Angela Gheorghiu at the Royal Opera House
La Traviata is one of those operas that, to my ears, has defied every attempt to make an entirely satisfying recording. There are any number of awesome Otellos (Toscanini, Domingo live under Carlos Kleiber and, not least, Gobbi under Serafin, which would be the greatest of them all were it not for Jon Vickers’ erratic pitching at key moments) or fabulous Falstaffs (Toscanini’s second, for instance, or Karajan’s with Gobbi) but Traviata, despite a voluminous discography, stubbornly resists every attempt to capture its essence on disc.
Perfection apart, conventional wisdom offers us as the one to go with a 1994 recording from Covent Garden – Solti conducting Frank Lopardo as Alfredo and Leo Nucci as Germont père with, relatively early in her career, a youngish Angela Gheorghiu as Violetta (buy from Amazon). She proved to be the star of a stunning new production by Richard Eyre, with sumptuous designs by Bob Crowley, and her portrayal of Violetta propelled the Romanian overnight to international stardom.
Eyre’s production has remained a staple of the Royal Opera House, playing host to a veritable plethora of Violettas, notably Anna Netrebko, who had a go in 2008, and, last summer, Renée Fleming, as accomplished a soprano as they come: she sang beautifully, every nuance was there, every subtle emphasis, but as a performance it left one strangely cold. Here was a 50-year-old sophisticate inhabiting a demi-monde belonging to a younger generation. She could have more plausibly been Alfredo’s mother than lover. A month and a half ago, in a short run best forgotten, the Violetta and Alfredo were two Albanian singers, Ermonela Jaho and Saimir Pirgu, who lacked both nuance and sparkle.
Now, approaching middle age, Gheorgiu has returned to the scene of her greatest triumph. I was curious: would she, as an older woman now, be any more successful than Fleming in conveying the essence of Dumas’s and Verdi’s heroine? In a word, yes. Gheorgiu’s Violetta is the real deal, a supreme actress, vocally secure, utterly believable, holding your gaze from the opening bars of the overture as she slowly comes into focus. If there is a finer Violetta on the stage today I haven’t seen her. She started well and just got better as the evening progressed – utterly distraught when cruelly insulted by her Alfredo (James Valenti in uncomfortably subdued voice) at Flora’s party, fabulously melodramatic in the tearful final scene. Zeljko Lucic was a sturdy Giorgio Germont, often thrilling vocally if somewhat wooden by comparison with such an instinctively natural actress as Gheorgiu. Under Yves Abel, the Royal Opera House orchestra tends to go its own way, which is not always that of the singers on stage.
But, to be honest, this latest revival, again overseen by Gramophone’s newest columnist (Eyre, who will write about the production in the September issue), is all about one singer, one actress, who deservedly brought the house down, and on that score alone it has to be considered a resounding success.