Alexandre Dumas’s novel La dame aux camélias (1848) was an early attempt from the 24-year-old author to describe his own time in realistic terms and with social pathos. He later, in 1852, adapted it for the theatre, where it was a success, even though for a short period it was banned due to putative immorality. So when Verdi and Piave’s adaptation for the opera was premiered the following year at Teatro La Fenice in Venice it was already a well established story. The premiere was not a success, as is well-known, primarily because the singer of the title role was too old – all right, she was only 38 – and more importantly – she was heavily overweight and hardly depicted a young woman dying of consumption. With some revisions and with a more visually suitable singer it was seen again a year later at the smaller Teatro San Benedetto, also in Venice, and since then has been regularly played all over the world.
Verdi’s original intention was that it be played in the present time – as in Dumas’s novel and play, but it was transported back in time to around 1700 and it was not until the 1880s that it was played according to Verdi’s wishes. When La traviata was chosen to inaugurate the new La Fenice in 2004 Robert Carsen placed it firmly in our time: Violetta is shown during the prelude receiving money from sundry anonymous gentlemen. She looks depraved and is a drug-addict; her sudden weakness in the first act party scene is due to lack of morphine so she gets an injection from Doctor Grenvil. Alfredo is a photographer in leather jacket, his father a strict bureaucrat in chalk-stripe double-breasted suit. The central theme is, as always, love and money. Money makes the world go round, and in the second act the stage floor is literally covered with bank-notes, Alfredo wading in them, like autumn leaves. The whole production is both lavish and cynical, Pêre Germont the egotist who can’t believe that a prostitute can have a heart and that his son really is in love with her. In many ways this production has similarities with the Stockholm production that I reviewed more than four years ago. It was even crueller with Violetta in the last act living in rags in the street. I have talked to several people who were unable to stomach that version and though I reviewed it with enthusiasm I haven’t felt any wish to see it again. This La Fenice production, on the other hand, is more tempting to return to. It has haunted me for several days and I couldn’t get myself to write the review until I had got a fair distance from it.
Besides the concept and the staging it is also interesting from purely musical ground. It was decided that for this inauguration the original Traviata of 1853 would be given. In the archive of the theatre a copy of the original score had been kept under lock and key for nearly 150 years. It was brought out into the daylight and edited and thus, for the first time since the nine performances in 1853, an audience could hear what it sounded like before the revisions that Verdi made in 1854. The revisions were not far-reaching and concern primarily the Violetta-Germont duet, the act II finale and a couple of numbers in the last act. If one knows the revised score very well one notices the differences but there is nothing sensational about them.
Lorin Maazel recorded La traviata for Decca in the late 1960s with a rather fluttery Pilar Lorengar in the title role but with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau a noble and very detailed and nuanced Germont. The conducting was a little hard-pressed at times but generally there is a lot to admire and more than 45 years later has deepened further. Being the first to conduct Verdi’s initial thoughts in modern time must have triggered him too.
He has at his disposal a Violetta with the looks, acting ability and voice to place her among the best. Patricia Ciofi’s slim figure and ravaged face come as close to the ideal portrait of Violetta as is possible to imagine. Her technical command is also impressive with fluent coloratura in the big scene that concludes act I and a touching vulnerability in the second act confrontation with Germont. Callas, Carteri, de los Angeles, Scotto, Freni, Cotrubas and Gheorghiu have all been marvellous Violettas on records during the last sixty years; Patricia Ciofi must now be added to that list, though she has the advantage of being seen as well as heard and thus make an even greater impression.
Roberto Saccà is a likeable Alfredo. He does not have the largest of tenor voices but he has style and lightness when needed and several good Alfredos in the past have been lyrical singers, notably Cesare Valletti and Alfredo Kraus. Having seen Saccà live in the role some years ago I had high expectations and he didn’t let me down.
Dmitri Hvorostovsky has for twenty years now, since his victory in the Cardiff Singer of the World competition been one of the best Italianate baritones with a special partiality for Verdi. His rather stiff and stern role character does not encourage nuanced singing and for a lot of the time he sings gloriously but invariably at forte. When he reaches Bella siccome un angelo in the duet with Violetta he scales down a bit and finds some warmth in the tone. Di Provenza il mar is straightforward an unsubtle, like an order to leave Violetta, not as a love song to Provence. The second stanza is softer, sung with admirable legato and he becomes even more intimate and personal in the cabaletta. The supporting cast is fully worthy of the occasion and contribute to make this a Traviata that should be in every decent DVD collection.