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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
The Verdi Opera Selection - Volume 3: La Traviata; Un Ballo in Maschera; La Forza del Destino

The year two thousand and thirteen marks the bicentenary of the birth of Giuseppe Verdi, the composer described, at his death as The Glory of Italy. In Part 1 of my Verdi Conspectus on this site (see link) I detail the composer’s early life, how he came to write opera and get his works performed, along with recordings extant at the time of writing. In all, there are twenty-eight titles in the Verdi operatic oeuvre. This total includes the re-writes of two works to different titles. It is worth noting that a number of Verdi’s other works appear in different versions, as is the case with La forza del destino in this collection, but have the same title.
This collection from Arthaus Musikis the third in a series, all offered at a very competitive price. My review of volume 1 can be found on this site. Like volume 1 the recordings here extend over a twenty year period with the earliest being in 4:3 visual format.
The three operas chosen have little connection. Their composition was spread over a ten year period extending from La Traviata of 1853, the last of his great middle period trio to his second longest operatic composition, La Forza del Destino, 1862. The latter was written for a very special commission for St Petersburg. In between Verdi composed the highly melodic Un Ballo in Maschera of 1859 with its constant stream of melody and wonderful love duet. The sequence of Verdi’s operatic works and some of their recordings, alongside the composer’s wider life, is further extensively detailed in parts two, three and four of my conspectus. 

The earliest of these performances in this collection emanates from the Salzburg Festival of 1990 and, as I recount, has its own unusual history. The other two performances, from Milan’s La Scala and Florence’s Maggio Musicale, both date from 2007 and have all the virtues of the latest technology. The full casts and recording details are given at the end of the review.  

La Traviata is the most staged of all of Verdi’s operas, coming second only to Mozart’s Magic Flute in the frequency of performance league. This is despite the vocal challenges the composer poses for the eponymous role and the fact that it was considered a fiasco after the first night.
It was during a visit to Paris that Verdi had seen and been impressed by Alexandre Dumas’ semi-autobiographical play La Dame aux camélias, based on the novel of the same name. The subject appealed to him, but he recognised that it might encounter problems with the censors at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice which he had in mind as the venue for the staging of the work. The Paris of the demi-monde, the half world of the kept woman, was the most contemporary subject that he ever set, embattled as he constantly was by censorship restrictions. The Venetian censors did indeed give the composer problems and he threatened to call off the whole project. However, with influence in the right quarters, the Fenice eventually secured permission to stage the work despite what was considered its immoral story. The theatre, to Verdi’s chagrin, reneged on their agreement to stage the work in a contemporary set.
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 and 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 created both the roles of Macbeth and Rigoletto, counted Germont below his dignity and made little effort. Verdi himself considered the premiere a fiasco. The opera had a great success at the smaller Venetian theatre, the San Benedetto, the following year, when it was staged as the composer intended.
La Traviata is now recognised not merely as one of Verdi’s finest operas, but one of the lyric theatre’s greatest music-dramas. Its vocal demands on the eponymous heroine are considerable and diverse between the three acts. Renée Fleming, the great American lyric soprano, contends that Violetta is the perfect role in the entire soprano lexicon and that by which most sopranos have, historically, been measured. She argues that each act poses different vocal and histrionic demands for the principal. She waited until her forty-fifth year, before her first assumption of the role, this despite having come to note fifteen years before as the possessor of one of the most beautiful soprano voices around. The soprano in this performance, Angela Gheorghiu, sprang to fame in 1997 singing the role at London’s Covent Garden. The impact of her performance, and critical acclaim, was such that the BBC cleared terrestrial television schedules for a live transmission; unheard of before, or as far as I can recall, since. That performance is to be seen on Decca DVD 074 3090. At that stage Gheorghiu was just over thirty-two years of age. She had sung the lighter lyric roles at major houses, but those performances of Violetta launched her on an unstoppable international career.
Ten years on from those Covent Garden performances, in this ultra-opulent La Scala staging, some of the spontaneity has gone from Gheorghiu’s interpretation as well as her ease in the coloratura at the conclusion of act one. Where she has gained in interpretive powers is found in act two as Alfredo’s father confronts Violetta and in act three as Violetta reads Alfredo’s letter telling her that he is returning to her having learnt of her sacrifice from his father. Here Gheorghiu’s experience singing Tosca comes to the fore. We see this first as Violetta stands up to Germont and then, conceding she is a sick woman, after his embrace of respect and gratitude. She sings with depth and emotion as she writes to Alfredo, leaving him to meet his father. However, Gheorghiu reserves her full range of histrionic abilities for act three where she recites the phrases of Teneste la promessa …. Addio del passato with a depth of feeling not present ten years before. She does this with great variety of depth and extent of tonal colour. As Violetta reads the letter tears will swell in many an eye, and even more so after the heartbreaking duet Parigi, o cara with Alfredo. More heart-rending still is the poignancy of Prendi quest’e l’immagine when Violetta gives her lover a portrait of herself, requesting he pass it to the virgin he will marry. 

