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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
La Traviata - opera in three acts (1853)
Violetta Valery, a courtesan – Ermonela Jaho (soprano); Flora, her friend – Chiara Fracasso (mezzo); Annina, her maid – Serena Gamberoni (soprano); Alfredo Germont, an ardent admirer of Violetta – Francesco Demuro (tenor); Giorgio Germont, his father – Vladimir Stoyanov (baritone); Gastone, Visconte de Letoirieres – Luca Casalin (tenor); Doctor Grenvil - Gustav Balacek (bass); Baron Douphol, an admirer of Violetta – Nicolo Ceriani (baritone)
Chorus, Orchestra and ballet of the Arena Verona/Julian Kovatchev
Stage, Set and Costume Designer: Hugo de Ana
rec. live, Arena di Verona, 2011
Sound formats: PCM Stereo, dts-HD Master Audio 5.1
Picture format: 16/9 colour. All regions
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish, Korean
ARTHAUS MUSIK Blu-ray 108112 [132:00]

La Traviata is now recognised not merely as one of Verdi’s finest operas, but one of the lyric theatres greatest music-dramas. It is the second most performed opera coming a close second to Mozart’s Magic Flute in the popularity ratings. No company worth its salt has failed to put on a production despite the vocal challenges facing the eponymous heroine and their considerable diversity between the three acts. This being the case, and with so many quality productions involving leading interpreters filmed and available on video media, I wonder why this particular staging and cast should, rather late in the day, have joined the list.

La Traviata is an opera with many intimate moments as well as others more grandiose, such as the act one opening party scene and that concluding act two. Hugo de Ana aims to overcome the challenges of the vast Verona Arena stage by focusing the action within three large picture-frames set across the stage. The central and largest of these is the major focus for the video director and where most of the action involving the principals happens. In other parts of the opera the outside frames are somewhat redundant. In act two, the home that Violetta’s financial assets has provided for the lovers, supposedly a house in the country, looks more like a chalet on a beachside campsite, whilst that in act three, Violetta’s bedroom, has the look of a cheap auction room. She doesn’t even have a bed to lie on; just a packing case among strewn belongings. The costumes are fin de siècle formal.

In my view Hugo De Ana, who is also responsible for the set design, falls significantly short in his setting and also too often in the direction of his soloists. Only in respect of the costumes do his efforts pass muster and even then there are confusions. The opening prelude has very formally clad and hatted men and women entering the central frame. This is perhaps a flash-forward to Violetta’s funeral cortege, as they appear to be rubbishing large paper adverts for La Traviata. They become the first dancers at the opening party where they are joined by more appropriately and colourfully attired participants. Confusion in style extends to act two where Alfredo is dressed in jeans and open neck, whilst Annina and Violetta continue to be dressed more in fin de siècle period. The tennis racquet Alfredo carries would have suited Bill Tilden or Henri Cochet at Wimbledon in 1925.

Whatever inappropriateness is evident in the costumes is as nothing compared with that of the singing of the two lovers. Bluntly, the Alfredo of Francesco Demuro has barely the voice to fill a moderately sized theatre let alone the space of the Verona Arena. The vocal strain is all too evident in CHs.13-14 and later where he squeezes the ends of the phrase in an ugly manner (CHs. 34-35). His acting is little better; rather than look at Violetta he addresses the arena audience or the back wall of the Roman amphitheatre. As his lover, Ermonela Jaho starts with a most pronounced vibrato (CH.3). Her tone is too fulsome for the act one coloratura but she expresses the meaning of words even if pitch values stray. Overall her acting is good throughout. In act three she comes into her own in respect of both vocal and acted performance. Her Addio del passatto (CH. 40) is particularly effective with the words well stressed and pointed. In this act she is made up to look like death itself, a little over the top. Neither Alfredo nor her father would have given her half a chance of seeing the day out, let alone hoping for more. Make-up is also a problem with Vladimir Stoyanov’s Germont. The way the lighting falls on his upper face it looks as though he is some kind of Mephisto figure who has strayed in from Gounod’s Faust or Berlioz. He at least has the vocal wherewithal for his role, albeit even he fails to put much character into the part. He is much as he is in the Tutto Verdi performance from Parma in 2008 (review), strong voiced but without much tonal variation.

