The Gramophone Choice
Maria Callas (sop) Violetta Valéry Alfredo Kraus (ten) Alfredo Germont Mario Sereni (bar) Giorgio Germont Laura Zanini (mez) Flora Bervoix Maria Cristina de Castro (sop) Annina Piero De Palma (ten) Gastone Alvaro Malta (bar) Baron Douphol Vito Susca (bass) Marquis D’Obigny Alessandro Maddalena (bass) Doctor Grenvil Manuel Leitao (ten) Messenger Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, Lisbon / Franco Ghione
EMI mono 556330-2 (124' · ADD · S/T/t)
Recorded live 1958. Buy from Amazon
Callas caught live is preferable to Callas recorded in the studio, and Violetta was perhaps her supreme role. The former Covent Garden producer Ande Anderson pointedly commented that, whereas other sopranos made you cry in the final act of Traviata, Callas also made you cry in the second, and one hears here what he meant, as Callas’s Violetta comes to the stark realisation that she’s going to have to give up her one and only true beloved seemingly for ever. The desperation that enters her voice at ‘Non sapete’ is surpassed only by the sorrow and emptiness in the lead-in to ‘Dite alla giovine’, then the fatalism of ‘morro! la mia memoria’, which John Steane in his note that accompanies this essential CD reissue describes as being sung with such ‘fullness of heart and voice’.
The final act is almost unbearable in its poignancy of expression: the reading of the letter so natural in its feeling of emptiness, the realisation that the doctor is lying so truthful, the sense of hollowness at what’s possibly the opera’s most moving moment, ‘Ma se tornando…’: ‘If in returning you haven’t saved my life, then nothing can save it’. All this and so much else suggests that Callas understood better than anyone else what this role is truly about.
But there’s more to it even than that. Alfredo Kraus’s Alfredo as heard here is as appealing as any on record. His Schipa-like tone at that stage in his career, his refinement of phrasing, especially in the duets with Callas, and his elegant yet ardent manner are exactly what the role requires. Mario Sereni may not quite be in the class of his colleagues but his Germont père is securely, sincerely and often perceptively sung and more acutely characterised than in his account of the part with de los Angeles. Almost as important, contrary to what you may read in some earlier reviews, Franco Ghione is an expert, knowledgeable conductor of this score, yielding to his singers yet prompt and dramatic when need be, and able to draw singing string tone from his excellent orchestra in the two preludes. So are there any drawbacks? Yes indeed; the prompter is all too audible, the audience coughs intrusively, particularly during the recitative at the start of Act 3, and the score is extensively cut in the manner traditional to pre-authentic days. Nevertheless, if it’s to be but one Traviata in your collection, it must be this one.
Angela Gheorghiu (sop) Violetta Frank Lopardo (ten) Alfredo Leo Nucci (bar) Germont Leah-Marian Jones (mez) Flora Gillian Knight (mez) Annina Robin Leggate (ten) Gastone Richard Van Allan (bass) Baron Roderick Earle (bass) Marquis Mark Beesley (bass) Doctor Neil Griffiths (ten) Giuseppe Bryan Secombe (bass) Messenger Rodney Gibson (ten) Servant Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden / Sir Georg Solti
Decca 448 119-2DHO2 (127' · DDD · T/t) Recorded live 1994. Buy from Amazon
For Angela Gheorghiu, Violetta was the right role at the right time. The whole drama is there in her voice, every expression in the eyes and beat of the heart reflected in the way she shapes and colours Verdi’s vocal lines. Her quiet singing is particularly lovely, affording subtle variations of tenderness and inner anxiety. When she does choose to make a point with force, as in her sudden warmth of feeling towards Giorgio Germont at ‘Qual figlia m’abbracciate’ or her chilling cry of ‘Morro!’, accompanied by a loud thump on the table, her ideas always hit home. A few moments of vocal weakness are accentuated by the microphone, mainly a tendency to go sharp and some hardness at the top of the voice that was not troublesome in the theatre. Otherwise she’s the most complete and moving Violetta we have had since her compatriot, Ileana Cotrubas.