Ramon Vargas, without quite matching his soprano’s histrionic strengths, sings Alfredo with great tone and vocal taste throughout. As Germont, Roberto Frontali is also excellent in his vocal and acted interpretation. On the rostrum Lorin Maazel brings appropriate sensitivity and drama to Verdi’s phrases in a manner that I do not always find in his interpretations. It is good also to see, and hear, the veteran Luigi Roni as Dr Grenvil, a role he also assumed in Will Decker’s updated staging recorded at the Salzburg Festival in 2005 (see review).
As I have already hinted, the traditional staging and costumes in-period are opulent and unlikely to be repeated anywhere except in the world’s largest houses. Likewise the large numbers of the chorus, let alone their idiomatic vibrancy. The act two - scene two ballet is given although it is a pity the cloth on the gaming table was not put on properly. There are cuts to the cabalettas.  

As in the first volume of these Arthaus Musik collections of Verdi operas issued during the composer’s bicentenary year, one of the three recordings dates from over twenty years ago and emanates from the Salzburg Festival as planned by Karajan. He had had a great success in Verdi operas since Falstaff in 1957 and followed by Il Trovatore, Otello, Don Carlos, Aida and Falstaff again, all in the Grosses Festpielhaus. He planned something unusual, however, for Un Ballo in Maschera in 1988. As was his habit a sound recording was made prior to the staging for use during rehearsals with the same cast. The unusual bit was that he planned to stage the version that Verdi intended before the censors stepped in and involving an historical fact, the assassination of King Gustav III at a Ball. Verdi’s original conception was based on Scribe’s and Somma’s libretto. The censor’s objections involved the assassination of a king, the location in northern Europe, the inclusion of sorcery and the use of firearms on stage, over a third of the pages of the opera. Poet and composer agreed the transfer of location to Boston, America, the King to become a Duke and the assassination to be a stabbing not a shooting. Still the censor was not satisfied and Verdi cast around for another theatre. The censor in Rome was more accommodating and the opera saw its first performance at the Teatro Apollo with the original King becoming Riccardo, Earl of Warwick, an English colonial governor, and the Swedish Count Anckarstrom, becoming Renato his secretary.
If the original production in Verdi’s time saw problems, so did this realisation of the opera at Salzburg, with Karajan, the progenitor dying on 16 July 1989 after stage rehearsals had begun for that year’s season. The festival hit luck: Sir Georg Solti was available and able and willing to step in, at age 76, to undertake the task with just a week to go. It was also an act of generosity on Solti’s part, as he had not featured at Salzburg during Karajan’s tenure. Add Solti’s grasp of the nature of the opera, its melodic music and dramatic incidents, and how he brings his many skills to bear and a miracle was the consequence. The following year the production was saved for posterity when Austrian Broadcasting recorded the general rehearsal on 25 July 1990 and transmitted the premiere live on both radio and television, not only to Austria but also, simultaneously, to Japan. The latter involved technical resources beyond anything seen before, and not just at the Salzburg end; although in 4:3 format that visual quality is evident here. 
The production was in the hands of the vastly experienced film director John Schlesinger. The opulent set and costumes by William Dudley and Luciana Arrighi are in-period and Schlesinger’s direction is straightforward and without gimmicks. As the associated booklet notes, this staged format was in its last days. Sadly regietheater and concept productions that a composer would barely recognise were to become the pattern, even de rigueur in Europe, not least at Salzburg.
