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 2011
Sound: PCM Stereo/DTS-HD 5.1 Surround
Picture: 16:9 colour
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish
VIRGIN CLASSICS DVD 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 review) 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’ bed away.
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
Even at its lower price, poor presentation and the quality of the recorded opposition mean this is for Dessay fans only.