The Verdi bicentenary is upon us. Performances over the coming 12 months will doubtless reaffirm his stature as a man of the theatre (as if it needed reaffirming), but they may also point to a dearth of great Verdi singers – those able not only to sing with their voices but act with them too, a stylistic point of which the composer was keenly aware. And the Verdi opera that puts vocal acting to the supreme test is La traviata (The Fallen Woman).
What distinguishes it is partly the contemporary theme – the life and death of a Parisian “courtesan”, 19th-century shorthand for a high-class prostitute. More important, though, is the way the soprano part of Violetta straddles coloratura and legato, lyrical and dramatic. Many sopranos can do one or the other, but not both. Even fewer have the quality Verdi prized above all – anima (soul). That helps to explain why there is no definitive recording of La traviata.
The most interesting Violettas are rarely the ones with the most beautiful voices. It’s what they do with the music and the text that makes the greatest interpreters so compelling, bringing Violetta’s virtue and vulnerability alive. This is where audio can triumph over DVD: it identifies and magnifies real artistry.
More than half a century after she gave up the part, Maria Callas still tops the list. Her only studio recording of La traviata was made in 1953 – very much the young Callas, singing wonderfully but surrounded by a provincial cast. This is eclipsed by two live recordings with flawed sound. The 1955 Milan version documents a production at La Scala that brought together the crème de la crème of Italian opera. Callas was at the height of her powers, in command of Verdi’s florid demands and at her peak as a physical stage presence. She had a point to prove. Prevented by contract from singing in the almost concurrent EMI/La Scala studio recording, she watched a lesser rival, Antonietta Stella, “steal” the part from under her nose – with the same tenor, baritone and conductor.
The so-called “Lisbon Traviata” of three years later hints at the vocal and private problems Callas was beginning to suffer, problems that would soon bring her career to a premature end. What makes this scratchy recording special is the way she integrates these problems into her performance: it radiates vulnerability and frailty. The opening scene of Act Three, in which she reads from Giorgio Germont’s letter and sings “Addio, del passato”, is one of the most moving moments of opera on CD.
While no one will ever match Callas, Renata Scotto and Tiziana Fabbricini create fascinating studies. Scotto made two studio recordings. In her first she sounds fresh and affecting, but the reading is otherwise unexceptional. Her second, recorded late in her career with the conductor Riccardo Muti, is less technically assured – but she has more to say. Fabbricini, taped at La Scala in 1992 in a production for which she was “discovered” and schooled by Muti, sometimes sounds threadbare and out of tune, but her fragility is touching.
The healthiest Violetta in terms of technical accomplishment is Joan Sutherland: few singers make the Act One coloratura sound so easy. Her early studio recording from Florence (1962), stylishly conducted by John Pritchard, is also notable for Carlo Bergonzi’s Alfredo and Robert Merrill’s Germont. Sutherland’s later version (1979), with Luciano Pavarotti and Matteo Manuguerra, is superficially more glamorous but also more mannered. Both sound staid next to Callas. Other Violettas worth investigating are Rosanna Carteri (1955, in mono), Anna Moffo (the most beautiful Violetta of the 1960s) and Ileana Cotrubas, superbly conducted by Carlos Kleiber (1978).
Alongside these classic audio interpretations, four DVDs add worthwhile perspectives. Franco Zeffirelli’s romantic-realistic film (1982) starring Teresa Stratas and Plácido Domingo tugs at the heart, but is compromised by a disembodied soundtrack and savage cuts. Anna Netrebko is better seen in the DVD of Willy Decker’s spare, modernist 2005 Salzburg staging than heard on its CD soundtrack. Angela Gheorghiu’s first Violetta – filmed in 1994 when she was just a delightful young singer, responding to Georg Solti’s tutelage at London’s Royal Opera House – showcases her beautiful sound and affecting morbidezza, at the head of an unexceptional cast. Renée Fleming, captured a little late in the same production (2009), gives one of her more involving performances, with Joseph Calleja an equally affecting Alfredo.
This is part of an occasional series on building a library of classical music.
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