The singing cast, with Placido Domingo as Gustavus, is good and in some roles outstanding, not least that by the great singer himself as Gustavus. His voice is bright, forward and lyric in tone, one would never suspect from listening to him here as to how many times he had sung Otello on stage. His acting and vocal characterisation match his golden tone. As Anckarstrom, his secretary and assassin, Leo Nucci also acts with conviction. His Eri Tu, as Renato tells his wife of her fate, is chilling. His wiry baritone lacks the colour of Karajan’s favourite, Cappuccilli, whose acting was poor. The two plotters are suitably saturnine with Kurt Rydl as Count Horn notable.
Of the female cast the surprise choice of Josephine Barstow is only partially successful. She had impressed Karajan with her acting and vocal characterisation skills, which are clearly evident. What is lacking in her portrayal is the ability to soar with the orchestra and maintain vocal line. Impressive as Lady Macbeth, (see review) her sometimes occluded tone is limiting. Nonetheless hers is a considerable histrionic achievement. So too is that of Sumi Jo as a pert, rather cocky, Oscar, Gustavus’s page, a Court supporter of the gypsy soothsayer Ulrica, and who later is subtly persuaded, with the help of alcohol in this staging, to spill the beans as to which Maschera is Gustavus, thus facilitating his assassination by gunshot, as distinct from stabbing in the normal staging. As Ulrica, Florence Quivar is sonorous and the scene outside her home is suitably eerie.
I have touched on Solti’s contribution. His sense of theatre and his vast experience allows him to be outstanding in this Verdi interpretation; in his earlier years I found Solti rather hard-driven in Verdi. His contribution here is the icing on the cake of a production that many will appreciate. The likes of Solti, as with Maazel in the La Scala La Traviata above, are, regrettably for this observer, a dying breed.
Verdi wrote La forza del destino after a two-year gap from composition following the premiere of Un Ballo in Maschera in February 1859. During that period he had become a Deputy in the first parliament of the recently unified Italy. However, he was tiring of that scene when he was approached for a new opera for the Imperial Italian Theatre in St. Petersburg for the season 1861-1862. With the composer away on Parliamentary business his wife, Giuseppina, handled the correspondence and persuaded Verdi that with suitable provisions, the cold in Russia would be manageable, and he should accept the highly lucrative commission. After some struggle for a subject Verdi settled on the Spanish drama Don Alvaro, o La fuerza de sino byAngel Perez de Saavedra, Duke of Rivas. This was deemed suitable in Russia and Verdi asked his long-time collaborator Piave to provide the libretto. The Verdis arrived in St. Petersburg in November 1861, but during rehearsals the principal soprano became ill. As there was no possible substitute the premiere was postponed until the following autumn and after some sightseeing the Verdi’s returned home. At its delayed premiere on 10 November 1862 the work was well received with the Czar gracing the inaugural night.
The original version was reprised in St Petersburg in the two seasons following its premiere and was seen in several Italian cities in 1863 as well as in Madrid in 1864 and Vienna in 1865. However, Verdi withheld the score from theatres that he considered incapable of doing it justice. It is evident that he recognised the need for alterations early on when he transposed the tenor aria in act 3 downward on the basis that only Tamberlick, who had created the role in St. Petersburg, was capable of meeting its demands. The composer was also unhappy with various other aspects of the St Petersburg score, particularly the three violent deaths in the final scene. However, it was not until his publisher proposed a revival for the 1869 La Scala carnival season that Verdi found a way forward. By then Piave had suffered a stroke that paralysed him for the last eight years of his life. The task of versifying the revisions fell to Antonio Ghislanzoni whom the composer had met at the time of the writing of Attila and with whom he developed a cordial relationship.