These live performances were the first time that Sir Georg Solti, at the age of 82, had conducted a staged La traviata and he wanted two young singers who were also coming fresh to the opera. What was so spellbinding in the theatre was the touching intimacy they brought to their scenes together. Instead of the duets for Violetta and Alfredo turning into standard Italian operatic bawling, they became lovers’ whispers. The effect comes across here in the cadenzas, where Gheorghiu and Frank Lopardo really seem to be listening to each other. Elsewhere, one is more aware than in the theatre that Lopardo’s light tenor is far from being an idiomatic Italian voice. His idiosyncratic tone quality and un-Italian vowels can be problematical, as is some ungainly lifting up into notes. Leo Nucci, Decca’s resident Verdi baritone at the time, makes a standard Giorgio Germont, not more, and apart from Leah-Marian Jones’s energetic Flora, the smaller roles don’t say a great deal for the Royal Opera’s depth of casting.
Solti insisted that the opera be performed complete. But there’s nothing studied about his conducting: the performance is fresh and alive from the first note to the last, the result of a lifetime’s experience of how to pace a drama in the opera house. With the increasing number of live opera sets, a recommendation for La traviata is likely to be based on whether one is prepared to accept noises-off or not. Decca’s recording is well balanced and vivid, dancing feet and banging doors included. Among the live sets, Giulini and Callas at La Scala in 1955 (EMI) must be hors concours, but in rather awful sound. Muti’s more recent La Scala set (Sony), in which he has to wrestle with Tiziana Fabbricini’s wayward talents as Violetta, is the nearest comparison.
Norah Amsellem (sop) Violetta José Bros (ten) Alfredo Renato Bruson (bar) Germont Itxaro Mentxaka (mez) Flora Maria Espada (sop) Annina Emilio Sánchez (ten) Gastone David Rubiera (bar) Baron Marco Moncloa (bar) Marquis Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro Real, Madrid / Jesús López-Cobos
Stage director Pier Luigi Pizzi
Opus Arte DVD OA0934D (175’ · NTSC · 16:9 · PCM stereo and DTS 5.1 · 0 · s)
Recorded live 2005. Buy from Amazon
Pier Luigi Pizzi’s updating of Traviata to occupied Paris, first seen in 2003 in Madrid, might seem gratuitous, but because of his skill as designer and his experience directing singers, the new milieu hardly ever interferes, after the opening scene, with the central tragedy of Violetta’s plight. That owes much to the freshness and immediacy of the portrayal by Norah Amsellem. From Violetta’s first fevered entry to her agonising death she is totally absorbed in the role, acting and singing with the most eloquent feeling.
In the first scene we see her entering her soirée from her bedroom, the stage split in two – a slightly questionable idea – and she becomes infatuated with Alfredo in their Act 1 duet while on her lavish bed. It sounds gimmicky but as played by Amsellem and the sympathetic and stylishly sung Alfredo of José Bros it is totally convincing. The act ends with an all-consuming account of ‘Ah! fors’è lui’, both verses, shaped in long lines and phrased with unerring conviction so that one forgives harshness when she presses on her higher notes.
Act 2 scene 1 is set in the drawing-room of a 1930s-style country villa. Here the central encounter of Violetta and Germont père is the emotional centre of the work, as it should be, with Amsellem and Renato Bruson acting and reacting to each other with rewarding rapport. Bruson, at 69, sings with all the experience of his years and few signs of wear, and follows it with a masterly account of ‘Di provenza’. In the second scene the whole company excels itself and the heroine is infinitely touching in ‘Alfredo, Alfredo’.
In a stark, simple set for Act 3, this Violetta conveys her sorrow and terrified thoughts with inward passion. ‘Addio del passato’, again two verses, is notable for the length of line and exquisite phrasing Amsellem provides. She and Bros sing a near-ideal ‘Parigi, o cara’ before Violetta dies, a desperately tragic figure. Amsellem’s slim figure and expressive face are notable assets in achieving her intelligent reading.
López-Cobos conducts an interpretation notable for yielding support of his singers combined with dramatic dash, and the Madrid orchestra play as though their lives depended on the results. No wonder this staging received so much praise in Spain. Its preservation on DVD is welcome.