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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
La Traviata - opera in three acts (1853)
Violetta Valery, a courtesan - Renato Scotto (soprano); Flora, her friend – Sarah Walker (mezzo); Annina, her maid - Cynthia Buchan (mezzo); Alfredo Germont, an ardent admirer – Alfredo Krauss (tenor); Giorgio Germont, his father - Renato Bruson (baritone); Gastone, Visconte de Letoirières and friend of Alfredo – Suso Mariategui (tenor); Doctor Grenvil, Roderick Kennedy (bass); Baron Douphol, an admirer of Violetta – Henry Newman (baritone)
Ambrosian Opera Chorus
Philharmonia Orchestra/Riccardo Muti
rec. July 1980. Kingsway Hall, London
EMI CLASSICS GREAT RECORDINGS OF THE CENTURY 5096942
[75.00 + 54.06]
Experience Classicsonline


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 set indoors.

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 1970s.

Scotto’s partner 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 2).

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 times.

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


 


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