The revised La Forza del Destinowas premiered at La Scala on 27 February 1869. The presentation marked a rapprochement between Verdi and the theatre that he had barred from premieres of his works for over twenty years. The revision of the score from the original are significant rather than major and involve the substitution of the prelude by a full overture, a substantial revision of the end of act three including the removal of the demanding tenor double aria and a reversal of the order with the Preziosilla’s Rataplan concluded the act. In act four the whole of the final scene was amended avoiding the triple deaths. It is replaced by the Father Guardian’s benediction as Leonora dies and Alvaro is left alive. Ever the man of the theatre Verdi leavened the dark facets of the story with brighter and humorous interludes. The most successful of these comes with the character of the irascible monk Melitone who berates the peasants as he distributes charity in the final act or laments the goings-on in the army camp as he is forced to join a whirling dance with the vivandiers in act 3. It is a role seen as a precursor to the eponymous Falstaff in the composer’s final opera.
In La forza del destino Verdi writes on a massive dramatic canvas and poured great intensity and creativity into this work of his mature compositional period. The opera contains an overture, scenes, arias and duets that are amongst his finest. The lovely long melodic cantilena of the meeting between Leonore and Padre Giordano in act 2 scene 2, that starts with Leonore’s aria Sono giunta and concludes with the trio with chorus of La Vergine degli Angeli as she is granted sanctity have, I suggest, no parallel in Italian opera since Bellini’s Norma in 1833.
For this dramatic opera Verdi wanted spinto-sized voices. Lyric-toned Marcello Giordani sings the role of Alvaro here. He has the necessary heft without the voice spreading, but is often fully stretched. He lacks the necessary variety of colour and nuance to bring out the agony and uncertainties that are essential if the honourable nature of Alvaro is to be realised. It is a difficult role to bring off; at least Giordani, if not perfect does not shout through it nor leave me as uncomfortable as the late Salvatore Licitra does in the 2008 recording from Vienna also conducted by Zubin Mehta (see review). As Don Carlo, his pursuing adversary, Carlo Guelfi has the vocal heft and more colours in his voice than his colleague and characterises well. Both men are a little wooden in their acting, but their big duet Solenne in quest'ora comes over well. Roberto Scandiuzzi as the Padre Guardiano is suitably upright, austere and sings with steady sonority to create a believable character. Best of all the male principals is Bruno De Simone as Melitone. He is quite superb in his acted and sung portrayal. His diction and vocal nuance are exemplary and they brings his superb characterisation into full reality. The lesser characters of the Marquis of Calatrava, the Mayor, and particularly Trabuco, are adequately sung and acted.
I restrict other major superlatives to the ladies. Sometime mezzo, the Lithuanian Violeta Urmana is warm of tone. She has a voice that easily encompasses Verdi’s melodic cantilena in Madre pietosa Vergine and the vocal demands of Pace, pace, mio Dio in the last act. Commendable vocal grace and fulsome tone go along with her welcome capacity for characterisation. Matching her in both singing and characterisation is the Preziosilla of Russian Julia Gertseva. She exudes personality and appropriate vivacity and is outstanding in her acted portrayal; her Rataplan is a vocal delight.
Apart from the sets for act four the staging is imaginative and well realised. I cannot make out, from the description in the booklet the period of the costumes. It states on p.8: “an unobtrusive updating of about a hundred years from the time of composition, the period leading to Italian Unification.” I am no expert on the Spanish military uniforms evident in act three, but the armaments in use for the battle scene are certainly not circa 1960, nor are the clothes of the peasants there and elsewhere.
Zubin Mehta on the rostrum nicely balances the varying moods of the plot between the melodic and the dramatic components. His chorus are idiomatic and vibrant. They involve themselves with conviction in the diverse acted requirements.
In my view this is one of the best modern performances of an opera that is difficult to bring off in the theatre.
Robert J Farr

