Since this production was new in 1994 it has hosted sopranos of every variety. Angela Gheorghiu was the first, stepping up to an international career from that night, and she has been followed by singers light, lyrical, and dramatic. But few have thrown everything they have at the title role as impressively as German soprano Diana Damrau.
Having made her name as a light, coloratura soprano, perhaps Damrau feels she must prove that she has what it takes for a role of the dramatic depth and substance of Verdi’s wronged Violetta, the courtesan who cannot throw off her past. The cautious vocal fireworks of the first act were certainly the least memorable part of her portrayal. Some of the soft, lyrical singing – not least Violetta’s capitulation to Alfredo’s father, sung head bowed, daringly looking away from the audience – was hauntingly beautiful. But it was the moments of drama that came across with truly unbuttoned force: Violetta throwing out the word “Gioire” like a commandment to have fun you could not disobey, or summoning every ounce of her being at the point of death to confront the tragedy of her short life.
If anything is missing, it is Violetta’s vulnerability, when she seems such a determined go-getter. So this is not an especially touching revival, but it is completely involving at every turn, and the rest of the cast rise to Damrau’s peaks of intensity.
The Alfredo of Sardinian-born Francesco Demuro feels Italian to his fingertips – what a joy to hear the language sung with such verve – and, some tightness at the top of his voice apart, he sings with ardour, delicacy and the ability to phrase over two or three lines without stopping to take a breath. Perhaps he wanted to beat Dmitri Hvorostovsky at his own game (long-breathed lyricism is Hvorostovsky’s speciality), but the Russian baritone’s familiar portrayal of Giorgio Germont remained as elegantly sung as ever. Among the smaller roles Nadezhda Karyazina was a vibrant Flora and Jihoon Kim a grave, though improbably young Doctor. The only drawback was Dan Ettinger’s heavy-handed conducting. He pulls the music around so much that it turns into a stop-go switchback – a challenge for cast and orchestra, like staying on top of a bucking bronco.