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A partial survey of recordings of Verdi’s La traviata
By Ralph Moore

Bowing to pressure from gently insistent friends, I am returning to this opera and providing a more extensive survey of it, with the proviso that I am still covering in the twenty-three below only a fraction of the recordings available. As with my recent survey of recordings of Don Giovanni, the outcome regarding recommendations is a foregone conclusion, as I included two of Callas’ recordings of La traviata in my “Untouchables” survey with the following comment:

“Navigating the sea of over 250 recordings is tricky, a task compounded by the oft-repeated truism that the role of Violetta requires a singer with three different voices, one for each Act. There are of course estimable recordings from Caballé, Cotrubas, Moffo, Sills, Freni, Sutherland, Lorengar et al in superior sound, but my conviction is that, as with Tosca, no-one has pierced the heart of this character like Callas, so I recommend recordings of her which despite suffering the double disadvantage of being both live and mono, are still very listenable and offer an experience unparalleled for depth of emotion. I am unable to decide between two; both are as close as we shall ever get to the-recording-that-never-was-but-should-have-been. Much of what is true of one performance is true of the other, as they occurred within three months of each other.”

My unwavering devotion to the supremacy of Callas’ interpretations notwithstanding, there are other recordings which have much to offer. This is, however, a notoriously difficult opera to bring off satisfactorily in the recording studio. I have included most of the major studio recordings but there hasn’t been one of note in the last thirty years and I have not reviewed recordings by Tebaldi, Gruberova or Scotto’s later recording for Muti on the grounds that either their voices were inadequate (as with the latter two singers) or unsuited to the role of Violetta (Tebaldi). Scotto is hard and glassy of tone and has her usual problems with top notes, Tebaldi is too hearty, just as she is for Madama Butterfly and is also poorly partnered – and I simply cannot abide Gruberova’s acidulous soprano and gulpy phrasing. Miscasting can be a problem, too: often excellent singers can simply sound misplaced in their roles, examples being Sherrill Milnes and Mario Zanasi who sing beautifully but sound too young and virile for the role of Alfredo's father, or Richard Tucker, also singing wonderfully but sounding too old to be Violetta’s young admirer - and so on. As I say below, Germont does not by any means have to be an old codger but he should at least sound paternal.

At the turn of the 20th century into the 21st, there were three major sopranos singing Violetta on the international stage: Angela Gheorghiu, who is represented below in a live recording but is inadequately partnered, the now-retired Renée Fleming of whom there are three unofficial live recordings but no studio account, and Anna Netrebko, who similarly left a handful of live recordings, including one on DG which was made before she started venturing into heavier repertoire and ruined a voice already beset with so many technical failings and singing in such poor Italian that I do not consider her to rank alongside the best of her predecessors; as such, she does not feature below.

As a result, I consider nothing recorded this century – not, I think, that anything of note is being neglected. Nothing in the last generation has caught my attention and that is surely for good reason. I heard a fine Violetta at Covent Garden from Dinara Alieva and Charles Castronovo a couple of years ago but no live or studio recording ensued. The Violettas of Gheorghiu, Fleming and Netrebko are now things of the past and there are not too many heirs apparent of which I am aware – certainly not in the sphere of recordings.

The Recordings
Ettore Panizza – 1935 (live; mono) Naxos
Metropolitan Opera & Chorus
Violetta Valéry - Rosa Ponselle
Flora Bervoix - Elda Vettori
Annina - Henriette Wakefield
Alfredo Germont - Frederick Jagel
Giorgio Germont - Lawrence Tibbett
Gastone - Angelo Bada
Dottore Grenvil - Paolo Ananian
Barone Douphol - Alfredo Gandolfi
Marchese d'Obigny - Millo Picco

This is the classic 1935 radio broadcast recording of Rosa Ponselle singing a signature role.

The sound here, transferred from 78s, is necessarily and inevitably pretty dim and crackly but even at this comparatively late stage of her truncated career, the opulence and expressiveness of Ponselle's matchless soprano come across clearly and continue to amaze. Her voice was a miracle of ductile gold, always full, never harsh, flexible and enormous throughout its compass; the combination of sheer amplitude and delicacy always amazes. Her range was phenomenal and perhaps only Callas and Muzio shared it; she was able to encompass all the demands of Bellinian bel canto, the Verdian spinto idiom and verismo with equal ease and success. The joy is that she shares the stage here with the greatest of American baritones, Lawrence Tibbett, whose rich, vibrant voice was of extraordinary beauty and also possessed the unusual and highly expressive capacity to vary its vibrato at will. American tenor Frederick Jagel has a slightly plaintive tone but is really very good, even if he is not on the same exalted level as his colleagues

I love the Milton Cross commentaries with their compulsory plugs for "the presenters, the makers of Listerine Antiseptic" and an historical commentary, some self-congratulatory reminiscence and vocal illustrations from the great Geraldine Farrar, who accompanies herself on a little piano, showing her to be still in excellent voice.

If you love voices, it is quite possible to be wholly seduced by the quality of the singing here such as to forget - well, almost - the inadequacy of the recorded sound. It helps that Panizza's conducting style is so similar to that of Toscanini: swift, intense, deeply expressive and at times highly energised.

I am not usually a proponent of the "best ever" style of reviewing, but there is no doubt in my mind that this is the best sung La traviata ever; just steel yourself to tolerate the primitive sound until the magic takes over.

Arturo Toscanini – 1946 (live composite radio broadcast; mono) RCA; Pristine
NBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus
Violetta Valéry - Licia Albanese
Flora Bervoix - Maxine Stellman
Annina - Johanne Moreland
Alfredo Germont - Jan Peerce
Giorgio Germont - Robert Merrill
Gastone - John Garris
Dottore Grenvil - Arthur Newman
Barone Douphol - George Cehanovsky
Marchese d'Obigny - Paul Dennis

It is one of the great blessings of opera history that Toscanini had so long a career and was in a position to commit his Verdi interpretations onto disc with a first-rate orchestra, excellent singers and (for its time) perfectly good mono sound, now much improved first by the latest RCA remastering but then even further enhanced by Pristine, whose recent issue affords both much greater warmth and enhanced clarity; the RCA issue is perfectly listenable but thinner and more distant. There is now a minimum of distortion and virtually no hiss in Pristine’s XR remastering and as well as a few coughs you can hear Toscanini humming and singing along from time to time con gusto. That is the release to have if you can stretch to the extra cost.

Toscanini knew Verdi well, played through his music with him and must be credited with both authority and authenticity when it comes to matters of tempi and fidelity to the score; this is as close as we shall ever get to hearing what Verdi himself demanded in the theatre (even if he did not always get it). The performance is over twenty minutes faster than Santini’s seven years later but never sounds rushed, just sparkling.

Albanese will never be my favourite soprano as I find her tone to be sometimes querulous and matronly but she is certainly immersed in the idiom and has all the notes even if I don’t find much allure in her manner. She throws herself into the role – as, in fact, do all the singers here - and finds real pathos in “Ah, dite alla giovine”. Much more to my taste, however, are the virile tenor of Jan Peerce and Robert Merrill’s bronze baritone. Despite possessing the most beautiful baritone of his era, Merrill could be a stolid singer, but apparently he began to inject more emotion into his performances after being fixed by Toscanini's gimlet eye and asked, "Have you ever been a father?" On Merrill replying, "No, Maestro", Toscanini harrumphed, "It sounds like it" and thereafter Merrill tried harder to sound truly paternal; it shows in this performance. Peerce puts many a modern tenor to shame with the sheer heft and elan of his singing but he also manages some tenderness in “Parigi, o cara”.

