Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
La Traviata - Opera in three acts (1853)
Violetta Valery, a courtesan - Tiziana Fabriccini (soprano); Flora, her friend - Nicoletta Curiel (mezzo); Annina, her maid - Antonella Trevisan (soprano); Alfredo Germont, an ardent admirer - Roberto Alagna (tenor); Giorgio Germont, his father - Paolo Coni (baritone); Gastone, Visconte de Letoirieres - Enrico Cossutta (tenor); Doctor Grenvil, - Francesco Musinu (bass); Baron Douphol, an admirer of Violetta - Orazio Mori (baritone)
Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Riccardo Muti
rec. live, over four performances at La Scala, Milan in March and April 1992
SONY OPERA HOUSE 88697581422 [61.37 + 74.08]
Some operas get off to a bad start and go on to be mainstays of the repertoire, widely loved and recognised as masterpieces. Perhaps the most famous examples are Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, and Verdi’s La Traviata. Verdi himself described La Traviata as a fiasco after the first night. In both cases there were reasons for the initial failure. After the composition and staging of Rigoletto in 1851 Verdi was financially secure and recognised as being at the height of his artistic powers. During the composition of Il Trovatore in 1852, which at that stage had no settled theatre or date for its production, Verdi undertook to present an opera at Venice’s La Fenice in March of the following year, 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 and period. To add to the pressures Verdi ended up having only six weeks between the premieres of these two diverse operas. Even so, these factors were not issues in the work’s initial failure.
La Traviata was Verdi’s nineteenth opera and the most contemporary subject he ever attempted to set, embattled as he constantly was by the restrictions of the censors. The initial failure of La Traviata had more to do with the singing and staging than with the music. Whilst on a visit to Paris, Verdi had seen and been impressed by Alexander Dumas’ semi-autobiographical play La Dame aux caméllias. The subject appealed to him, but he recognised that it might cause problems with the censors. 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. He 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. However, the audience was much less sympathetic to the portly soprano portraying a dying consumptive in the last act and the laughed loudly. The tenor singing Alfredo was poor and the baritone Varesi, who had created both the title roles of Macbeth and Rigoletto, considered Germont below his dignity and made little effort.
Although other theatres wished to stage La Traviata, Verdi withdrew the opera until he was satisfied that any theatre concerned would cast the three principals, and particularly the soprano, for both vocal and acting abilities. The administrator of Venice’s smaller San Benedetto undertook to meet the composer’s demands. With five numbers revised in the score La Traviata was acclaimed on 6 May 1854 with wild enthusiasm in the very same city where it had earlier been a fiasco. Verdi was well pleased by the success, but more so with the circumstances and location.
Every major theatre in the world wants to stage La Traviata but often finds difficulty in casting the eponymous role with its wide range of vocal demands. Each act of La Traviata represents its own particular challenges for the soprano singing the title role. Act one calls for vocal lightness and coloratura flexibility, particularly for the demanding near twelve-minute finale of E strano … Ah, fors’e è lui and Follie…follie! (CD 1 trs.8-10). For the first scene of the second act an Italian verismo voice capable of wide expression and some power is needed as Alfredo’s father confronts Violetta and turns the emotional screw (CD 1 trs.16-21). Act three needs limpid lyricism allied to vocal colour, dramatic intensity and a histrionic ability beyond many singers. These qualities are particularly called on in this final act as Violetta recites the phrases in Teneste la promessa …. Addio del passato (CD 2 tr.16) as she reads Germont’s letter indicating Alfredo’s imminent return and realises it is all too late. After Alfredo’s arrival, in their duet Parigi, o cara, (tr.19) with its echoes of their declarations of love in Act one, ardent lyricism is called for. Violetta then has to pull the heart-strings with expressive poignancy and gentle lyricism. She must fine her voice down in Prendi quest’e l’immagine for one of the most poignant duet passages in all opera as in (tr.23) as she gives her lover a portrait of herself, requesting he pass it to pass to the virgin he will marry. Finally, raising herself from her bed for one final dramatic vocal outburst Violetta collapses and dies in Alfredo’s arms (tr.24).
