Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
La Traviata - opera in three acts (1853)
Violetta Valéry, a courtesan – Natalie Dessay (soprano); Flora,
her friend – Silvia de la Muela (mezzo); Annina, her maid – Adelina
Scrabelli (soprano); Alfredo Germont, an ardent admirer – Charles
Castronovo (tenor); Giorgio Germont, his father – Ludovic Tezier
(baritone); Gastone, Visconte de Letoirieres – Manuel Nunez Camelino
(tenor); Doctor Grenvil - Mario Lo Poccalo (bass); Baron Duphol,
an admirer of Violetta – Kostas Smoriginas (baritone)
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
London Symphony Orchestra/Louis Langrée
rec. live, Théâtre de l‘Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence Festival, July
Sound: PCM Stereo/DTS-HD 5.1 Surround
Picture: 16:9 colour
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, French,
730798 9 [139:00]
This 2011 production is a very French affair doubtless staged
to showcase Natalie Dessay in the title role. She first undertook
this character in Sante Fe a couple of years before this 2011
performance and also sang the role in the Metropolitan Opera’s
cinema transmission on 14 April 2012.
Dessay is frequently described as a singing actress, not merely
an opera singer. This usually indicates less than perfect vocalism
and was famously appended to Maria Callas. She has made much
of her reputation in bel canto lyric coloratura roles
such as Marie in Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment.
In a performance recorded at London’s Royal Opera House (see
her acting is outstanding. Everyone who has seen the DVD will
remember her ironing the soldiers clothes as she sings her opening
number. Dessay’s singing and acting in the lighter coloratura
repertoire can also be seen in Mary Zimmerman’s 2009-updated
production of Bellini’s La Sonnambula (see review)
at the Metropolitan Opera.
Violetta in Verdi’s opera has many challenges. The reigning
queen of the Met, the American diva Renée Fleming, contends
that it is the perfect role in the entire soprano lexicon and
that by which most sopranos have been measured. She suggests
that each act requires a different voice, passing from the coloratura
of the first through the lyric emotion of the second to a more
dramatic voice for the traumatic third act. The story of La
Traviata is both stark and bleak and not that unusual in
the demi-monde of France’s Second Empire. The libretto derives
from Dumas fils’ novel of 1848 which was based on the author’s
own experiences. A young woman uses her beauty to earn a living.
She lifts herself from the overcrowded squalor of her childhood
into a socially more affluent and elegant milieu by making herself
sexually available to the highest bidder. She has brought from
her earlier life and living conditions the disease of tuberculosis.
She knows that she has the disease and what the inevitable outcome
will be; it’s a question of when not if, and
as if that is not enough she recognises that it will end with
her back where she started, in poverty.
A big downside of the Virgin label DVDs, even before considering
comments about the production and performance of this one in
particular, is the abject nature of the supporting documentation.
There is a cast-list and producer details, but no Chapter details
at all although these can be accessed via the DVD whilst in
your machine. For the benefit of readers I quote them below
for each act and the odd vocal item.
The production is a mish-mash of styles and situations. It seems
to start in the open air, like the Aix theatre in which it is
played, with a back curtain opening to reveal the party-goers
of act one (CHs. 2-12). All are costumed as in the present day.
The second act (CHs. 13-25) opens with Alfredo appearing under
the curtain to spread flowers. The curtain rises to reveal a
floor-level mattress bed strewn with clothes and clutter. Germont
later arrives in gabardine and without tie. He looks more like
a flasher than an upright Parisian come to confront a woman
who he believes has seduced his son and to plead the cause of
his younger daughter. The second scene of act two portrays Flora’s
party. It includes the gypsy interlude, albeit that there is
no costume change. This is an even more disorganised mess (CHs.
28-35). The stage is largely bare with a collaged collection
of drop-curtain of sky and other scenes and patterns. There
is no scene-change between the acts two and three. A few pillows
appear; otherwise a couple of chairs suffice. At one stage the
money notes that Alfredo throws at Violetta in the previous
scene are collected.
As I noted in my opening paragraph, Violetta is a role for a
considerable singing actress and there are few better on the
lyric stage today. The question arises as to whether Dessay
has the vocal equipment for the role of Violetta as described
by her American colleague who, like Natalie Dessay, waited until
the latter half of her forties to essay it. The simple answer
is, No. However, her portrayal is carried, at least to a certain
extent, by consummate acting. Unexpectedly, her singing was
least convincing in the great coloratura finale of act one (CHs.9-12).
Unlike the 14 April 2012 transmission from New York’s Metropolitan
Opera, she does not miss the high note but her coloratura is
inexact and not without some strain. Stagehands moving around
are a distraction here and elsewhere in the production. Dessay
is vocally more convincing in act two (CHs.13-35), particularly
in Violetta’s confrontation with Germont, albeit starting with
too thin tone as she reads Flora’s invitation (CH.16). Act three
(CHs.36-46) is the biggest surprise. Dessay really rises to
considerable histrionic heights and draws in the watcher to
share in Violetta’s agonies of despair, brief hope and then
despair again. Her total involvement blurs the odd moment of
thin or unsteady tone (CH.39). The producer seems mixed up as
to Violetta’s death. I have heard about the dead walking, but
never this far!
Of the male principals, Charles Castronovo as Alfredo sings
with ardent lyricism and pleasing tone. His graceful phrasing
in Parigi o cara (CH.41) is welcome. So too is his
never overdoing the emotion bit whilst acting with conviction
to give a worthwhile characterisation. Acting is, regrettably,
not Ludovic Tezier’s forte, physically or vocally. He might
just as well be singing the Aix telephone directory as Germont’s
imprecations. As to acting, the nearest he gets is bulging eyes
as Alfredo threatens him before Germont’s cabaletta (CH.27)
when Alfredo in temper and despair flings the erstwhile lovers’
In the minor roles, Mario Lo Poccalo sings and acts well as
Grenvil, likewise Kostas Smoriginas as Duphol, although why
the latter could not wear a pair of shades rather than have
specs painted over his eyes defeats me. The Annina of Adelina
Scrabelli is convincing, even when she has to pretend sleep
on a chair next to Violetta. Silvia de la Muela’s Flora is rather
blowsy and why does she have to collapse so theatrically at
the end of act two scene two (CH.35)? Some of the gypsies are
rather plump and their waving hands irrelevant as well as meaningless.
On the rostrum Louis Langrée draws fine playing from the London
Symphony Orchestra. The applause he gets at the curtain indicates
the audience’s appreciation. The antithesis greets the producer,
with boos and catcalls interspersed with lukewarm applause.
Dessay fans might like to wait for a DVD of her performance
at The Met in Willi Decker’s updated staging first seen at Vienna
and filmed at Salzburg in 2005. It does at least have coherence
of approach to go along with his gimmicks (see review).
Robert J Farr