You may hear extracts from the rehearsals for this live, concert performance on YouTube and the Music & Arts label have issued the dress rehearsal which has claims to being even more spontaneous and energised than the performance itself.

Giuseppe Antonicelli – 1949 (live; mono) Naxos
Metropolitan Opera & Chorus
Violetta Valéry - Eleanor Steber
Flora Bervoix - Thelma Votipka
Annina - Thelma Altman
Alfredo Germont - Giuseppe di Stefano
Giorgio Germont - Robert Merrill
Gastone - Leslie Chabay
Dottore Grenvil - Osie Hawkins
Barone Douphol - George Cehanovsky
Marchese d'Obigny - Lawrence Davidson

Despite Naxos’ remastering, the sound here is rather distant and boxy, inevitably confining it to the “historical” category, but devotees of vintage recordings will listen with a will, especially when the singing is as good as it is here. Steber had a wonderful voice, and she is partnered by two equally gifted and eminent artists in Di Stefano and Merrill, both in their youthful prime.

Steber’s legato is a dream and she is among the most touching of Violettas, alongside Callas, Cotrubas and Moffo for pathos and poignancy. She has the same ability as Callas and Ponselle to plunge into her lower register to heart-stopping effect and her top notes are secure, if sometimes a little shrill. Di Stefano is ardent, lyrical and possessed of endless breath for the long phrases, where he frequently employs the messa di voce, pianissimi and diminuendi for which he was famous in his prime. Although he is now best known for his recordings in partnership with Callas, his best vocal period was in fact in the late 1940’s such as here when he was still in his late twenties. It’s a pity that he goes a bit flat at the end of “Un di felice” but this is live, after all, and he makes up for it elsewhere. By this, still early, stage of his career, Merrill sounds a little darker and more mature of voice than he did for Toscanini but has also absorbed the lessons of stagecraft and found more expressivity in his delivery.

I know nothing of the conductor but he conducts carefully with great consideration for his singers – and let’s face it: with voices like these you give them all the space in the world.

The sound, while still vintage, is so much better than the 1935 Panizza/Ponselle recording and the voices are almost as good – perhaps better, in the case of Di Stefano - so this for me becomes the preferred historical version.

Gabriele Santini – 1953 (studio; mono) Warner Fonit; Regis; Naxos; Pristine
Orchestra & Chorus - RAI Torino
Violetta Valéry - Maria Callas
Flora Bervoix - Ede Marietti Gandolfo
Annina - Ines Marietti
Alfredo Germont - Francesco Albanese
Giorgio Germont - Ugo Savarese
Gastone - Mariano Caruso
Dottore Grenvil - Mario Zorgniotti
Barone Douphol - Alberto Albertini
Marchese d'Obigny - Mario Zorgniotti

Wonderful as she is vocally here, Callas is not interpretatively quite yet the artist she later became in this role, yet she is already doing things with the role of Violetta that no singer has done since. Unfortunately, contractual obligation not to re-record Violetta for three years after this deprived us of a studio EMI set with Callas and here her co-singers are inadequate – not exactly terrible but neither are they very interesting. Albanese is a dull Alfredo who croons through his nose without sounding much involved; the difference when Callas picks up and takes over the famous “Libiamo” melody is almost comical and you notice how often the sheer amplitude of her voice drowns out her co-singers. Ugo Savarese sounds marginally more interested but delivers a generally unsteady, underpowered and rather mannered performance – and he is another singer who seems frightened or unable to let his voice ring out. Once again, as with the vintage Toscanini recording, Pristine’s superb XR remastering allows us to hear both the merits and demerits of this recording more clearly than ever.

The difference in manner between the two conductors could hardly be more marked: Santini is all honied phrasing and swooning indulgence, whereas Toscanini is all drive and passion. There is room for both, I guess and Santini’s more relaxed manner certainly does not compromise Callas’ performance.

My practice with this set is to listen exclusively to those excerpts where Callas is singing simply to revel in the youthful freshness of her voice, with its mostly secure top notes (including a top E to crown the conclusion to Act 1), liquid portamenti and resonant lower register, especially as, on repeated listening, Santini’s sustained dilatoriness can become wearing. Despite the excellence of Callas’ contribution, this cannot be a prime recommendation.

Carlo Maria Giulini – 1955 (live; mono) EMI/Warner
Orchestra & Chorus - Teatro alla Scala
Violetta Valéry - Maria Callas
Flora Bervoix - Silvana Zanolli
Annina - Luisa Mandelli
Alfredo Germont - Giuseppe di Stefano
Giorgio Germont - Ettore Bastianini
Gastone - Giuseppe Zampieri
Dottore Grenvil - Silvio Maionica
Barone Douphol - Arturo La Porta
Marchese d'Obigny - Antonio Zerbini

EMi resisted having to do with unofficial studio recordings of Callas until 1989 when they remastered and issued this "pirate" - perhaps a better word is "private" - recording under their own label and there are now three almost equally desirable live, mono recordings of Callas' Violetta, here in May 1955 at La Scala, and two in 1958 in March in Lisbon and June in London respectively. Other live recordings are even less desirable sonically and/or find Callas less well partnered. People tend to think first of Tosca as Callas' calling card, but she did not in fact like the character and the frequency with which Callas performed La traviata - 63, exceeded only by the 92 of Norma - gives some idea of the level of Callas’ identification with Violetta and of her activity in response to the demand of major opera house to hear her in a signature role.

All three recordings offer the same disadvantage of harsh, peaky sound and the similar advantage of a starry cast, sympathetic conductors and Callas caught on the wing in finest voice. The Lisbon and London performances emerge very well on the Myto label and the remastered Warner edition in the new "Callas Live" box set of the former is now marginally cleaner and clearer, but all three are eminently listenable with a will and those who declare them otherwise obviously have no tolerance for anything other than modern stereo sound. For the forbearing listener the performances are of such quality that such petty technical flaws can be forgotten, but it must be admitted that the sound here deteriorates from CD2 onwards and continues to worsen.

Personally, I prefer Valletti's elegant Alfredo in London to Kraus' reedy tone and Di Stefano's more impassioned, gung-ho approach but all three are fine and there's not much to choose between Sereni and Zanasi as Germont. Both have neat, well-schooled, Italianate baritones and if they sound rather young that's no great handicap as there's no reason why Germont should be an old buffer; he could be only in his early forties. I have in the past unkindly called Bastianini's manner as Alfredo's father "boorish"; he certainly sings through the role plainly and sternly, without much tenderness or subtlety but the sheer quality of his dark resonant baritone has its obvious attractions.

Callas is wonderful in all three. She is on record as having complained that critics seemed not to realise that some of the vocal frailty in her portrayal was the deliberate result of her characterisation of a woman dying of consumption and not a failing voice. At the very least, she was smart enough - and she was very smart - to turn her vocal trials to advantage as Violetta and no artist except perhaps Cotrubas manages to be so touching and vulnerable, spinning long lines on a thread of tone, deploying that downward portamento to heart-rending effect and injecting a note of supreme despair into her sufferings.

