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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, Aigul Akhmetshina (mezzo-soprano); Annina, her maid, Catherine Carby (soprano); Alfredo Germont, an ardent admirer, Charles Castronovo (tenor); Giorgio Germont, his father, Placido Domingo (baritone); Gastone, Visconte de Letoirieres, Thomas Atkins (tenor); Doctor Grenvil, Simon Shamambu (bass); Baron Douphol, an admirer of Violetta, Germane Alcantara (baritone)
Orchestra of The Royal Opera House, London/Antonello Manacorda
rec. live, 23 & 30 January 2019
Original Director Richard Eyre. Revival Director Andrew Sinclair. Designer, Bob Crowley
Television Director, Ross MacGibbon
Audio Formats, Dolby Digital. dts Digital Surround. 16:9 Anamorphic
Subtitles in English, German, French, Japanese and Korean
OPUS ARTE DVD OA1292D [149 mins]

As I outline in an appendix to this review La Traviata had something of a fraught gestation and birth. However, since that time the work has become one of the most performed in the lyric repertoire and every opera company in the world aspires to have a production on its books. The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, really hit dreamtime with its production in 1996 of Richard Eyres staging of the work. Under Sir George Solti’s baton and an ingénue Violetta in Angela Gheorghiu, they really hit the big time with the BBC actually changing schedules to accommodate the broadcast of a performance - a very rare occurrence for a national disaster, let alone for an opera. The production has stood the test of time and this year celebrates its Silver Jubilee. In the twenty-five years of its existence it has been filmed three times with leading casts and sopranos. Previous to this issue, and the premiere run, a further recording featuring the American diva Renée Fleming was recorded at the Royal Opera House under the baton of its Musical Director, Antonio Pappano, in 2009. The further appearance of this production on film is therefore an unusual event with pluses and drawbacks.

The soprano Ermonela Jaho first sang in this production as a replacement for Anna Netrebko in 2008 and has sung in other revivals since as the scheduled diva lead. I included her recording of Madama Butterfly, with the Royal Opera forces under their Musical Director Antonio Pappano among my personal selection of Recordings of the Year 2019 as I was so impressed by Jaho’s singing and acting in the title role - a marvellous interpretation (review). Consequently, I greatly looked forward to hearing her interpretation of Violetta in this famed production and being able to compare it directly with those of her predecessors. However, before one gets to Violetta’s appearance the listener has the sublime Verdi prelude to Act One. To my ears it is turgidly played in this performance and does not, as the best performances do, suggest to my inner mind the tragedy to come. Worse, a lack of vitality and sparkle spreads into the Brindisi, Violetta’s great È strano…Ah fors’è lui and Sempre libera - when, at last. the performance begins to light up somewhat as Jaho seems to discard the burden that was on her shoulders and the conductor’s baton. She is not helped at this stage by the somewhat leaden approach of Charles Castronovo as Alfredo; he seems overburdened by his role, although his tone, capacity for vocal expression and acting involvement all improve as the performance developed.

The biggest change to the tempo and feeling of the performance for me comes with the arrival of Placido Domingo as Alredo’s father, Germont. I have seen most of the baritone roles Domingo has essayed; none has really totally convinced me histrionically, his core vocal tone always seeming to have unevenness in places. The story here is different. His presence lights up the proceedings dramatically when he enters, moves and reacts to Violetta, and his variations of vocal tone and weight add a depth of quality to the performance significantly lacking in the first Act. These qualities certainly seem to release Jaho’s Violetta to invest far greater emotional involvement in her role, particularly in Act Three, putting it on a par with her Butterfly, which I rank as one of the best ever. Domingo has never been a slouch dramatically but has relatively rarely been so close to a role as to make me feel part of a performance. Here, however, he does so; maybe his portrayal and our ages being not far apart contribute to that? Likewise, Charles Castronovo’s acting takes on a new depth of emotional involvement in the party scene and at Violetta’s death, the latter leaving me tearful as the drama, so superbly staged by the director, evolves into its conclusion, and even Antonello Manacorda on the rostrum brings some feeling to the show - all facets which are significant by their absence in the opening act.

Robert J Farr

Appendix. The composition of La Traviata

After Rigoletto, and his fame assured, Verdi could, both artistically and financially easily have afforded to relax and his partner, later wife Giuseppina, appealed to him to do so. 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 agreed that the premiere of Il Trovatore would be 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 period. To add to the pressures on Verdi, he ended up having only six weeks between the premieres of the two diverse operas. 

While on one of his regular visits to Paris, often to see his mistress and future wife, Verdi had seen and been impressed by Alexander Dumas’ semi-autobiographical play La Dame aux camellias based on the novel of the same name. The subject greatly appealed to him as a possible opera. However, he recognised that it might present 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 their 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 and titled La Traviata. It was to be his nineteenth opera and the most contemporary subject he ever set, embattled as he constantly was in Italy 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.  However, 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 May 6th 1854 La Traviata was acclaimed with wild enthusiasm in the same city where it had earlier been a fiasco. Verdi was well pleased by the success, but particularly the circumstances and location. It was the third creation, along with Rigoletto (1851) and Il Trovatore that made the composer a household name across Europe. With the independence of Italy, when the composer was elected to the first Parliament of the independent and unoccupied state, never again did Verdi want for work or money and even his complicated domestic arrangements, when he brought his mistress to live in his house, did not compromise his reputation as the foremost Italian composer of all time, a fact recognised by the crowds in the streets of Milan at his death.

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