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A towering performance by Gheorghiu.
When we consider the array of the recordings of this opera on DVD and CD, not to mention ‘excerpt’ and ‘highlight’ recordings, it is curious to recall that the first production at La Fenice in 1853 was a failure. With librettist Piave it was a work that had been written in double quick time: the premiere of Il Trovatore had preceded the premiere of La Traviata by only two months. In addition Verdi was unhappy with the soloists for the premiere. He was also unhappy with the setting. His choice was the present while the Fenice management ruled that it should be the beginning of the previous century. This worried his public not at all because the revised work with different singers in the following year was a run-away success and it has remained in the repertoire ever since.
With some notable exceptions, since the beginning of the last century, productions have been set as Verdi intended: in his own time. So it is here. Cavani and her team indulge in extravagance of sets and costumes with crowded scenes for the salons of Violetta in Act I and Flora in Act II. There is no down-side to sets and costumes: grand staircases and lavish furnishings go well with white ties and tails and luxurious evening gowns. Whereas there can be no doubt as to the main characters in this production, unfortunately, with the busy stage set for the opening scene, and the camera panning parts of the scene, it is not so easy to identify the comparatively minor roles. Compare this with the equally lavish sets and costumes on the Decca recording (074 3215) where, by front-stage positioning and careful camera work, that is clear.
Without a doubt the star of this production is Angela Gheorghiu (Violetta), oh she of the Royal Opera House DVD and CD fame more than ten years ago now. And it shows: this is a mature Gheorghiu, a refined palette of vocal colouring, a deep emotional involvement with the words and music and the ability to produce the different sopranos required for the three Acts, sparkling coloratura with the suggestion that she is becoming unwell in Act I, the reality of Act II with its plot development, and lyricism for the final Act. Maybe, just may be, there is a slight hardening of the vocal edge when she suddenly has to rise to stratospheric coloratura. In the opposite direction there is now a fuller smoother rounder sound and the transition from head to chest is so well controlled as to be difficult to pinpoint. With acting and facial expressions to match, this Violetta is indeed one who could fall in love on sight, give way to père Germont’s pleas, convince us that she is acting her ‘love’ of Douphol and leave us bereft at the final ‘death’ curtain. Gheorghiu gets so inside the character of Violetta that there is never a moment’s doubt about any aspect of her performance.
Ramón Vargas (Alfredo) matches Gheorghiu vocally but is not in the same league for stagecraft and character internalisation. He has vocal technique in plenty. He sets a very clear vocal line which he embellishes with strong dynamics, effortless breath control and a deep beauty of tone. However things go wrong when we are expected to believe that here is the man so vital, so intense, so inspirational, that by the end of the first scene the courtesan heroine is head over heels in love with him. Sorry, no chance. This is Vargas singing Alfredo with skill and clarity in stage costume but not a vibrant Alfredo.
Sorry to bore you but here is a digression. Like him or not, think that in the stratosphere he may go slightly sharp, suggest that he might not have the power, but watch Rolando Villazón in two very different productions, the conventional Decca mentioned above and in Willy Decker’s ultra-modern mind-stretching production with Anna Netrebko (Deutsche Grammophon 0734189) and see how a power-house of a stage animal makes Alfredo truly compelling.
When I noted that that so very reliable baritone Roberto Frontali was cast in the role of Germont, I confess that I had doubts if he could allow the character to unbend so that we could see the (admittedly few) moments of human warmth towards either his son Alfredo or Violetta. Oh ye of little faith. The role has to be played as the upright Provençal family head visiting the country house near Paris where passion rules. He starts stiff backed and self important. But Frontali, accompanied by excellent close up camera timing, progressively slips his scowl into expressions of understanding, sympathy and finally self-criticism. He sings the affronted father with an evenness of tone over his whole range, starting with duty is all, mellowed slightly by Violetta’s acceptance of his request and finally unbending sufficiently to acknowledge that he was wrong. He makes his distinctive timbre with its somewhat closed down sound almost devoid of warmth early on but then gradually opening out the sound as the plot unfolds. Frontali is a quite excellent Germont.
It is a statement of the consequentially obvious that the difference in the acting skills of the protagonists dilutes the efficacy of certain duets and part of the ensembles; not quite as much as might be expected because Gheorghiu and Frontali sweep us into the scenarios.
Natascha Petrinsky (Flora) carries her role well with exemplary diction. Her timbre may be a little on the harsh side but she never misses a note, inflexion or gesture. Similarly Tiziana Tramonti (Annina) is a very convincing maid-servant: mature polished delivery with vocal deference. I do not think that the Gastone of Enrico Cossutta is the distinguished Visconte (although not so titled in this production). For me the direction made the role even more subordinate than I expect even though Cossutta’s strong tenor comes through well. Allessandro Paliaga (Douphol) despatches the role easily as does Piero Teranova as the Marchese. Luigi Roni makes the most of the role of the Doctor whilst Giuseppe Nicodemo and Ernest Panarielo are clear and cogent servant and messenger.
Apart from their off-stage Bacchanale in the last Act, the chorus only appear in, but are integral to, the scenes at the salons of Violetta and Flora. They are vocally and physically responsive to the events unfolding around them. This is the disciplined chorus of La Scala. Just so is the ballet of gypsies and matadors: vibrant, polished and elegant.
I am tempted to say that the orchestral role is superbly delivered; and I can still say that even though the odd thing is that we never see it – well not on this disc. The disc opens with no preliminary shots: camera front-on to Maazel engaging the orchestra for the haunting pianissimo opening. The opening credits follow during which he sets a comparatively slow tempo, the orchestra bringing out the differing musical textures. He affords the singers every opportunity to respond to the music: support with distinction throughout. Compare this with Carlo Rizzi driving forward on the Deutsche Grammophon or James Conlon on Decca where the singers sometimes dictate the pace together with some extensions of notes for sighs or sobs.
As I opened with a comment on the two versions of the opera so shall I close. It would be remiss not to mention Robert Carsen’s La Fenice production also conducted by Maazel recorded in 2004. This was of the 1853 version. I have been told that this recording may be about to be withdrawn but a few copies are still available. With an emphasis on the sex-for-money aspects it offers a different perspective on this remarkable opera.
-- Robert McKechnie, MusicWeb International [reviewing the standard DVD version,
Violetta Valéry – Angela Gheorghiu
Alfredo Germont – Ramón Vargas
Giorgio Germont – Roberto Frontali
Flora Bervoix – Natascha Petrinsky
Annina – Tiziana Tramonti
Gastone – Enrico Cossutta
Barone Douphol – Alessandro Paliaga
Marchese d'Obigny – Piero Terranova
Dottor Grenvil – Luigi Roni
Orchestra, Chorus and Ballet of the Teatro alla Scala
Lorin Maazel, conductor
Liliana Cavani, stage director
Recorded live from the Teatro alla Scalla di Milano, 2007.
Picture format: 16:9
Sound format: PCM Stereo / DTS 7.1
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Menu language: English
Subtitles: English, German, French, Spanish, Italian
Running time: 134 min