What's more, with the EMI set you get a current rarity: a complete quadrilingual libretto.

Tullio Serafin – 1955 (studio; mono) Testament; Naxos
Orchestra & Chorus - Teatro alla Scala
Violetta Valéry - Antonietta Stella
Flora Bervoix - Elvira Galassi
Annina - Luisa Mandelli
Alfredo Germont - Giuseppe di Stefano
Giorgio Germont - Tito Gobbi
Gastone - Giuseppe Zampieri
Dottore Grenvil - Silvio Maionica
Barone Douphol - William Dickie
Marchese d'Obigny - Nicola Zaccaria

Callas was reportedly furious with Serafin for recording La traviata when contractual complications prevented him casting her as Violetta, as until they fell out, he was her musical mentor. In a sense, her fury was vindicated, because neither of Serafin’s studio recordings is especially successful compared with what could have been achieved if she had been able to take part but this is much the better of the two. I like Stella’s powerful, husky, spinto soprano; she is a very accomplished artist and there is no doubt that she can cope with the demands of all three acts even if the occasional top note is stretched or snatched. However, there is nothing very individual about her Violetta, as she does not have Callas’ ability to colour her voice and there are few touches of the kind Callas introduces which make you catch your breath – in fact her characterisation is really quite bland. As he did for Antonicelli and Giulini, Di Stefano makes an impetuous and boyish Alfredo – perhaps the best on disc if you value a more unbuttoned quality over refinement. He is still in good voice and sounds as if he is really enjoying himself, he brings such passion and release to his singing but sometimes he is close to overdoing it. His “Parigi, o cara” is perhaps one of the most beautiful and delicate ever. The casting of Gobbi as Germont is questionable; he sounds often hard and dry but as always, he delivers the text with great subtlety and when he gets into his exchange with Violetta, he softens his tone to sing in a winning mezza voce.

It’s a pity that the set was made in mono at a time when Decca were already recording in stereo, so this is inevitably a bit harsh and boxy, with some overload which no remastering can remedy. Serafin is as refined, flexible and sensitive as ever, so everything is properly paced and he has a proper sense of Verdian line, knowing when to lean into a phrase or apply rubato without overdoing it – the affectionately played overture immediately displays those qualities. This is primarily valuable for Di Stefano; if only that dream-team recording had been made in stereo…

Pierre Monteux – 1956 (studio; stereo*/mono) RCA*; Testament; Andromeda
Orchestra& Chorus - Teatro dell'Opera di Roma
Violetta Valéry - Rosanna Carteri
Flora Bervoix - Lydia Marimpietri
Annina - Rina Alessandri
Alfredo Germont - Cesare Valletti
Giorgio Germont - Leonard Warren
Gastone - Glauco Scarlini
Dottore Grenvil - Dario Caselli
Barone Douphol - Arturo La Porta
Marchese d'Obigny - Leonardo Monreale

Reviews I had read elsewhere before I listened to this for the first time had led me to believe that it was something of a disaster: draggy tempi and singers out of sorts, hampered by Monteux’s slow speeds. Monteux made few opera recordings but given my attachment to his Manon, I found it difficult to believe that this one could be that bad, even if he was better-known for conducting French opera and I believe that this is his only complete Italian opera. However, the two operas inhabit much the same demi-monde so I should not have been surprised to find that my subsequent listening experience was in fact very pleasurable. It is true that Monteux takes very slowly and deliberately the Act 1 party-music waltz which forms the back ground to Violetta’s and Alfredo’s first, tentative conversation but I find that works rather well, especially as, contrary to those denigratory reviews, I find Valletti and Carteri to be in excellent voice, and it sounds as if they are cautiously sounding each other out – which they are. He is suave, delicate, nuanced, yet passionate and he has a naturally beautiful tone; she has a rich, pure timbre and displays splendid evenness throughout her range. The depth of her sound is confirmed by the resonance of her speaking voice when she reads Germont’s letter. “Ah, dite alla giovine” is especially beautifully negotiated, as is “Addio del passato”; indeed, she is mostly very touching even if she sometimes lacks the intensity Callas brings to key moments – which is hardly surprising. About Warren, I was at first not so sure; he sounds aggressive on his entry – though that is perhaps dramatically apt - and there is a throaty edge in his tone but at least he doesn’t sound too young to be Alfredo’s father and he soon warms up, softening his manner for “Pura siccome un angelo” and thereafter singing most feelingly and tenderly. His voice sounds right for both his exchanges with Violetta and with Alfredo his son, which is not always the case in recordings.

The supporting cast and chorus are excellent in that full-bodied Italianate manner and if they are a bit raucous and ill-disciplined in the bull-fighting entertainment preceding the card scene, that gives proceedings a drunken party atmosphere. However, I can understand that some feel Monteux really does plod here; it doesn’t bother me.

Only the remastered RCA issue is in stereo as apparently it was recorded in both formats – the others are mono with a hint of overload but generally quite acceptable, even though I recommend the new remaster. This was a pleasant surprise.

Franco Ghione – 1958 (live; mono) EMI; Pearl; Myto; Warner
Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional
Chorus - Teatro Nacional São Carlos (Lisboa)
Violetta Valéry - Maria Callas
Flora Bervoix - Laura Zannini
Annina - Maria Cristina de Castro
Alfredo Germont - Alfredo Kraus
Giorgio Germont - Mario Sereni
Gastone - Piero De Palma
Dottore Grenvil - Alessandro Maddalena
Barone Douphol - Álvaro Malta
Marchese d'Obigny - Vito Susca

This is one of the two sets I first take down from my shelves when I want to hear Callas' incomparable characterisation of Violetta. I had previously always favoured the London performance given three months later until I encountered this, newly remastered set by Warner, and I still prefer Valletti’s purer, more boyish tenor to Kraus’ reedier timbre, but Kraus is also in best voice here, the sound is marginally better now in Warner’s remastering, whereas it was previously hopelessly crumbly, and Callas is slightly steadier and more secure, too - though there’s not much in it. “Ah, dite alla giovine” is spun on a thread of sound, suffused with conflicted emotion – just one example of Callas’ supremacy in portraying the Fallen Woman as a deeply tragic figure, not just a “Tart with a Heart”. Sereni sings neatly without much involvement; there are the usual imperfections and imprecisions associated with live performance and an audible prompter, but…

Nicola Rescigno – 1958 (live; mono) Arkadia; Melodram; Myto; IDIS
Orchestra & Chorus - Covent Garden
Violetta Valéry - Maria Callas
Flora Bervoix - Marie Collier
Annina - Leah Roberts
Alfredo Germont - Cesare Valletti
Giorgio Germont - Mario Zanasi
Gastone - Dermot Troy
Dottore Grenvil - David Kelly
Barone Douphol - Forbes Robinson
Marchese d'Obigny - Ronald Lewis

This as close as we shall ever get to the-recording-that-never-was-but-should-have-been; I would add only that it would be dishonest to fail to remark that Callas' top notes are indeed a bit screamy - but they pale into insignificance when set against the depth and brilliance of her Violetta. She maintains such poise and control in key moments such as “Ah, dite alla giovine” that it is easy to forgive the odd instance of vocal frailty - of which, in any case, there are surprisingly few. She is generally in very good voice and for once worthily partnered; Valletti, especially, is in great shape: youthful, boyish, unaffected and impassioned. He never makes an ugly sound but there is no shortage of commitment to his Alfredo. It is true that Zanasi sounds far too young as Germont - turn to Bruscantini for an authentic sounding father (see below my review of the Gardelli set with Freni and Bonisolli) - but he sings honestly and expressively with far more sensitivity than either the detached Sereni or the boorish Bastianini (much as I love both in other roles and recordings). Rescigno supports Callas unobtrusively with flexible, unhurried tempi and his calm control obviously allowed the diva to feel as comfortable as possible.

