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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
La Traviata - opera in three acts (1853)
Violetta Valery, a courtesan - Renée Fleming (soprano); Flora, her friend - Suzanna Guzman (mezzo); Annina, her maid - Anna Alkhimova (soprano); Alfredo Germont, an ardent admirer - Rolando Villazón (tenor); Giorgio Germont, his father - Renato Bruson (baritone); Gastone, Visconte de Letoirieres - Daniel Montenegro (tenor); Doctor Grenvil - James Cresswell (bass); Baron Douphol, an admirer of Violetta - Philip Krauss (baritone)
Los Angeles Opera Orchestra and Chorus/James Conlon
rec. live, Los Angeles Opera, 2006
Staged and directed by Marta Domingo.
Sets and costumes by Giovanni Agostinucci
Television Director: Brian Large
Picture format: 16/9; Anamorphic Widescreen; Colour; Sound formats: LPCM Stereo. DTS 5.1. NTSC all regions
Subtitles in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Chinese
DECCA 0743215 [141:00]
Experience Classicsonline

After Rigoletto, with his fame assured, Verdi could, both artistically and financially have afforded to relax. His partner and later wife Giuseppina, appealed to him to do so. His artistic drive allowed no such luxury. During the composition of Il Trovatore in 1852, which at that stage had no agreed theatre or date for its production, Verdi agreed to present an opera at Venice’s La Fenice in March of 1853. When he eventually agreed that the premiere of Il Trovatore would be in Rome it was delayed by the death of its librettist. The upshot was that at least the first act of La Traviata was composed contemporaneously with the later portions of Il Trovatore, the two operas being wholly different in musical mood, key register and period. To add to the pressures, Verdi ended up having only six weeks between the premieres of the two diverse operas.
Whilst on a visit to Paris Verdi had seen and been impressed by Alexander Dumas’ 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. Even before the choice of subject was made it was decided that Piave, resident in Venice was to be the librettist for the new opera for La Fenice. Verdi put off a decision on the subject until the preceding autumn, constantly worrying the theatre about the suitability of the available singers. The theatre in their turn wanted to get the censors’ approval of the subject to satisfy their own peace of mind. Piave produced at least one libretto that Verdi turned down before he finally settled on Dumas’s play. La Traviata was his nineteenth opera and the most contemporary subject he ever set, embattled as he constantly was by the restrictions of the censors, something that Puccini and later verismo composers never had to face.
Having spent the winter worrying about the suitability of the soprano scheduled to sing the consumptive Violetta, Verdi was also upset that La Fenice decided to set his contemporary subject in an earlier period thus losing the immediacy and relevance that he intended for the audience. The composer was correct in worrying about the censors and the whole project was nearly called off when they objected. As to the singers, all went well at the start and at the end of act 1, 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. The tenor singing Alfredo was poor and the baritone Varesi, who had created both the roles of Macbeth and Rigoletto, considered Germont below his dignity and made little effort. Verdi himself considered the premiere a fiasco. He did, however, compliment the players of the orchestra who had realised his beautifully expressive writing for strings, not least in the preludes to acts 1 (Ch.2) and 3 (Ch.32). Although other theatres wished to stage La Traviata, Verdi withdrew it until he was satisfied that any theatre concerned would cast the three principal roles, and particularly the soprano, for both vocal and acting ability. The administrator of Venice’s smaller San Benedetto theatre undertook to meet Verdi’s demands. He promised as many rehearsals as the composer wanted and to present the opera with the same staging and costumes as at the La Fenice premiere. Verdi revised five numbers in the score and on 6 May 1854 La Traviata was acclaimed with wild enthusiasm in the same city where it had earlier been a fiasco. Verdi was well pleased by the success, but particularly the circumstances and location.
La Traviata is now recognised not merely as one of Verdi’s finest operas, but one of the lyric theatre’s greatest music-dramas. Its vocal demands on the eponymous heroine are considerable and diverse between the three acts. In the booklet Renée Fleming (p.9) contends that Violetta is the perfect role in the entire soprano lexicon and that by which most sopranos have, historically, been measured. She expresses satisfaction in belonging to a long and glittering chain of interpretations. Fleming notes the different demands of the three acts. Born in 1959 Fleming waited until 2004 at the Met, her forty-fifth year, before her first assumption of the role; this despite having come to note fifteen years before as having one of the most beautiful soprano voices around. Decca, who also had the equally lovely, visually and vocally, Angela Gheorghiu, on their books quickly signed her up. One of Fleming’s earliest studio recordings was as the eponymous heroine in Opera Rara’s recording of Donizetti’s Rosmonda d’Inghilterra. In my review of that issue, ten years after its first publication, I suggested that Fleming’s discography of complete operas had suffered from the connection with Decca, coincidental as it was with the implosion of studio recordings and despite the number of her recital discs issued on the label. There was an admired recording of Massenet’s Thais and Rusalka (460 5682) involving two of her signature roles. But it has been on DVD that Fleming has, from time to time, received the justice her vocalism deserves. Of note are her 1995 Desdemona to Domingo’s Otello at the Met (DVD 073 092-9 GH), Donna Anna in a 2000 Don Giovanni, also from that theatre, and a recital of Sacred Songs in a concert from Mainz Cathedral in 2005. Whilst she sang Violetta at the Met in 2004 under Gergiev the performance was not recorded. Scheduled for Los Angeles in 2006, the theatre had earlier commissioned a new production from Marta Domingo. With the performances scheduled for filming it was rumoured that Fleming did not like the 1920s setting of the new production and threatened to withdraw. Faced with that, the theatre wheeled out the set of Marta Domingo’s 1999 production. In Parisian late-1840s style it looks fine and is twice applauded by the audience. It also presents an opportunity to see the opera in a form that Verdi would recognize and approve. In that respect it is a complete change from the modern settings of the most recent DVD recordings from Salzburg and Madrid, both recorded at performances in 2005 in productions by Willy Decker and Pier Luigi Pizzi respectively.