On the podium, Julian Kovatchev’s tempi vary from the over-heated to the languid without justification that I could see. The minor parts are adequately sung with the Annina of Serena Gamberoni being among the best. There are several cuts to cabalettas as seems to be the habit these days in what is not a long opera. Performances of this second most popular of operas should be graced by all the music Verdi composed for its triumphal second staging in Venice.
 
Appendix - La Traviata - The most popular of Verdi’s operas
 
The success of Rigoletto assured Verdi’s fame in Italy and around the world. It was his seventeenth opera. Verdi could, both artistically and financially, have afforded to relax, Giuseppina, his partner and later wife, appealed to him to do so. However, his artistic drive allowed no such luxury. During the composition of Il Trovatore in 1852, which at that stage had no agreed theatre or date for its production, Verdi agreed to present an opera at Venice’s La Fenice in March of the following year, 1853. When he eventually settled on the premiere of Il Trovatore taking place 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 register and patina. To add to the pressures on Verdi, he ended up having only six weeks between the premieres of the two diverse operas.

Whilst on a visit to Paris Verdi had seen and been impressed by the younger Alexander Dumas’s semi-autobiographical play La Dame aux Caméllias based on the 1848 novel of the same name which was based on the author’s own experiences. The subject appealed to Verdi but he recognised that it might have problems with the Venetian censors. Even before the choice of subject was made it had been decided that Piave, resident in Venice, was to be the librettist for the new opera for the Teatro La Fenice. Verdi put off the choice of subject until the preceding autumn, constantly worrying the theatre about the suitability of the available singers. The theatre in its turn wanted to get the censors' approval of the subject to satisfy their own peace of mind. Piave produced at least one libretto that Verdi turned down before he finally selected the Dumas play. La Traviata was his nineteenth opera and the most contemporary subject he ever set, embattled as he constantly was by the restrictions of the censors, something that Puccini and the later verismo composers never had to face.

Having spent the winter worrying about the suitability of the soprano scheduled to sing the consumptive Violetta, Verdi was also upset that the La Fenice decided to set his contemporary subject in an earlier period thus losing the immediacy and relevance that he intended for the audience. Verdi 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 I, with its florid coloratura for the eponymous soprano, 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, considered Germont below his dignity and made little effort. Verdi himself considered the premiere a fiasco. He did, however, compliment the players of the orchestra who had realised his beautifully expressive writing for strings, not least in the preludes to acts 1 (Ch.2) and 3 (Ch.37). Although other theatres wished to stage La Traviata, Verdi withdrew the opera until he was satisfied that any theatre concerned would cast the three principal roles, and particularly the soprano, for both vocal and acting ability. The administrator of Venice’s smaller San Benedetto theatre undertook to meet Verdi’s demands. He promised as many rehearsals as the composer wanted and to present the opera with the same staging and costumes as at the La Fenice premiere. Verdi revised five numbers in the score and on 6 May 1854 La Traviata was acclaimed with wild enthusiasm in the same city where it had earlier been a fiasco. Verdi was well pleased with the success but particularly the circumstances and location.
 
The role of Violetta in Verdi’s opera is by no means easy. The American diva Renée Fleming, reigning queen of the Metropolitan Opera, contends it is the perfect role in the entire soprano lexicon and that by which most sopranos have, historically, been measured. She suggests 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. 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 she has the disease and what the inevitable outcome will be; it’s a question of when not if, and if that is not enough she recognises that it will end with her back where she started, in abject poverty. The singer of the role must be capable of encompassing Verdi’s demands histrionically as well as vocally. A big challenge indeed, perhaps met most famously by Maria Callas at La Scala in 1955 directed by Visconti. Renée Fleming in Los Angeles alongside Villazon and Bruson (review) and at Covent Garden in 2009 with Calleja and Hampson (see review) gives noteworthy vocal and acted portrayals. Other distinguished assumptions have been by Angela Gheorghiu at Covent Garden in 1994 (Decca DVD 074 390) and in 2007 at La Scala, the latter in a most sumptuously costumed and staged performance (Arthaus Musik Blu-Ray 101 342). These have made it onto the visual media and all have virtues. Anna Netrebko, alongside an athletic Villazon, are excellent in Willie Decker’s imaginative production in updated costumes seen at Salzburg in 2005 (review). This staging is now available in Blu-Ray format as part of a reduced price triple issue including La Bohème and The Marriage of Figaro, all involving Anna Netrebko and recorded live at the Salzburg Festival. I will review this collection shortly on this site.

Robert J Farr