The sound in my IDIS issue is perfectly adequate: a bit hissy and congested but, unlike the La Scala recording, consistent throughout. The Myto version is fine, too. Avoid the ICA Classics issue, however, which is in inferior sound: murky and over-processed.

P.S. A mild curiosity: just after the overture has begun, you can hear Callas warming up quietly in the wings, accompanying the orchestra. Presumably this is something the mike picked up but the audience could not. This detail is not audible, however, in the disappointing ICA label issue, which has simply shaved off the top frequencies with the result that it sounds opaque, muddied and veiled - you are listening through a blanket of filtering. Nor is there more ambiance, despite their claims to have engineered an improved sense of space; the Myto issue, for example, has more hiss and rumble but you can hear the details and upper frequencies of the performance.

Tullio Serafin – 1958 (studio; stereo) EMI
Orchestra & Chorus - Teatro dell'Opera di Roma
Violetta Valéry - Victoria de los Ángeles
Flora Bervoix - Santa Chissari
Annina - Silvia Bertona
Alfredo Germont - Carlo Del Monte
Giorgio Germont - Mario Sereni
Gastone - Sergio Tedesco
Dottore Grenvil - Bonaldo Giaiotti
Barone Douphol - Vico Polotto
Marchese d'Obigny - Silvio Maionica

Of the three lead singers here, I am particularly fond of Mario Sereni, whose dark, smoky timbre, fast vibrato and expressive way with the text are all very appealing, even if I accept that sometimes his top notes are a tad constricted. He also sounds more involved here than he did with Callas in Lisbon. About del los Ángeles, I am more ambivalent; I find her relentlessly plaintive, droopy manner more wearing than affecting and her top notes in “Sempre libera” are thin and scratchy. The music of Act 1 really does not suit her voice, whereas of course the pathos of Act 3 is much more apt for her talents. Others, I know, are charmed by her but I do not share that fascination. Carlo Del Monte was never a front-rank tenor; he has a strange, throaty, occluded tonal quality to his voice, rather like Richard Tucker with a bad cold and I do not hear a hot-headed young lover in his performance. His singing is so ingolato (bottled) in passages of sustained declamation in the card scene that it is almost painful.

Serafin’s direction is exemplary and the sound is good for its era but the deficiencies in the two main roles disqualify this for me.
Fernando Previtali – 1960 (studio; stereo) RCA; Alto
Orchestra & Chorus - Teatro dell'Opera di Roma
Violetta Valéry - Anna Moffo
Flora Bervoix - Anna Reynolds
Annina - Liliana Poli
Alfredo Germont - Richard Tucker
Giorgio Germont - Robert Merrill
Gastone - Piero De Palma
Dottore Grenvil - Franco Ventriglia
Barone Douphol - Franco Calabrese
Marchese d'Obigny - Vito Susca
When I first discovered this 1960 recording, it seemed to me to be the best studio version I had yet heard. Moffo is fleet, agile and silvery - Caballé, by comparison, as is often the case in early Verdi roles, sometimes sounds a little too mature, despite some lovely coloratura - and she acts wonderfully with her voice, whispering the letter scene - even if she cannot rival Callas here. She is still in the best stage of her career, whereby her lower register comes through and the huskiness which robbed her of her middle voice has not yet materialised. True, she scoops a bit too much for my taste but otherwise I love her voice; she comes as close as anyone to both mastering all the notes and staying wholly in character, finding great pathos in the tragic moments. Merrill is considerably more interesting than Milnes, who simply sings nicely and mostly loudly, and he had continuously deepened his interpretation since Toscanini first coached him (see above). I can understand why some prefer Bergonzi's elegance as Alfredo to Tucker's rather stentorian manner - so do I – especially as Tucker hardly sounds youthful but his is nonetheless a skilful, finely judged assumption of the role, very musically phrased, and his Italian is, as ever, first-class. He is not as elegant as Bergonzi but he has more power and is still able to fine down his tone when required, as in “Parigi, o cara”. What a pity, then, that his cabaletta “O mio rimorso” is cut.

I very much like Previtali’s relaxed, affectionate conducting which preserves the long melodic line essential to Verdi and doesn’t pull the tempi about unnecessarily – yet he still injects tension and momentum into the party scenes without overdoing it like Prêtre and uses rubato sparingly but precisely. The "Living Stereo" sound is excellent for its age, if slightly over-resonant, and clear enough for us occasionally to hear the Rome traffic accelerating in the background. The documentation in the RCA issue is full and interesting with a full Italian libretto and English translation. While the singing here is superb, I would always first choose Callas, but this is a recording that offers a very satisfying ensemble performance in which everything works.
John Pritchard – 1962 (studio; stereo) Decca
Orchestra & Chorus - Maggio Musicale Fiorentino
Violetta Valéry - Joan Sutherland
Flora Bervoix - Miti Truccato Pace
Annina - Dora Carral
Alfredo Germont - Carlo Bergonzi
Giorgio Germont - Robert Merrill
Gastone - Piero De Palma
Dottore Grenvil - Giovanni Foiani
Barone Douphol - Paolo PedanI
Marchese d'Obigny - Silvio Maionica
This is the first complete recording, free of any cuts.

Its stereo sound is remarkably good for its age – Decca were so reliable – and its technical aspects are matched by the depth and richness of the sound made by the Florentine orchestra – that you can hear immediately in Pritchard’s flexible conducting of the prelude and the vivacious party music which ensues, complete with “rhubarb, rhubarb” crowd noises and a splendidly enthusiastic chorus. I find his non-interventionist direction exemplary throughout.

The usual, but almost invariably justified accusation against Sutherland of having poor diction does indeed apply here but I think that fault has been exaggerated and accept that the roundness of her tone necessitated some neglect of pointed consonants. In the end, you either respond to her unusual, distinctive timbre, or you don’t. I occasionally object to the way she moons and “lows” in the lower regions of her voice and “swoons and scoops” up the scale but there is no denying her extraordinary power and virtuosity in alt. For many years I was convinced that she sang her top As on “Croce” flat, but I think that must have been my pressing, equipment or ears, as on the CD reissue they sound fine when tested against a pitch pipe, so I don’t know what happened there and happily retract. In the end, this is more about mesmerising singing than vivid characterisation; for that, you turn to Callas, because Sutherland’s Violetta is little different from her Lucia in personality. She is very strongly partnered by two of the greatest post-war singers in Bergonzi and Merrill and the supporting cast features a few rightly celebrated names, too.