As Renée Fleming notes, each act of La Traviata makes its own particular vocal demands on the soprano singing the role of Violetta. Act one demands lightness and coloratura flexibility, particularly for the demanding near twelve-minute finale of E strano … Ah, fors’e è lui (Ch.9) and Follie … follie! (Ch.10). In this performance, Fleming sings superbly, finishing the former with a lovely legato note following an elegant trill whilst half recumbent. The audience fully appreciate her vocal skill and there is an interruption for applause. In the coloratura she is efficient rather than dazzling for the sake of vocal display. She is all the more effective for being so, and achieves this whilst making the second verse of Sempre libera meaningful by her acting as well as through force of vocal characterisation. For the first scene of the second act, Fleming believes an Italian verismo voice capable of wide expression and some power is needed as Alfredo’s father confronts Violetta and turns the emotional screw. He does so by talking about the threat to the marriage of his daughter that Alfredo’s liaison with Violetta poses. Fleming certainly holds her ground well in vocal heft, variation of vocal colour and expression against Germont’s insistence that she forsake Alfredo. She stands up to him and wrings the emotion in Non sapette telling Germont how much Alfredo means to her; and she is a sick woman (Ch.15). After emotionally conceding she will forsake Alfredo she is embraced by Germont. Fleming acts and sings with excellent expression and characterisation as she writes to Alfredo and deceives him, leaving him to meet his father (Chs.17-18). My only criticism of her in this highly charged scene is that very occasionally she fails to react with facial expression and body language. In act three Fleming is at her tonal best in the limpid lyricism she believes is needed. I would add that this final act also demands vocal colour, dramatic intensity and histrionic ability beyond many singers yet Fleming is equal to its demands. These qualities are particularly called on as Violetta recites the phrases in Teneste la promessa …. Addio del passato (Ch.34) as she reads Germont’s letter indicating Alfredo’s return and as she realises it is all too late. Fleming hollows her tone, acts particularly well and inflects her phrases with poignancy. After Alfredo’s arrival, and their duet Parigi, o cara, with its echoes of their declarations of love in act one, when both singers again caress Verdi’s phrases with real feeling (Ch.36) Violetta has to pull the heart-strings with even greater poignant and gentle lyricism. It is one of the most heart-rending duet passages in all opera, as the soprano has to fine down her voice as she gives her lover a portrait of herself, requesting he pass it to the virgin he will marry Prendi quest’e l’immagine (Ch.39). After this she finally raises herself from her bed for one final dramatic vocal outburst as she collapses and dies in his arms. If achieved with the vocal and histrionic conviction that it gets in this performance from Fleming and Villazon, this part of the act is a veritable tour de force. This is one of Verdi’s most convincing dramatic scenes, guaranteed to leave not a dry eye in the house.
The Salzburg setting by Willy Decker on Deutsche Grammophon accentuates the starkness of the story of Violetta’s travels and travails. Anna Netrebko’s richly-centred and well-coloured lyric coloratura soprano is pleasing on the ear. However the idiosyncratic production, with its dominant timepiece, does not pull the heartstrings as this one does. Nor does this Violetta need her to fling a champagne glass at the wall to portray her inner conflicts. The updated, but not way-out setting in Madrid, with Norah Amsellem’s dramatically acted and well-sung portrayal is far better if a modern approach is preferred. Fleming is more a mature and ladylike Violetta and one can imagine her impressing the patrician Germont by her bearing and appearance. Despite her forty-five years she looks the part too. Fleming’s appearance and overall portrayal suits the staging. Its opulent second Empire salon of act one is nicely contrasted with the elegance of the lover’s country retreat in act two and the sparseness of Violetta’s bedroom in act three.
I have touched on Villazon’s singing. He is a natural actor. His hearthrug eyebrows and India-rubber face are even more evident here than in the Salzburg production where he partners Netrebko. He has many moments of elegant Verdi singing and phrasing if without erasing memories of Bergonzi in the second of his audio recordings. What he lacks is the ideal vocal heft for Alfredo’s big dramatic outbursts particularly at the second party after he wins at cards against Baron Douphol and flings his winnings at Violetta (Ch.29). Renato Bruson substituted in this production for the originally intended Hvorostovsky as Giorgio Germont. As in the Madrid production he, now well into his sixties, really looks an older man and acts with appropriate stiff dignity on meeting Violetta. His changed attitude towards her as it dawns on him that she is no mere whore, is impressively portrayed. Regrettably, his vocal state is no longer a match for his acting ability and his weak legato, and occasional spread of tone when his voice is under pressure, are drawbacks. Nonetheless his Di Provenza il mar (Ch. 22) is vocally expressive. Despite vocal dryness and some unsteadiness Bruson’s portrayal is to be preferred to that of Thomas Hampson at Salzburg. His Germont looks more like Alfredo’s elder brother rather than his father whilst substituting a semi parlando hectoring on Verdi’s carefully crafted melodic lines. This denies any semblance of legato.
James Conlon conducts well without eclipsing Carlos Kleiber’s way with Verdi’s rhythms on the DG audio recording (415 132-2). He supports his singers in the lyrical and dramatic parts of the opera and never lets the tempos drag or become leaden. Conlon draws an elegance that Verdi would have appreciated from the string playing in the two preludes. The vastly experienced Brian Large is the outstanding television director; his skill in portraying stagings for the small screen is second to none. This recording is a perfect example of his art.
Robert J Farr


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