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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
La Traviata - opera in three acts (1853)
Violetta Valery, a courtesan – Diana Damrau (soprano); Flora, her friend – Anna Pennisi (mezzo); Annina, her maid – Cornelia Oncioiu (soprano); Alfredo Germont, an ardent admirer of Violetta – Francesco Demuro (tenor); Giorgio Germont, his father – Ludovic Tézier (baritone); Gastone, Visconte de Letoirieres – Gabriele Mangione (tenor); Doctor Grenvil - Nicolas Testé (bass); Baron Douphol, an admirer of Violetta – Fabio Previati (baritone)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris/Francesco Ivan Ciampa
Stage Director: Benoît Jacquot
Set designer: Sylvain Chauvelot
Costume Designer: Christian Gasc
rec. live, Opéra Bastille, Paris, June 2014
Sound formats: PCM Stereo/Dolby Digital 5.1
Picture format: 16/9 colour.
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish
ERATO DVD 2564 616650 [145:00]

La Traviata is now recognised not merely as one of Verdi’s finest operas, but one of the lyric theatre's greatest music dramas. It is the most performed opera with Mozart’s Magic Flute coming a close second 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 across the three acts. As an appendix to this review I give something of the background to the opera and its composition.
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. The title role of Violetta in Verdi’s opera has many vocal challenges in realising this tragic story. The American diva Renée Fleming, sometime queen of the Metropolitan Opera, contends that it is the perfect role in the entire soprano lexicon and that by which most sopranos have 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. A flexible-voiced lyric soprano with good coloratura, Fleming waited until she was in her forties to assume the role on stage after triumphs in bel canto and in the classic lyric soprano repertoire including roles by Richard Strauss.

In contrast, Diana Damrau, the Violetta in this performance, excelled in material that often demanded scaling the more stratospheric vocal heights, particularly the likes of Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Magic Flute, Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos and Gilda in Rigoletto. The Queen of the Night was her signature role and which she sang in all the major opera houses of the world from 2002 onwards. Like Fleming Damrau has waited until her forties, and in her case after the birth of her two children before tackling the varied vocal demands of Violetta. Damrau did so in 2013 at the Met in a revival of Willy Decker’s production referred to below. She followed up with performances at La Scala and Covent Garden before this production in Paris. In opulent period costumes and, occasionally, a grandiose two-decker set she should have scooped the pool of plaudits. However, for me her act one, except for an on-the-nail concluding high note (CH.8), misses too many tricks. There's not enough variety of expression or vocal colour and she really looks far too healthy for an afflicted consumptive. Vocally she is better in act two (CHs. 9-17) and stands up to Germont père with vocal conviction as well as in her acting. Her singing in act three just does not cut the mustard. Her reading of the letter (CH.21) lacks the harrowing occluded tone the music and words demand. In the end I do not think she has made the transmission to the demands of this role and on this evidence will not rise to the standard that Renèe Fleming achieved after her assumption of the role at a similar age.

In the role of her suitor, I find Francesco Demura a frustrating singer and actor. He did not impress me in the performances at Verona in 2011 (review). At least his voice fills the theatre and has a not unpleasant plangent tone. However, he must learn to sing to his partner and bring more vocal expression and characterisation to his interpretations. In Verdi’s wonderful duet for the lovers in act three, Parigi, o cara (CH.23), he often barely looks at his Violetta. The best singing and interpretation among the principals in this production comes from Ludovic Tézier. Albeit looking a little young despite carrying and leaning on a stick, his rich-toned and tonally steady and expressive interpretation are a delight. His tempting of Alfredo to return to Provence is a vocal highlight (CH.18). Why he is deprived of his cabaletta defeats me. Notable among the lesser roles is the singing of Nicolas Testé as a sympathetic Doctor Grenvil and of Fabio Previati as the aged roué suitor Baron Douphol.

There are a number of idiosyncrasies in this Benoît Jacquot production and staging. Notable is the opulent bed present throughout the act one party scene. Above the pillows is a classic painting. The bed and painting reappear as an ornament in act three as the dying Violetta is consigned to a steel-framed less comfortable one. There she is tended by Cornelia Oncioiu as her maid, unaccountable blacked up; perhaps some political statement about France’s Second Empire, if so it escapes me. Other idiosyncrasies included male dancers in drag in the ballet and female bullfighters. These are minor matters compared with the previous Paris production.

Less minor was the orchestral contribution. Having recently reviewed the 2014 Glyndebourne production masterfully conducted by Mark Elder, (review) this is the ultimate antithesis. The pacing and musical nuance that Verdi created in this masterpiece is completely missing in Francesco Ivan Ciampa’s interpretation, which alone should deter any prospective purchaser.

This issue comes in at the lower price range of new issue DVDs. There's a very sparse booklet with no track-listings - merely an act-by-act synopsis in three languages and some coloured photographs.

Fiasco to triumph, the staging of 'La Traviata' in Venice in 1853 and 1854

Even before this opera, the last staged of Verdi’s great middle period trio of Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata, the composer, his fame assured, could, both artistically and financially, have afforded to relax. Giuseppina, his partner and later wife, appealed to him to do so. His artistic drive allowed for no such luxury. Whilst on a visit to Paris where the two enjoyed their life together without the intrusions at Bussetto, the composer had seen, and been impressed, by Alexander Dumas fils’s semi-autobiographical play La Dame aux camélias. This was based on the novel of the same name. The subject appealed to Verdi, but he recognised that it might have problems with the censors. Even before the choice of subject was made it was 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 settled on Dumas’s 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. He 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 singing for the eponymous soprano, when 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 and 3. 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.
La Traviata is now recognised not merely as one of Verdi’s finest operas, but one of the lyric theatre's biggest hits. The role of Violetta has many vocal as well as acting challenges. The singer of the title 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 when directed by Visconti. Other worthy interpretations include Renée Fleming herself in San Francisco alongside Villazón and Bruson (review) and at Covent Garden in 2009 with Calleja and Hampson (review), noteworthy vocal and acted portrayals. Other notable 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 Bluray 101 342). Other productions have made it onto visual media and have their virtues. Anna Netrebko, alongside an athletic Villazón, is excellent in Willy Decker’s imaginative production in updated costumes seen at Salzburg in 2006 (review). This staging of the latter production is now available in Blu-ray 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 (review).

Robert J Farr

Previous review (Blu-ray): Michael Cookson


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