Bergonzi sounds young, even boyish and passionate, his neat vocal production and fast vibrato permitting considerable expressive variety and sensitivity, from the sweetly enamoured to the painfully anguished. Just occasionally he is dwarfed by the sheer amplitude of Sutherland’s soprano but that doesn’t happen too often. He is considerably more expressive and authentically Verdian in style than Sutherland who tends to droop at the end of phrases, as in their final duet. His only flaw is that which eventually blighted his singing in latter years; already there are hints of flatness and strain on top notes, evident on the concluding D flat of his Act 2 cabaletta “O mio rimorso!”

This Merrill’s fourth appearance in this survey alone in a role which fitted his voice perfectly and I won’t reiterate his virtues; he is a top Germont in anyone’s list even if he, like Sutherland relied more on vocal splendour than dramatic intensity.

This La traviata primarily for Sutherland fans and canary-fanciers in general as it does not deliver the complete theatrical package.

Antonino Votto – 1962 (studio; stereo) DG
Orchestra & Chorus - Teatro alla Scala
Violetta Valery - Renata Scotto
Flora Bervoix - Giuliana Tavolaccini
Annina - Armanda Bonato
Alfredo Germont - Gianni Raimondi
Giorgio Germont - Ettore Bastianini
Gastone - Franco Ricciardi
Dottore Grenvil - Silvio Maionica
Barone Douphol - Giuseppe Morresi
Marchese d'Obigny - Virgilio Carbonari

I returned to this recording at the request of a reader once I had posted this survey, who suggested that while her later recording under Muti was problematic, perhaps I had unfairly overlooked this one.

I still find Scotto somewhat shrill, glassy and unvarying of tone but it is true that her voice was in far better condition than it was nearly two decades later and she is of course a fine vocal actress who even occasionally deploys something like a lower register. Her finest moments are in such music as Violetta is given in “Addio del passato”, where she is genuinely moving. Having said that, her attempts to swell the top As in the concluding “Ah! tutto, tutto finì” from piano to forte are not entirely successful; she is by no means technically flawless.

Bastianini has a glorious voice, of course, but he sings unremittingly loudly and aggressively, conveying little of capacity for tenderness and compassion which eventually causes Germont père to soften. In his first duet with Violetta, he exclaims “Sì, sì, sì!” as if summoning troops into battle. ”Di Provenza al mar” is similarly stentorian and even a bit rough; I find Bastianini much more convincing in the heroic Verdi and verismo roles than as a supplicant father.

Raimondi is as he always was, a good, dependable, but essentially second-rank tenor compared with more illustrious contemporaries. He is youthful and passionate but his tone can become a little throttled as he ascends the stave.

Votto’s direction is not especially interesting or vital but he was a real pro who knew the music inside out and completely idiomatic.

This is a pleasing account but in comparison with the very best, it is still wanting.

Georges Prêtre – 1967 (studio; stereo) RCA
Orchestra & Chorus - RCA Italiana
Violetta Valéry - Montserrat Caballé
Flora Bervoix - Dorothy Krebill
Annina - Nancy Stokes
Alfredo Germont - Carlo Bergonzi
Giorgio Germont - Sherrill Milnes
Gastone - Fernando Iacopucci
Dottore Grenvil - Harold Enns
Barone Douphol - Gene Boucher
Marchese d'Obigny - Thomas Jamerson

Bob Farr reviewed this back in 2006 and despite remarking upon the “superb singing” and good quality could not recommend it. I quote here the essence of his verdict:

“Given the vocal virtues of the principals, it is appropriate to ask why this well recorded performance does not rank alongside the all-time great recorded operas. The answer is as depressing as it is simple, the conducting of Georges Prêtre which varies between leaden tempi and periods of frenetic attack. He lacks that feeling for Verdian line and melody and the ability to realise the emotions in the music that Gardelli on the Arts Music set (see review) has in abundance.”

It is true that Prêtre could be an erratic, wilful conductor but also presided over some highly satisfactory performances, and whether it was live or in the studio, one never knew which conductor would turn up. Thus, the overture sounds fine but then suddenly he gabbles the party music, then starts pulling the tempi about. The result for some is that they cannot stand what they hear as choppy, insensitive conducting. I have to say that I can summon considerable tolerance for it because I am so diverted by the standard of the singing of the three distinguished principals here, but there is no denying that Prêtre’s contribution represents the biggest potential drawback. There are warning signs when he slows down alarmingly in the middle of “Un di felice”, the first stanza of Alfredo’s sparring Act 1 conversation with Violetta, then speeds up illogically on her entry, and so it continues.

In many ways, the young Caballé is an ideal Violetta, totally secure vocally, fully in character and simply radiating star quality. Fluent runs, coruscating coloratura, secure, fluting top notes, breath-taking pianissimi, plangent, long-breathed phrasing with sustained legato, melting tone, power a-plenty - it’s all there and she easily encompasses the diverse vocal challenges of the three acts. “Ah, dite alla giovine” is simply exquisite. My only reservation is that the characteristics of her voice somewhat preclude her from sounding like an ingenue; she is a little mature. Bergonzi is if anything better than he was for Pritchard five years earlier: more secure up top, less overpowered by his soprano and as elegant and stylish as ever.

Milnes’ virtues and disadvantages are very similar to those of Robert Merrill, in that he wields his baritone like a bludgeon – you can just hear him thinking “I have a beautiful voice and I’m not afraid to use it.” As a result, he sounds more like a young stud then a doting pater familias and rarely tones it down; when he shouts “Piangi!” it sounds more like an order to Violetta to get on her knees – but it’s a lovely massacre.

This was the set whereby I came to know this opera and I therefore have an irrational attachment to it. Nonetheless its manifest virtues can hardly fail to delight all but those whose delicate sensibilities cannot withstand some gung-ho conducting and singing from Prêtre and Milnes respectively. I would never want to be without Caballé’s Violetta, however.
Lorin Maazel – 1968 (studio; stereo) Decca
Orchestra & Chorus - Deutsche Oper (Berlin)
Violetta Valéry - Pilar Lorengar
Flora Bervoix - Stefania Malagù
Annina - Mirella Fiorentini
Alfredo Germont - Giacomo Aragall
Giorgio Germont - Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
Gastone - Pier Francesco Poli
Dottore Grenvil - Giovanni Foiani
Barone Douphol - Virgilio Carbonari
Marchese d'Obigny - Silvio Maionica

I reviewed this a few years ago and reproduce that review here:
There are two possible caveats regarding appreciation of this set, so let’s address those first. One is the nature of Pilar Lorengar’s soprano, which has not so much a flap in the vibrato as a fast shimmer in the tone which some find disturbing and others attractive, adding to the vulnerability of her sound, ideal for the depiction of the fragile heroine. I like it, especially as otherwise her tone is naturally beautiful and her intonation unerring. The second issue is the suitability of Fischer-Dieskau’s baritone to portraying Italian “paternalistic” roles, as per Giorgio Germont here. Even some of his fans balk at his venturing here; in his thirties he got away with some Wagnerian bass-baritone roles such as his early Dutchman for Konwitschny and others can tolerate his Rodrigo in Solti’s “Don Carlo” while conceding that for all his sensitivity and intelligence his was never the right, vibrant timbre to do justice to Verdi’s long, cantilena line; as such, it is, for example, probably best to pass over his ill-advised Macbeth for Gardelli. Within the limitations of his voice, he is predictably nuanced and sympathetic here, even if the gravitas associated with a rounder, truly resonant baritone of the Merrill-Milnes-Manuguerra type is missing; his windy top notes are far less satisfying than the pathos and delicacy of his first confrontation with Violetta, where Lorengar, too, is as touching as Cotrubas.

