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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)   
La Traviata - opera in three acts (1853)
Violetta Valéry, a courtesan - Anja Harteros (soprano); Flora, her friend - Heike Grötzinger (mezzo); Annina, her maid - Helena Jungwirth (soprano); Alfredo Germont, an ardent admirer of Violetta - Piotr Beczala (tenor); Giorgio Germont, his father – Paolo Gavanelli (baritone); Gastone - Kevin Conners (tenor); Doctor Grenvil, Gerhard Auer (bass); Baron Douphol, an admirer of Violetta – Stephen Humes (bar)
Bavarian State Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Zubin Mehta
rec. live, Munich National Theatre, 6, 9 March 2006
Hybrid SACD. Recorded in high resolution surround sound
FARAO CLASSICS S108070 [71.01 + 50.14]


Experience Classicsonline

After Rigoletto, and with his fame assured, Verdi could have afforded to relax and Giuseppina appealed to him to do so. His artistic drive allowed no such luxury. During the composition of Il Trovatore in 1852, which had no agreed theatre or production date, Verdi agreed to present an opera at Venice’s La Fenice in March of the following year. When he eventually agreed to the premiere of Il Trovatore in Rome this was delayed by the death of the librettist. The upshot was that at least the first act of the new opera, La Traviata, was composed contemporaneously with the later portions of Il Trovatore, operas wholly different in musical mood and key register. To make matters worse, Verdi had only six weeks between the premieres of the two operas.

Whilst on a visit to Paris he had seen and been impressed by Alexander Dumas’s semi-autobiographical play La Dame aux camellias based on the novel of the same name. The subject appealed to him but he recognised that it might have problems with the censors. Piave, resident in Venice was to be the librettist for the La Fenice opera, even before the choice of subject was made. Verdi put off the choice of subject until the preceding autumn, worrying the theatre about the suitability of the available singers. The theatre in their turn wanted to get the censor’s approval of the subject to satisfy their own peace of mind. Piave produced at least one libretto, which Verdi turned down, before the composer finally settled on Dumas’s play.

La Traviata was his 19th opera and at up to that time his most contemporary subject. Verdi 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, 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 premiered both Macbeth and Rigoletto, considered Germont below his dignity and made little effort. Verdi himself considered the premiere a fiasco. Although other theatres wished to stage La Traviata, Verdi withdrew it until he was satisfied that any theatre concerned would cast the three principals 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 La Fenice. 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 both by the success, and particularly the circumstances and the location. 

La Traviata is nowadays recognised as one of the lyric theatre’s greatest music-dramas. Its vocal demands on the eponymous heroine are considerable and diverse between the three acts. The first act demands vocal lightness and coloratura flexibility for the demanding finale of E strano…Ah, fors’e č lui (How strange … perhaps he is the one (CD 1 tr 7)) and Follie…follie! (It is madness. tr. 8) and its cabaletta. The second act needs a lyrical voice capable of wide expression and some power. In act three the interpreter of Violetta needs not only the power of a lyrico spinto but also colour and dramatic intensity as well as a histrionic ability beyond the reach of many singers. These qualities are particularly needed as Violetta recites the poignant phrases in Teneste la promessaAddio del passato (You have kept your promise. CD 2 tr. 8) as she reads Germont’s letter indicating Alfredo’s return and as she also realises it’s all too late. Violetta has then to express her joy at seeing Alfredo before colouring her voice, carefully maintaining legato, as Violetta gives him a portrait of herself to pass to the virgin he will marry before, finally, raising herself from her bed for one vocal outburst as she collapses and dies in his arms (CD 2 tr12).

In this performance the demanding role of Violetta is sung by Anja Harteros. Born to a Greek father and a German mother she started voice training at the age of 14 in 1986 and became the first German to win the coveted Cardiff Singer of the World in 1999.  This proved the vehicle for a rapidly expanding career, first in Mozart before undertaking Violetta at the Deutsche Opera in 2004 as well as other Verdi roles such as Desdemona in Otello and Amelia in Simon Boccanegra. She has also sung Eva in Wagner’s Meistersinger and Freia in Das Rheingold.  I mention these roles, as my first surprise on listening to this performance was the size of the soprano’s voice. It seems to me to be at least lyric moving towards spinto rather than the lyric coloratura usually accorded to Violetta. Large-voiced sopranos in this role are not unusual. Caballé recorded the role a couple of years before her Norma (see review), as did Scotto well into her career and with plenty of heavy roles under her belt (see review). But both of those divas had the capacity to lighten their tone whilst also maintaining vocal flexibility, qualities that Harteros does not exhibit here and which is evident in the coloratura of act one. She is perhaps at her best in the confrontation with Germont in act two where her colouring of the voice expresses Violetta’s desperation at the request he is making of her to forsake Alfredo (CD 1 trs.10-13). Harteros is Callas-like in the reading of the letter in act three (CD 2 tr.8) but cannot sustain the legato that follows.

Paolo Gavanelli as Germont is strong and characterful but like his soprano he has moments of faulty legato as he tries to persuade Alfredo of the virtues of a return to Provence (CD 1 tr16). He is at his best in the act two party scene as he condemns his son’s treatment of Violetta (CD 5 tr.5). As his son Alfredo, the Polish tenor Piotr Beczala has a pleasing plangent tone with a good variety of colour and expression and sings an appealingly phrased Brindisi (CD 1 tr.3). The downside is that he sometimes thickens his tone with a rather throaty emission ((CD 1 tr.5). He has not yet acquired the ideal heft for Alfredo’s most dramatic outbursts. Zubin Mehta’s conducting is routine.

The accompanying booklet has a track-listing without page references to the full libretto with English and German translation. More frustratingly there are no track references in the libretto! The artist profiles are welcome whilst the frequent, but not excessive, applause is less so. The main virtues of this live performance are the opportunity to hear some new voices in this well recorded opera and the SACD facility for surround sound.

Robert J Farr




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