See also reviews of the original releases of:
• La Traviata by Robert McKechnie
• Un ballo in Maschera by Göran Forsling


La Traviata - Opera in three acts (1853) [134:00] 
Violetta Valery, a courtesan - Angela Gheorghiu (soprano); Flora, her friend - Natascha Petrinsky (mezzo); Annina, her maid - Tiziana Tramonti (soprano); Alfredo Germont, an ardent admirer - Ramón Vargas (tenor); Giorgio Germont, his father - Roberto Frontali (baritone); Gastone, Visconte de Letoirieres - Enrico Cassutta (tenor); Doctor Grenvil - Luigi Roni (bass); Baron Douphol, an admirer of Violetta - Alessandro Paliaga (baritone)
Orchestra, Chorus and Ballet of the Teatro alla Scala, Milan/Lorin Maazel 
Stage Director: Liliana Cavani revived by Marina Bianchi
Set Designr: Dante Ferretti
Costume Designer: Gabriella Pescucci
Video Director: Paola Longbardo
rec. 2007
Picture format: 16:9; Sound formats: PCM Stereo. DD 5, DTS 51
Booklet languages: English, German, French
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish,
Released separately as 101343

Un ballo in Maschera - Opera in three Acts (1858) [145:00]
Gustavo, King of Sweden - Placido Domingo (tenor); Renato, Count Anckarstrom, his secretary - Leo Nucci (baritone); Amelia, his wife, loved by Riccardo - Josephine Barstow (soprano); Ulrica, a fortune teller - Florence Quivar (alto); Oscar, Riccardo’s page - Sumi Jo (soprano); Count Ribbing, enemy of Riccardo - Goran Simic (bass); Count Horn, another enemy of Riccardo - Kurt Rydl (bass)
Chorus of the Vienna State Opera; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti
Stage Director: John Schlesinger
Set Designer: William Dudley Costume designer: Luciana Arrighi
Picture format: 4:3; Sound format: PCM Stereo.
Sung in Italian with subtitles in English, German, French, Spanish, Italian and Chinese
Released separately as 107271 

La forza del destino - Melodrama in four acts (Revised 1869 version) [178:00]
Marquis of Calatrava, Leonora’s father - Duccio Dal Monte (bass); Donna Leonora, his daughter - Violeta Urmana (soprano); Curra, her chambermaid - Antonella Trevison (soprano); Don Carlo of Vargas, Leonora’s brother - Carlo Guelfi (baritone); Don Alvaro, lover of Leonora and of Royal Inca Indian descent - Marcello Giordani (tenor);
Preziosilla, a gypsy girl - Julia Gertseva (mezzo); Fra Melitone, a Friar - Bruno De Simone (bass); Padre Guardiano, Father Superior - Roberto Scandiuzzi (bass); Mastro Trabuco, Muleteer and pedlar - Carlo Bosi (tenor); An Alcade, a mayor - Filippo Polinelli (bass); Spanish military surgeon - Alessandro Luongo (tenor); Curra, Leonora’s maid - Antonella Trevison (soprano)
Chorus and Orchestra of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino/Zubin Mehta
A production for the Zurich Opera House
Director: Nicolas Joël
Set Designer: Ezio Frigerio
Costume Designer: Franca Squarciapino
Restaged by Timo Schussel
rec. live, Teatro Communale, Florence, Italy, 2007
Picture format: 16:9; Sound formats: PCM Stereo. DD 5, DTS 5.1
Subtitles in Italian (original language), English, German, French, and Spanish
Booklet notes in English, German, French
Released separately as 107325