Surprisingly, Verdi himself did not regard La Traviata as a prima donna opera in the conventional sense. He specified sincerity, feeling and a good stage presence as being more important (Budden. The Operas of Verdi. Vol. 2 1978. p165). Well, at La Scala in 1955 it got even more in a production by Visconti, conducted by Giulini and with Callas as Violetta. These were performances that have gone down in the annals of opera. Having achieved that zenith, the theatre, seen as the home of Italian opera and of Verdi in particular, shied away from the work until a new production in 1990/91 - a gap of twenty-six years! This live recording reprised that production, with the same cast, two years later. From that series of live performances this recording is derived. Muti, by then Music Director of the Theatre, determined to cast the lovers with young singers who looked the part. As ever with Muti, he also purged any accretions or interpolated high notes, sticking faithfully to the published autograph.
I have not seen reports of the first run of this production by Liliana Cavani, but it must have made some waves as cameras and microphones were present for this reprise two years later. The original CDs were issued contemporaneously with a video version on the short-lived Laserdisc format and also on VHS tape. As far as I know, the production is not available in DVD video format. Whether that absence has anything to do with the standard of performance I have no idea. However, I personally have grave reservations, particularly in respect of the recorded sound and particularly in relation to the singing of Tiziana Fabriccini in the title role. I do not know if she was consciously modelling her singing and acting on those of her famous predecessor, but I find her off-note singing, over-covered and occluded tone altogether lacking in any virtue. That said, after distinctly choppy phrasing and poor tuning in the Brindisi (CD1 tr.4), she sings more freely in the coloratura ending to act one. In the Act three Letter Scene her hollow tone and later poor diction gets the lukewarm applause it deserves. She is kept in line by Alagna, in one of his better Verdi interpretations, in the duet Parigo, o cara (CD 2 tr.19) and makes some emotional impact, despite variable diction, as Violetta gives Alfredo the picture for his future wife. Her singing sounds altogether too much like a Callas clone in the latter’s downward vocal spiral after 1957 when she featured more on the front pages than the arts pages of the newspapers of the world. Having said that, Callas did bring a magnificent stage presence to her performances as well as a dramatic intensity to her singing even when it was flawed. It may be that Miss Fabriccini did likewise and her performance here, despite its vocal flaws was admired. There are certainly no sounds of disapproval from the La Scala gallery habitués as commonly would be present if they disapproved, but then this recording is a conflation of four performances and editing might well have been applied.
As I have already noted, Alagna sings altogether better than in many later recorded Verdi performances. His lyric tone and clear diction is easy on the ear although his variety of expression does not erase the likes of Di Stefano or Bergonzi from memory. Paolo Coni as Giorgio Germont is vocally strong, but rather penny plain. His Di Provenza il mar, as Germont pleads with his son, does not pluck at my heart-strings (CD 2 tr.4). The supporting comprimario figures are adequate and the chorus are, as one would hope from this theatre, idiomatic.
There are two further downsides to my enjoyment. One will be shared, the other not, by those who prefer a live to a studio performance and do not mind the interruptions of applause. But in an opera such as La Traviata, with many vocal highlights, these interruptions are not rare; caveat emptor. The second matter for me is the nature of the recorded sound. La Scala has always been a problematic recording venue and the rather manufactured sound, maybe with added resonance, I find false. The accompanying leaflet has a track-listing and, in English, French and German, a track-related synopsis.
As they extend this series, I hope Sony will not forget that they are the guardians of other performances of this opera, not least that involving Montserrat Caballé as Violetta and Carlo Bergonzi as Alfredo (see review) where the singing is outstanding albeit the conductor is weak. A better all-round prospect for Muti fans is available from EMI (see review). A colleague reviews a Callas live performance from 1958, whilst another finds more than I in his appraisal of the 2003 issue of this one (see review).
Robert J Farr