Concerning the other principal, the under-recorded tenor Giacomo Aragall, there is surely less debate. He has a lovely voice, a ringing top B and an easy, youthful manner, even if he tends to lack subtleties that Bergonzi brings to the role of Alfredo. Maazel’s conducting is very fine, too: flexible, impassioned and extraordinarily attuned to, and supportive of his singers. The analogue sound is excellent, and the score only slightly cut; the tenor and baritone each get a verse of their usually cut cabalettas.

I advise sampling before you buy to discover if either of the potential drawbacks mentioned above bothers you; otherwise, I recommend this a wholly viable account of one of Verdi’s most popular operas which has, paradoxically, proved more elusive on record. My personal favourites remain either of Callas’ live 1958 recordings in Lisbon and London and Caballé’s studio recording conducted by a rather hard-pressing Prêtre, but this one deserves an honourable place on the shelves, too.

Jean Bobescu - 1968 (studio; stereo) World of Opera

Orchestra & Chorus of the Rumanian Opera of Bucharest
Violetta Valery - Virginia Zeani
Flora Bervoix - Elisabeta Neculce-Cartis
Annina - Elena Simionescu
Alfredo Germont - Ion Buzea
Giorgio Germont - Nicolae Herlea
Gastone - Vasile Moldoveanu
Dottore Grenvil - Nicolae Rafael
Barone Douphol - Constantin Dumitri
Marchese d'Obigny - Valentin Loghin

Apart from excellent, slightly over-resonant but spacious sound and expertly judged conducting, its chief attractions reside in the contributions of two great singers. Violetta was a signature role for the celebrated Romanian soprano Virginia Zeani - she reportedly sang the role 648 times! – and as she didn’t make many commercial recordings, this one becomes all the more valuable. Her highly individual voice has a smoky, slightly husky timbre with a developed lower register into which she frequently plunges to thrilling effect; her characterisation of Violetta pulls in the listener in a manner excelled only by Callas and perhaps Moffo. She traces the development of Violetta from worldly, yet heartsick, courtesan to noble sacrificial victim to desperate invalid with an unerring dramatic sense and exquisite vocalisation. Her reading of Germont’s letter and “Addio del passato” are deeply moving; she is almost as heart-breaking as Callas at her best – and the way she swells the top G before “Ah! gran Dio, morir si giovine” is magical.

She is matched by another somewhat neglected Romanian singer, the great baritone Nicolae Herlea who delivers a beautifully sung, authoritatively acted Germont. He possessed an authentically Italianate baritone, dark and brilliant; “Pura siccome un angelo” is sung with surpassing smoothness of line and legato and “Di Provenza il mar” is suffused with the heartbroken angst and melancholy of a desperate father; too many singers of this role allow a note of anger or frustration to creep into their delivery.

Buzea is not quite on a par with his two leading co-singers. Unlike Herlea, neither he nor Zeani is vocally perfect: both have slight issues with some intermittent flatness in their Act 1 duet, as does Zeani in “Sempre libera”, but they are passing and negligible flaws. Otherwise, he has a robust, plangent tenor which, when he is at his best and not forcing, can sounds rather like Jaume Aragall, but sometimes his tone becomes constricted; he is more than competent but not always the last word in elegance and sometimes his vocal emission loses body, so can sound rather flat and thin. It is also odd and unfortunate that the end of his already truncated cabaletta is sharply cut off without a proper, concluding vocal flourish.

The chorus and orchestra are both first-rate, sounding very much at ease in the Verdian idiom. The delicacy and pathos of the Prelude to Act 3 is most sensitively realised and the ensemble singing is energised. There are a few “traditional” cuts. The label of the issue under review is unidiomatically named “World of the Opera”; this recording is also variously available, often at bargain prices, on Vox Classics, Gramofonové Závody, The Grand Opera Collection and Carlton Classics (IMP), presumably all licensed from the original Electrecord label.

I don’t think this surpasses my prime recommendations of recordings by such as Callas, Moffo and Freni but it remains a very satisfying account. especially desirable for the contributions of two great and under-recorded artists.

Aldo Ceccato – 1971 (studio; stereo) EMI
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
John Alldis Choir
Violetta Valéry - Beverly Sills
Flora Bervoix - Delia Wallis
Annina - Mirella Fiorentini
Alfredo Germont - Nicolai Gedda
Giorgio Germont - Rolando Panerai
Gastone - Keith Erwen
Dottore Grenvil - Robert Lloyd
Barone Douphol - Terence Sharpe
Marchese d'Obigny - Richard Van Allan

Fans of Beverley Sills won't need convincing, but even those, like me, who are not always convinced by her, need not hesitate over the quality of this, her assumption of Violetta. Her voice sounds as good as I have heard it anywhere: wonderfully pure, expressive, agile, thrilling at the top and deeply in character, with none of the shrillness or unsteadiness which can intrude elsewhere; this is a performance to rival those of Moffo, Caballe and of course, Callas.

Ceccato's conducting is rather deliberate and even a little laboured at times but this does allow details and nuances to emerge. Panerai, if not always sufficiently refulgent of tone, sings very expressively and sympathetically as Germont, his tone very much in keeping with Sills' plangent singing, empathizing with her brittle vulnerability.

For me, the fly in the ointment is Gedda - though I am aware that not all will agree with me. I like him in some things but find his voice production wavery and pinched - not at all Italianate or virile. Still, his diction is exemplary and, like Panerai, he is prepared to sing softly and subtly. This set does not dislodge my preferences for the other versions and as far as I am concerned, nobody approaches Callas for individuality of utterance but it's a worthy alternative if you have to have Sills.

Lamberto Gardelli – 1973 (film soundtrack; stereo) Pilz-Acanta; Arts Archives
Orchestra& Chorus - Berliner Staatskapelle
Violetta Valéry - Mirella Freni
Flora Bervoix - Hania Kovicz
Annina - Gudrun Schäfer
Alfredo Germont - Franco Bonisolli
Giorgio Germont - Sesto Bruscantini
Gastone - Peter Bindzsus
Dottore Grenvil - Hans-Joachim Lukat
Barone Douphol - Rudolf Jedlicka
Marchese d'Obigny - Heinz Reeh

Despite my having long sought a really satisfying version of La traviata, somehow for years this 1973 recording made in Berlin for German TV never appeared on my radar, but I was eventually very happy to discover it. There is no great individuality in this interpretation but everything hangs together dramatically, the singing is sensitive and often very beautiful, and there are few of the irritating flaws that mar other sets; as such, it really is a set to live with. The recording quality is clear, bright and full; the orchestral playing unobtrusively excellent; the conducting similarly restrained and respectful of the score - it all works.

