, May 2011
VERDI, G.: Traviata (La) (Royal Opera House, 2009) (NTSC) OA1040D
VERDI, G.: Traviata (La) (Royal Opera House, 2009) (Blu-ray, HD) OABD7076D
When Richard Eyre’s production of La traviata was first unveiled at Covent Garden in December 1994, the BBC schedules were hastily cleared to allow one of the next performances to be broadcast live. It was the first time that Georg Solti had conducted the opera but, even more importantly, it shot to fame a certain Romanian soprano by the name of Angela Gheorghiu, who fitted the role of Violetta Valéry like a glove. A star was born and the resulting DVD has been a mainstay of my collection. The production has been a vehicle for any number of sopranos since, including Renée Fleming in the summer of 2009. No need to wait for BBC cameras this time: the Royal Opera House has its own hi-definition equipment and, through Opus Arte, the means to distribute its performances to a wider audience. But how does this performance stack up against the original on Decca?
Bob Crowley’s designs remain impressive, from the opulence of the party scenes (the gambling table set usually draws applause from audiences, but not so here) to the faded elegance of Violetta’s country retreat. Eyre is back to direct, drawing performances from his singers in which every action and reaction is finely drawn. The conductor on this occasion is Antonio Pappano, who has a marvellous affinity with Verdi (more so than Solti, although he was in mellow, autumnal mood by this time, allowing the music to breathe more than in some of his more hard-driven efforts in other operas). Pappano’s orchestra is entirely in sympathy with his singers, the quality of the string playing in the preludes tender, yet not without tension. All of which leaves us with the singers—a stellar trio in the operatic firmament occupying the main roles, although one or two doubts gnawed away at me, at least initially.
Renée Fleming waited a long time before tackling the role of Violetta (Houston in 2003) and with good reason. She acknowledges the difficulties in tackling the role in an admirably honest interview with on the DVD ‘extras’. The vocal challenges of Act I seem to be uppermost in her mind here, and I found her somewhat restrained in the Brindisi, as if holding herself in reserve and her coloratura was a touch deliberate later on, lacking the sense of sheer abandon in ‘Sempre libera’ which Gheorghiu expresses so well. Throughout the act, one was conscious of her exaggeration of key moments, almost drawing attention to her art, particularly the moments where she strays from the vocal line for dramatic effect—the teasing of the Baron, the ‘laughter’ in the coloratura. Fleming’s good, she’s very good, but she needn’t telegraph those inflections so much and I started to wonder if this interpretation would bear repeated viewing. It seems a very ‘calculated’ performance, verging on being mannered, though doubtless the camera highlights this more than from a distance in the House. My reservations vanished come Act II, however, and I wondered why.
She’s certainly more at home vocally, particularly in the central scene with Thomas Hampson as Germont père; her voice opens out more, gains warmth and blossoms. Her acting seems much more natural as she became totally enveloped in the role, so much so that one forgets the ‘acting’ and becomes more involved in the drama as a result. The duet was superlatively done, with wonderful singing; ‘Dite alla giovine’ is a vocal and dramatic highlight, with gloriously spun legato from both singers. Ultimately, I concluded that Violetta is, herself, putting on a performance in Act I, both in front of her guests and even trying to kid herself in ‘Sempre libera’, whereas from Act II, we see the real Violetta—I certainly found this in Fleming’s portrayal; the dignity with which she holds herself in the confrontation with Germont; the restraint in the face of Alfredo’s abusive behaviour; her ‘rage against the dying of the light’ in Act III are all deeply affecting, the bleached quality of her voice in the final act quite remarkable.
The role of Giorgio Germont finds Thomas Hampson is at his most persuasive in Verdi. His acting is most convincing as the buttoned-up father, even in little details such as when Violetta clings to his hand, he is deeply uncomfortable at such physical contact and tries to withdraw. In fine form vocally, Hampson sang ‘Di Provenza’ exquisitely, a real highlight, while his anger and sense of outrage are palpable. He and Fleming make a great team and their scene together almost eclipses Netrebko and Hvorostovksy a year earlier.
I confess to having a problem appreciating Joseph Calleja’s tenor; it has an attractive timbre but there’s too much fast vibrato for my liking and it marred my enjoyment of his performance. Calleja uses his voice most intelligently, however, and his acting is a good deal more convincing than his earlier appearances at Covent Garden, his reactions to his father’s lecture were telling. As the performance went on, the ear grew accustomed to the flutter. Frank Lopardo, Solti’s Alfredo, has a more baritonal timbre and lacks Calleja’s brighter tone.
Eyre’s direction is sensitive. The importance of religion to Violetta is something I hadn’t appreciated before. Eyre has her cross herself before composing her letter to Alfredo, and we also get the second verse of ‘Addio del passato’, including the line about no cross marking her grave, as she knocks her cross to the floor in stretching for it. My abiding memory of the 1994 performance was the moment when Violetta declares ‘Amami, Alfredo’, Gheorghiu strewing camellias before him; Eyre has Fleming already in his embrace by this point and it doesn’t strike home as tellingly.
A couple of things in the direction niggled. When Alfredo creeps up on Violetta whilst she’s writing her letter, he’s there long enough to be able to read it over her shoulder! Also, when Alfredo is finally delivered the letter, it’s on a sheet of paper half the size of the piece on which Violetta had started it—what in film terms might be classed a ‘continuity error’! I could also have done without the daft ‘lap of honour’ which sees her pronounced dead before she’s completed it (Netrebko didn’t attempt it in the performance I saw, her death a good deal more moving as a result).
The smaller roles are all excellently taken; there’s a concerned, feisty Annina from Sarah Pring (who’s tended a number of Violettas over the years) and Richard Wiegold makes a sympathetic Doctor Grenvil. Kostas Smoriginas smoulders as the Marquis d’Obigny, sparring with Monika-Evelin Liiv’s lively Flora. Eddie Wade (himself a very good Germont for WNO last season) makes much of the role of Baron Douphol.
Gheorghiu’s interpretation remains essential viewing, but Fleming’s performance is almost as affecting, her support cast arguably stronger. It’s always interesting to see how different singers interpret roles in a famous production; with three further revivals at Covent Garden next season, with four Violettas, further comparisons are invited. Picture quality and surround sound are, needless to report, up to Opus Arte’s usual high standard. Fleming and Pappano are well used to appearing before the camera and their interview makes for an interesting extra feature where they discuss the role and Fleming articulates her ideas about legato in a fascinating exchange. Recommended.