on RCA (see review),
the downside is Muti’s fast speeds and excessive dynamics at
The new GROC packaging
and presentation give a more classy appearance than the original
but purchasers should be aware that there is no libretto provided.
The booklet gives a full track-listing; a detailed track-related
synopsis and an essay titled Muti and La Traviata, the
latter two in English and German. The Kingsway Hall digital recording
has come up well with a balance of presence and warmth. There
are no indications of remastering. Even at mid-price this performance
enters a highly competitive market. Despite my love of the singing
of Caballé, Bergonzi and Milnes on the RCA issue, I wouldn’t want
to be without Scotto’s deeply-felt and portrayed interpretation.
Robert J Farr