It is true that, as Germont, Bruscantini has not the most refulgent tone, especially compared with baritones such as Merrill, but he is so experienced and really sounds like an elderly, concerned father without being in the least quavery - just a little dry of tone. He has a perfect sense of style, of course, and a lovely legato. Despite some rather percussive divisions in “Libiamo”, Bonisolli otherwise sounds young, naive and impetuous (as was the man himself, one might observe), his voice rings out freely, he gets his cabaletta and caps it by belting out a top D flat. He accompanies Freni beautifully, often singing softly despite the power of his tenor – but he really sounds too beefy when, supposedly offstage but sounding too close, he responds to and joins with Violetta at the end of Act 1. Freni is, as ever, highly accomplished, invariably tasteful, and sings with touching, limpid tone. Hers is an impeccably voiced Violetta; nothing is done for cheap effect but all the notes are in place and even if she does not have Callas’ memorability, a wholly credible character emerges. I have been accused of playing safe by featuring Freni too often in my recommendations but the longer time goes on, the more I prize her virtues – and this recording is as good a tribute to that recently departed singer as any.

I part company with a previous reviewer concerning the supposedly high calibre of the supporting cast: there are some pretty provincial voices there and some very Germanic Italian - but it matters little in face of the quality of three Italian principals, who really know their business. Gardelli was always a wholly reliable Verdi conductor, as his series of early Verdi operas for Philips bear witness and everything about his direction here is well judged. In my Arts issue, a libretto in Italian only is provided.

Carlos Kleiber - 1976-77 (studio; stereo) DG
Bayerisches Staatsorchester
Chorus - Bayerische Staatsoper
Violetta Valéry - Ileana Cotrubas
Flora Bervoix - Stefania Malagù
Annina - Helena Jungwirth
Alfredo Germont - Plácido Domingo
Giorgio Germont - Sherrill Milnes
Gastone - Walter Gullino
Dottore Grenvil - Giovanni Foiani
Barone Douphol - Bruno Grella
Marchese d'Obigny - Alfredo Giacomotti

It took me a number of years to alight upon this recording as featuring one of the most satisfying of all Violettas in a field which has surprisingly few top-notch recordings and quite a few clunkers for so perennially popular an opera. Its main attraction is Cotrubas, who comes closest to rivalling the pathos and detail of Callas' Violetta. Like Callas, she is adept at suggesting vulnerability and like Callas there are some incipient technical weaknesses in her soprano, but both had the gift of harnessing those to create the most complete and touching depiction of Violetta. It is also true that despite suggesting a kind of breathy frailty wholly appropriate to a tubercular heroine Cotrubas actually possessed a formidable technique. She can handle the fioriture of "Sempre libera", soar up to a high D flat at its conclusion, maintain a totally steady line in the cantabile passages like "Ah, dite alla giovine" and like Callas plunge into a surprisingly dark lower register. Then there is the essential quality of her tone: a plangent, sometimes piercing note which goes straight to the heart.

I have not even mentioned the other major attraction of this recording, which is the sensitivity and flexibility of Kleiber's conducting. He is unafraid to take risks with quite extreme application of rubato and some daringly slow tempi, but it works as proceedings never go slack.

Enchanting as Cotrubas is, her two principal cast-mates are somewhat more generic: both Domingo and Milnes sing out with their robust, healthy voices without suggesting any special involvement and as in the Prêtre recording, Milnes sounds too young and virile while Domingo, too, is too burly. I still enjoy both, even if I prefer Bergonzi and Merrill respectively. No; for me, the soprano and conductor are the stars here, with all due respect to the two other great artists. The sound remains exemplary, especially for a recording now forty-five years old.

Charles Mackerras – 1980 (studio; digital) EMI; Chandos; N.B. sung in English
Orchestra & Chorus - English National Opera
Violetta Valéry - Valerie Masterson
Flora Bervoix - Della Jones
Annina - Shelagh Squires
Alfredo Germont - John Brecknock
Giorgio Germont - Christian Du Plessis
Gastone - Geoffrey Pogson
Dottore Grenvil - Roderick Earle
Barone Douphol - John Gibbs
Marchese d'Obigny - Dennis Dowling

Returning to this recording after an interval of many years, I am newly struck by the energy, vitality and sheer elan of this lovely performance; it still very much holds its own in a not exactly crowded recorded field and, if anything, its beauties are over time becoming even more apparent.

Valerie Masterson is still very much active as a lecturer and patron and is still not a DBE - which is a real injustice, given the pleasure she gave to so many and the artistry she displayed in her glittering career with the ENO and internationally - especially in French roles.

It is true that ideally La traviata needs to be heard in its original Italian and although the translator sometimes does an excellent job in making the English fit the rhythms and stresses of the music, such that it even echoes the Italian, at other times it jars when one has become accustomed to certain Italianate phrases. Having said that, the principals' diction is crystalline and allows the tyro listener to appreciate the intricacies of the plotline despite the odd silly-sounding repetition.

I also find myself newly appreciating the liquid plangency of John Brecknock's tenor; he often sounds like his contemporary Ian Partridge. Both have light, but not throaty or hooty, voices and if you like Brecknock as Alfredo, I recommend your buying his excellent ENO Werther with Janet Baker. He doesn't have especially ringing top notes but he gets to the emotional heart of the role and sounds convincingly boyish and naïve.

As a previous review notes, Du Plessis' baritone is light but neat and flexible; he really sounds as if he means what he is singing. Mackerras conducts in a wholly unobtrusive, sensitive manner and the ENO orchestra plays beautifully.

Valerie Masterson was a hugely under-recorded artist and her recital disc of French roles was made a little too late in her career to do her full justice, so I urge her fans - and potential fans - to acquire this set for a fresh perspective on a Verdi favourite and to hear a great English singer in her prime.

Richard Bonynge – 1980 (studio; digital) Decca
National Philharmonic Orchestra
London Opera Chorus
Violetta Valéry - Joan Sutherland
Flora Bervoix - Della Jones
Annina - Marjon Lambriks
Alfredo Germont - Luciano Pavarotti
Giorgio Germont - Matteo Manuguerra
Gastone - Alexander Oliver
Dottore Grenvil - Giorgio Tadeo
Barone Douphol - Jonathan Summers
Marchese d'Obigny - John Tomlinson

I first owned this on cassette when it first came out but returning to the CD issue for review purposes made me realise that I had hardly listened to for year, so reacquaintance with it was interesting. Almost everything I revisit nowadays after a long interval sounds better than I had remembered it, as it seems that a generation or two ago we could afford to be pickier about the quality of singing we require; now in these days of dearth and with both artists gone I am inclined to be more grateful for what they brought to the recording studio.

This is, as a previous reviewer has rightly remarked, a Big Sing. Sutherland certainly sounds rather too beefy, matronly and healthy of voice for a consumptive. She brings little of Cortrubas', Caballé's or Callas' delicacy to her portrayal, her vibrato has loosened somewhat, and her portrayal is generalised in comparison with more nuanced accounts, but she is in good voice; her coloratura, portamento and trill are all functioning wonderfully. She also reads Germont's letter with great feeling and dramatically makes more of her dying scene than you might have expected; the middle section of her voice in "Addio del passato" is really very beautiful and the famous top notes wholly intact. The husky lower register isn't so pleasing and she isn't really all that believable as our heroine but the singing per se is admirable.

