It all depends what you want in a Violetta: there are strong cases for favouring all of the versions listed, including Joan Sutherland's earlier one (conducted by Pritchard), now 18 years old, and for most opera-lovers I am sure the central point of preference will rest on the character of the heroine and how each portrait matches up to individual preconceptions. It was, of course, a delight to have a totally fresh view of Violetta in Ileana Cotrubas's performance for Carlos Kleiber on the DG set of 1977, intimate and charming as well as intense, and that in turn related back to another totally charming Violetta in Victoria de los Angeles (HMV) who with Tullio Serafin conducting conveys the rarest poignancy and tenderness.
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When Sutherland's earlier version appeared on Decca in 1963, it was only four years after she had had her first spectacular success in Lucia di Lammermoor. As an international recording artist she was an even more recent arrival, and the first suspicion was that she had recorded the role rather too early. But it is a version that for me has stood the test of time, a portrait of Violetta as a heroine in the grand tradition, and before hearing this superb new set, the finest that Sutherland has given us in years (and I have not forgotten Le roi de Lahore) I was apprehensive in case this return to the role was now too late, with little added to the characterization and a deterioration in the actual voice.
If anyone similarly has such fears, then let him sample the end of Act 1, the climax of "Sempre libera". There, if anywhere one would expect that a Violetta too old for the part, particularly one who sees it as a big dramatic rather than a lyric role, would show the strain. In fact if I had to choose a moment where the continuing command of Sutherland, the sense of exhilaration in a challenge triumphantly taken, comes over, it is there. As before she includes the traditional culminating top E flat on the final cadence (which otherwise on the present list only Cotrubas does and that summarily) but this time even more than before, it is totally joyful, as indeed the whole of "Sempre libera" is, rhythmically better sprung than before, the voice richer but just as agile, with trills more precise than with anyone else. "Gioir!", to enjoy, is the operative word. It seems part of the sheer exuberance that gets Sutherland putting gloss on the final coda with a sequence of six staccato quavers on top C (four bars before fig. 21) instead of the written syncopations, just as valid I should have thought as other more traditional glosses in middle-period Verdi. There are many other details one could select, but broadly the new performance has all the benefits of Sutherland's maturity with few drawbacks. The beat in the voice which on record has become increasingly apparent, is here hardly disturbing at all. At the climax of Act 2, scene 1 on the great outburst of "Amami, Alfredo", with its overwhelming reference back to the opera's prelude, the beat is no more than a warm vibrancy, the sense of expansion even greater than before. At that point in Kleiber's DG version the closeness of placing for Cotrubas's voice (which throughout the opera has one hearing her very breathing, an effect I find most distracting) may for once be justified in a comparable impression of power, but Sutherland's genuine expansion is the more telling.
If Sutherland's new view of the greatest of Verdian soprano roles is on its own ample justification for the new set, there is much else in its favour even in competition against the sets listed. First the recording which sets new standards of warmth and realism even for Decca digital sound. The prelude to Act 1 has one immediately registering the sheer beauty and natural sense of presence in the high violins with no hint of glassiness as there can so easily be even in the best full-ranging modern recordings (as for example in early Decca digitals). That prelude too illustrates the sterling merits of Richard Bonynge's conducting, the tempo spacious, the style straight and pure. A conductor like Carlos Kleiber may in his meticulous shading and pointing reveal unexpected detail, but at times that can be distracting. With Bonynge the Brindisi has an urgent spring to it, fast and bouncing, and there Luciano Pavarotti establishes his individual style as Alfredo, underlining words markedly, shading the tone and phrasing with commendable variety, presenting at once the figure of a rather arrogant pushing young man, which after all is dramatically justifiable. One might complain that in such an aria as "Dei miei bollenti spiriti" in Act 2 Pavarotti injects too much emphasis and mars the line, but in no way is this a negative, routine performance. It is Pavarotti singing and acting at full stretch. He occasionally resorts to intrusive Ws, which is a pity, and on other points too he yields in musical stylishness to Bergonzi, the Alfredo on both the earlier Sutherland and the Caballê/Prêtre (RCA) sets, but this is certainly a more strongly characterful portrait, a youthful ebullient figure.
Sutherland's view of the role remains completely consistent. Differences are those of detail. Playing the set through before I made any comparisons, I registered that Sutherland's words are clearer than before, with the old 'mooning' manner largely dispelled. In fact close comparison suggests that though the consonants are indeed clearer this time—partly a question of the digital recording which is breathtakingly vivid—the vital difference lies in cleaner attack and more judicious use of portamento, where the impression of a mooning manner before came largely from just such swooping. There were supreme moments in that earlier performance nonetheless, and they have provided key points in my comparisons. "Ah dite alla giovine", the pivotal moment in Act 2 when Violetta is persuaded by Germont to leave Alfredo, in 1963 drew a heartfelt half-tone from Sutherland which for me has never been matched on record. This time the approach is more direct, still very gentle but fresher in sound, telling less of agony than of overwhelming sadness, the words not just clearer but conveying more. Similarly at the very end of the opera when close to death Violetta talks of the bride that Alfredo will one day find, "Se una pudica vergine", Sutherland in 1963 produced a swooningly beautiful rising phrase, where this time with purer less veiled tone one more clearly appreciates the warmth of the resolution after the menace of the funeral rhythms, that here Violetta sees the promise of Alfredo's future and can take comfort in his happiness one day.
