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8.110115-16 - VERDI: Traviata (La) (Metropolitan Opera) (1949)
Giuseppe Verdi (1813 - 1901)
An opera in three acts, to a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, after Alexandre Dumas fils' play
La Dame aux camelias
It is surprising now to reflect that, at its premiere at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice in 1853, La traviata was such a dismal failure. With many operatic successes behind him, Verdi must have been appalled at the chaos of the first performance. True, the opera had been composed in considerable haste - certainly not detectable from the melodic and dramatic qualities of its music - but it was perhaps rather the unsuitable cast that led to disaster. The Violetta was clearly far from a wasting consumptive and Germont pere, a much admired baritone in earlier days, had simply allowed his career to go on too long; surely not the first and certainly not the last singer to do that.
Happily the cast of this recording differs entirely from those predecessors, for here is a performance in which the three principals are all convincingly at the peak of their vocal powers. Many of the qualities that made each so successful are captured here, enabling the 'long-distance listener' to hear, over fifty years later, what made them remarkable and popular in these roles.
We are fortunate that, by chance, Eleanor Steber sang this performance, for she replaced a colleague who was indisposed; thus has survived her complete recording of this taxing part. She was not unfamiliar with Violetta, which she first sang at the Met in 1943, and despite the circumstances of her unexpected appearance, she brings a freshness that is not evident in all performances of the opera. It is sometimes (cynically) said that the role really needs three sopranos for a great production; a coloratura to cope with the florid brilliance at the close of the first act, a dramatic soprano for the scenes with Germont pere and fils in the second and a great lyrical singer to convey the pathos of Act 3. Steber brings something of all these to her performance. Whilst not usually considered a coloratura, she handles the first act scena with aplomb and brings a real sense of excitement and anticipation. Perhaps wisely she avoids the high option on the final note, and none the worse for that. The confrontations of the second act create the tension that is vital for a successful Traviata; no great histrionics but the deeply felt pain of sacrifice and rejection. Her Scene 2 duet with Alfredo brims with urgent pleading and in Act 3 the reading of the letter and its ensuing aria capture the despair of her loneliness. This is a very full interpretation and Steber triumphs as this most testing of Verdi's heroines.
Giuseppe Di Stefano possessed one of the most exciting and 'natural' tenor voices of the twentieth century, and it is his forthright ardour that is on show in this performance. Impetuosity is also around, for he not only pours out passion, but sometimes neglects the niceties of musical accuracy; a 'live' recording this, and no chance of re-takes. But hear him in his duets with Violetta, admire the nuances which only a native Italian speaker can enliven, and it is easy to understand his popularity in this repertoire. This performance was Di Stefano's first at the Met as Alfredo – perhaps nerves affected him - but there cannot have been many tenors there who sang the part with such relish.
In some ways Robert Merrill's performance is the antithesis of Di Stefano's Ever the stylist, restrained with warm, full tone, he brings a great measure of gravitas to Germont pere's deliberations. Technically he is impeccable and handles the extended duet with Violetta with compassion, admonishes his son at Flora's party as a stern patriarch. The second act aria, which can defeat less able baritones, surely brings to Alfredo a pang of nostalgia for his southern home. It is full of regret but without condemnation. Merrill is eminently reliable, in the best sense, for there is never any danger of over-stretch or risk. He knows what he can do vocally, which is much, and it is always beautifully delivered
Leading this historic performance is Giuseppe Antonicelli, who conducts lyrically and with elegance. It would be easy to overdo the sweetness of much of the score, and to allow the drama to lapse at other points; but Antonicelli paces the opera sensitively and allows it the space and speed it needs. He, like most other conductors of his day, sanctioned cuts in the score; one verse only of' Ah fors'e lui', and 'Teneste la promessa', no cabalettas for Alfredo and Germont in Act 2, but that's not unexpected. What we do have is an exciting live performance of La traviata, flawed but superb.
 The Prelude to La Traviata opens in a mood of sadness and includes music that is to appear with particular poignancy later in the opera.
 The first act opens with a scene of particular brilliance, Violetta Valery, a woman of great elegance, but a courtesan, is holding a party at her house. She is seated on a divan talking with Dr Grenvil and some friends. Guests arriving include the Marquis d'Obigny and Flora Bervoix, with the Baron Douphol. Some of those present jokingly rebuke the new arrivals for their lateness. Gaston, Vicomte de Letorieres, arrives, accompanied by his friend Alfredo Germont, a distant admirer of Violetta. She invites the company to take their places for supper and Alfredo is asked to propose a toast.  This he does, introducing a Brindisi, a drinking-song, in which all join.
 The sound of dance-music is heard from another room and Violetta suggests that her guests dance. They go through, but Violetta falters for a moment, in a sudden attack of faintness. She sees Alfredo, who has stayed behind  He tells her that he has loved her since he first saw her, but she warns him not to think of her, since she has only light-hearted friendship to offer.  They are briefly interrupted by Gaston and Alfredo takes his leave, but is invited to come back the next day.  The guests return and now that morning is near take leave of their hostess, thanking her for her hospitality.  Violetta is left alone and now begins to feel the power of true love, after a life of superficial pleasure.  She dismisses the thought, for she has always been free to take her pleasure where she will. Although the voice of Alfredo is heard from the garden below, she pays no heed to his declaration.