Pavarotti is also mostly in Stand and Sing mode but for many that will be enough and he brings some passion and energy to his Alfredo. His tenor is in prime condition, ringing and honeyed by turns. He is still very good for Levine eleven years later but this remains his best recording. The delight of this recording for his fans will be Matteo Manuguerra's Germont; he sounds suitably grave and middle-aged and I love the slightly nasal timbre of his voice. His legato is exemplary and he thoroughly convinces as Germont père.

Sutherland's earlier recording has its drawbacks, including mushy diction and an irksome, mooning manner; her words are more distinct here and she is equally well partnered. Bonynge's direction is fairly leisurely in order to give his big voices space but the overall effect can be somewhat soporific. The recorded sound is first rate - spacious and detailed; typical of Decca's best.

James Levine – 1991 (studio; digital) DG
Orchestra & Chorus - Metropolitan Opera
Violetta Valéry - Cheryl Studer
Flora Bervoix - Wendy White
Annina - Sondra Kelly
Alfredo Germont - Luciano Pavarotti
Giorgio Germont - Juan (Joan) Pons
Gastone - Anthony Laciura
Dottore Grenvil - Julien Robbins
Barone Douphol - Bruno Pola
Marchese d'Obigny - Jeffrey Wells

There is a puzzling tendency amongst reviewers to refer to Pavarotti here as if he we were antiquated and struggling, when he was in fact only 55 at the time of the recording in mid-1991 and in excellent voice. He was, perhaps, in even better voice eleven years earlier but his then partner, Joan Sutherland was already too mature whereas Studer is here in finest form in her mid-thirties; she is technically and tonally very well equipped for the role with a light, flickering vibrato and a silvery sheen to her soprano, often employing an effective portamento. Not everything she does quite comes off - there are some unsteady pianissimi and moments of flailing for the top notes but by and large hers is a very intelligent, touching and believable account. Pavarotti, too, had by this stage acquired the irksome habit of rounding off too many phrases with an explosive "uh" and his tone is undoubtedly less sappy than of yore, but compared with successors he is a god. He is especially animated in Act II Scene 2, the gambling scene when Alfredo shames himself by insulting Violetta. His live Don Carlo a year later at La Scala under Muti has similarly been unfairly excoriated yet it seems to me that he was in exceptionally good voice in the early 90's.

The rest of the cast is ordinary. Juan Pons is an adequate if occasionally somewhat blustery Germont; he makes a nice job of his arias without being very memorable.

Levine's conducting is tender and energised by turns and the playing of the Metropolitan Orchestra excellent. It's a pity that Levine regresses by permitting some irritating cuts in the score.

Zubin Mehta – 1992 (studio; digital) Philips
Orchestra& Chorus - Maggio Musicale Fiorentino
Violetta Valéry - Kiri Te Kanawa
Flora Bervoix - Silvia Mazzoni
Annina - Olga Borodina
Alfredo Germont - Alfredo Kraus
Giorgio Germont - Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Gastone - Barry Banks
Dottore Grenvil - Donato di Stefano
Barone Douphol - Roberto Scaltriti
Marchese d'Obigny - Giorgio Gatti

First let me remark upon how beautifully played and expertly conducted this recording is. Mehta has been inconsistent but could on occasion be an inspired and it seems to me that he gets everything right here, from the affectionately lilting overture to the flexibly varied arias and duets to the taut, propulsive ensembles.

The problem is with the casting. Kiri Te Kanawa always sounds beautiful but sings…carefully in a rather pale and detached manner, and without the emotional involvement more demonstrative singers can generate. Technically and tonally, she is exemplary but there is sometimes an element of going through the motions in her delivery. She is at her best in the moving exchanges between Violetta and Germont in Act 2, finding a plangent, beseeching timbre. Alfredo Kraus’ reedy tenor, with a more prominent vibrato than I recall, simply sounds too old especially when set against Dmitri Hvorostovsky, playing his father, as if their roles had been reversed. Kraus was 65 at the time of recording and frankly sounds it. His top notes are not easy and often I find his verbal inflection hammy and overdone – odd in an artist known for his refinement.

Hvorostovsky was not yet thirty and like Kraus, sounds his age, compounding the dramatic conundrum. He sings gently and smoothly and his Italian diction is excellent but he has already begun to gasp for breath between phrases which became an increasingly disturbing habit. He sounds more like a potential suitor than a concerned pater familias.

The casting incongruities and lack of tension here disqualify it from being a top recommendation.

Georg Solti – 1994 (live; digital) Decca
Orchestra & Chorus - Covent Garden
Violetta Valéry - Angela Gheorghiu
Flora Bervoix - Leah-Marian Jones
Annina - Gillian Knight
Alfredo Germont - Frank Lopardo
Giorgio Germont - Leo Nucci
Gastone - Robin Leggate
Dottore Grenvil - Mark Beesley
Barone Douphol - Richard Van Allan
Marchese d'Obigny - Roderick Earle

This recording was greeted with accolades and superlatives on its release, mainly on account of Angela Gheorghiu’s superb Violetta, but La traviata has proved a notoriously challenging opera to pull off both live and in the recording studio and this live performance is not without issues. A perfect realisation yet remains to be done – and I wouldn’t hold my breath, given the current state of the recording industry and opera singing in general. Perhaps only Renée Fleming could have given us another great studio recording of Violetta but that didn’t happen; meanwhile the likes of Caballe, Callas, Moffo and Freni, none of whom are any longer with us, still reign supreme. Gheorghiu's Violetta is enchantingly vocalised and acted, but La traviata is still an ensemble piece requiring three great principal singers, and that’s where this live recording runs into difficulties. Having said that, even if Gheorghiu were more worthily partnered than she is here, she is not as captivating an actress as Callas - nobody is.

The problems here reside in both the tight, throaty tenor of Lopardo and the dull, bland Germont of Leo Nucci, who had all too short a period of some bloom in his voice back in the early 80's but even then, almost from the start, evinced some nasty vocal faults in his technique. Solti conducts sensitively enough but without putting any particular marks of individuality on the score. As much as I enjoy Gheorghiu, I found that this set could not hold my attention as much as it should have when she was not singing and ultimately I gave my copy away and return to the other, earlier and better recordings.

As an opera buff, I might be wedded to vintage recordings, but even I can hardly believe that the last recording featured here in this survey is twenty-five years old - and my prime recommendations below are much older still: some originating forty, fifty, sixty and even over seventy years ago. My choices do not include some especially moving and accomplished incarnations of Violetta such as those by Cotrubas, but I would still want to retain them. I hesitate to recommend Ponselle and Tibbett, wonderful though they are, except to the most hardened of operaphiles able to disregard the dismal sound of their recording.

No one recording combines stellar vocalisation with wholly credible characterisation of all three main roles in stereo sound, so any choice involves some compromises. In general, the best sung versions are in poorer sound and vice versa; either that, or the voices are superb but the singers sound too old, or they vocalise superbly but neglect dramatic exigencies. Bear in mind, too, that in all recordings made prior to Pritchard’s in 1962, cuts are standard. As usual I recommend recordings in different categories below.

Historical mono: Antonicelli – 1949
Live mono: Nicola Rescigno – 1958*
Studio stereo: Lamberto Gardelli – 1973;
Studio digital (in English): Charles Mackerras – 1980
First choice*

Ralph Moore
July 2021

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