Matteo Manuguerra as Germont père may sound a degree too youthful. As recorded, the voice sounds lighter than usual, but it remains a finely focused instrument, and though in detail this does not match Sherrill Milnes in either of his performances (on RCA as well as DG) it is musically very satisfying, with fine poised legato and shading of line in "Di Provenza it mar", here given—as on the previous Sutherland set and on the Caballé—in its most complete form with repeats of both the aria and the cabaletta.
The very names in the list of supporting roles are guarantee of the quality there, and quite apart from the actual quality of recording the playing of the National Philharmonic is outstandingly fine with strings more resonant than usual. Richard Bonynge's pacing of the score is admirable, and though, as I said, a conductor like Kleiber can reveal points normally overlooked, Bonynge is more concerned for the singers to be the centre of the drama.
With a performance which consciously restores the complete text, instead of making the usual stage cuts as the Serafin and Kleiber versions do, there is a danger of slackening tensions, but here it is notable how the second stanzas of "Ali fors ê lui" and "Addio del passato", normally omitted, are used by Sutherland as well as Bonynge to intensify the experience, the reprise made deeper and more intimate.
The combination of qualities puts this for me at the very head of the current list of 11 versions of La traviata, most of them dating from the sixties. The quality of recording is the finest yet, far preferable to the 1977 DO, which not only presents Cotrubas unflatteringly with her breathing in one's very ear but gives Domingo's voice less bloom than it should have. In a more restrained, less involving way, the Prêtre performance with Caballé and Bergonzi still has much beauty to offer, and for Sutherland admirers the 1963 performance will never be completely superseded. But if you picture Violetta as a warm big figure, then the mature Sutherland here gives a reading which instead of making me apprehensive about her recent vocal development has me eager to hear her recording much more.
-- Edward Greenfield, Gramophone [4/1981] reviewing this recording on LP Read less
Works on This Recording
La traviataby Giuseppe Verdi Performer:
Matteo Manuguerra (Baritone),
Della Jones (Mezzo Soprano),
Marjon Lambriks (Soprano),
Alexander Oliver (Tenor),
Jonathan Summers (Baritone),
John Tomlinson (Bass),
Giorgio Tadeo (Bass),
Ubaldo Gardini (),
William Elvin (Baritone),
Luciano Pavarotti (Tenor),
Dame Joan Sutherland (Soprano),
David Wilson-Johnson (Bass)
London Opera Chorus,
National Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic Written: 1853; Italy Language: Italian
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
How many recordings of La Traviata do we need?January 12, 2013By Dr. Stephen Schoeman (Westfield, NJ)See All My Reviews"This recording with Sutherland and Pavarotti singing and Bonynge conducting is, of course, splendid. But how many recordings do we need of Verdi's La Traviata. ArchivMusic presently lists 111 CD and 19 DVD recordings! Of Aida, 96 CDs and 16 DVDs. Of Cosi fan tutte 90 CDs and 15 DVDs. Of The Magic Flute, 82 CDs and 13 DVDs. Of Don Giovanni, 111 CDs and 22 DVDs. Of The Marriage of Figaro, 100 CDs and 17 DVDs. Of Tosca, 101 CDs and 13 DVDs. Of course we want to give all opera singers and orchestras a chance to perform opera but must opera but limited to so relatively few? And to so very few opera composers at that? Nearly all of Rossini does not make the list. Nor Bellini. Tchaikovsky is not even in sight! Ditters von Dittersdorf, Massenet, Enescu, Delius, Janacek, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Kalman, and Berlioz among many others do not make the list either. Oh, there is an occasional performance of Norma or Eugene Onegin or Le Cid for example. But it is as if these composers had not written opera. As if indeed they had not even lived. The sparkling Mozart and the lugubrious Verdi and Puccini are at the heights but wouldn't it be wonderful if the opera audience also considered the works of other opera composers as well? They would be mining a very rich vein indeed. And would in addition have a better perspective and understanding of the operas which and the composers who are at the top of the list. Here we can be most fortunate and should be extremely grateful that we have ArchivMusic with its thousands of recordings of so many of the world's operas. It would be a great adventure reaping great intellectual and aesthetic rewards!"Report Abuse