 The second act opens in a country-house near Paris. The room is on the ground floor, with doors opening onto the garden. Alfredo, who has been out shooting, considers the happiness of the last three months together with Violetta.  Annina, Violetta's maid comes in, returning from Paris, and in reply to Alfredo's questions explains that her mistress has had to sell all her property in town to pay for the house. He is horrified and filled with remorse for his thoughtlessness and rushes out, resolved to prevent the sale.  Violetta, returning, enters with some papers in her hands. She asks Annina where Alfredo has gone and is told that he has gone to the city, but will be back in the evening. A manservant enters with a letter for her, an invitation from her friend Flora Bervoix to a ball that evening, but she no longer has any interest in such things.  Now a visitor is shown in, Giorgio Germont, Alfredo's father, who suspects that his son has been wasting his money on his mistress. She explains to him the true state of affairs, showing him the bill of sale for her Paris property.  Germont, however, insists that she must part from Alfredo, since the relationship between her and Alfredo stands in the way of a good marriage for his daughter. Violetta supposes a short separation is called for but is appalled at the possibility of the parting on which Germont insists. She explains to him the strength of her love and how she would rather die than part from Alfredo. He is calling for a great sacrifice and one that at first she is reluctant to make.  Germont tells her that love can fade and that Alfredo may change his mind as her beauty fades, and this is more convincing argument.  Eventually she gives way, asking only that AIfredo's sister be told of the sacrifice she is making, one that will surely bring her death.  He tries to comfort her, as she bids farewell for ever to her true love. For Violetta nothing now remains, although Germont praises her generosity, which surely will be rewarded. She bids Germont farewell and he leaves through the door leading to the garden.  Now alone, Violetta sits down to write a note, which Annina is to deliver, making an assignation with Baron Douphol. She then writes a note for Alfredo, searching for words to express her feelings. He comes in and she hides the letter, telling him again of her love and begging him never to stop loving her, as she runs into the garden.  Alfredo, alone, sits down and opens a book. Just as he is wondering whether he will see his father, a servant announces Violetta's departure for Paris. He is given a letter and now learns of Violetta's decision to leave him. He is heart-broken and his father, who has re-appeared, tries to comfort him.  Germont urges him to return home and tries to offer him what consolation he can, but in vain. Alfredo is even more agitated when he catches sight of Flora's invitation to Violetta and he rushes away to find her.
Act III (= Act II Scene ii)
 The scene is set in the richly furnished house of Flora Bervoix Flora herself, the Marquis, Dr Grenvil and other guests are present. She has invited Violetta and Alfredo, but the Marquis tells the company that they have now separated and she has gone to seek the protection of Baron Douphol. The evening's entertainment begins with a group of masqueraders disguised as gypsy dancers, boasting of their prowess at fortune-telling. One of them reads Flora's palm and pretends to see there infidelity.  The gypsies are followed by a group of masqueraders disguised as Spanish matadors and picadors, victorious in the arena and in love, led by Gaston.  Alfredo enters alone, to the surprise of the company, but they soon turn their attention to gambling. At this point Violetta appears, on the arm of the Baron. She is alarmed to see Alfredo there but goes to sit with Flora. Alfredo remains at the gaming-table where he is winning. Douphol, in jealousy, challenges Alfredo in a contest, which, at Violetta's urging, takes place at the table. Alfredo continues his winning streak against the rich Douphol, who had hoped to beggar him. Supper is announced and the guests move out, leaving Alfredo and Douphol to follow them.  Violetta returns in agitation, rejoined by Alfredo. She asks him to leave and, having promised Germont that she will not reveal the true reason for her desertion of her lover, she is obliged to admit to a pretended love for Douphol. Alfredo throws open the door and calls the others in. Reproaching her, he throws his winnings at her feet, to the general disapproval.  At this juncture old Germont appears and reproaches Alfredo for his behaviour. The young man is sorry for what he has done, while the others try to comfort Violetta, who declares her love for Alfredo a greater love than he can ever understand. Germont leads his son away, while Douphol offers his rival a final challenge.
Act IV (= Act III)
 The last act is set in the poor quarter of Paris where Violetta now lives. She is asleep and seated near her, dozing, is Annina. There are various medicine bottles on the side-table. The music of the Prelude recalls the opening of the opera, a contrast to the artificial gaiety of Violetta's old life.  Waking, she calls to Annina, asking for water. It is dawn and now Dr Grenvil arrives, making his daily visit to a patient who is now very near to death. Violetta asks Annina how much money is left and tells her to give it to the poor and then see if there are any letters for her.  Alone, she takes out a letter she has had from Germont, telling her that Douphol was wounded in his duel with Alfredo but is recovering, while Alfredo has left the country. Now, however, having learned from Germont of Violetta's sacrifice, he is coming back again to beg her forgiveness. She looks at her changed features in the glass and realises that in spite of Dr Grenvil's assurance she is near to death.  The sound of carnival is heard from the street outside, in ironic contrast to the scene in Violetta's room.  Annina announces a visitor, Alfredo, who embraces Violetta passionately. Each now seeks the pardon of the other.  Alfredo suggests that they should make a new life for themselves away from Paris. Violetta will soon be better and they will live together in happiness.  Annina tries to help her mistress dress, but Violetta falls back, weakened by her illness and unable to stir. She realises that death is approaching, as Alfredo, distraught, begs her to calm herself.  If Alfredo's return cannot make her better, nothing will. They both lament her cruel early death that is so near.  Annina, who has been to fetch the doctor, returns with him and with Germont, who now understands his own responsibility for Violetta's approaching death.  She gives Alfredo a medallion with her likeness as she once was and tells him to give it to his wife, when he marries, assuring them of her prayers. To the gentle sound of music associated with her earlier days of happiness, Violetta feels sudden relief from pain and weakness, and with a look of radiant happiness on her face falls dead in her lover’s arms.
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