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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Metropolitan Opera Preview: La Traviata

Natalie Dessay slips into the little red dress.
by Paul Pelkonen.
Lover boy: Matthew Polenzani returns as Alfredo Germont in the Met's revival La Traviata.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2011 The Metropolitan Opera
Willy Decker's stripped-down La Traviata was the most controversial production at the Met last year. For its first revival, French soprano Natalie Dessay takes on the role of Violetta, a courtesan who finds love just as her time is running out. Matthew Polenzani returns as Alfredo, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky is Giorgio Germont. Fabio Luisi conducts.

The feeling of dread is heightened by Mr. Decker's staging, originally presented at the Salzburg Festival. The opera is presented on a unit set with one exit: a steep, bare stage with curved white walls that might be in a hospital or asylum. The room is dominated by an enormous clock, and haunted by Dr. Grenville, a silent, death-like figure who is onstage for most of the opera. The party-goers of Paris (male and female) are in tuxedos, faceless figures in Violetta's empty life.

La Traviata is Verdi's most intimate tragedy. A setting of Alexandre Dumas fils La dame aux camilles, this is an opera about suffering, illness and time running out. Verdi was inspired to set the younger Dumas' play by his longtime relationship with Giuseppina Strepponi, a former opera singer. For this work, Verdi wrote some his most memorable music. Highlights include the brindisi in Act I, the soprano showpiece Sempre libera, and Di provenza il mar, Germont's appeal to his wayward son.

Recording Recommendations
Verdi's most heart-rending opera has been lucky on disc. So we're giving four recommendations.

Coro e Orchestra de La Scala, cond. Antonio Votto (DG, 1963)
Violetta: Renata Scotto
Alfredo: Gianni Raimondi
Germont: Ettore Bastianini
The glories of this 1963 recording are the young Renata Scotto (in prima voce as Violetta) and the rock-solid presence of baritone Ettore Bastianini as the elder Germont. I still recommend it, especially at bargain price.

Bavarian State Opera Orchestra cond. Carlos Kleiber (DG, 1977)
Violetta: Ileana Cotrubas
Alfredo: Plácido Domingo
Germont: Sherrill Milnes
Carlos Kleiber was an extraordinary conducting talent who made very few recordings. This was one of his best, a studio-made, note-complete Traviata with a sensitive heroine in Ileana Cotrubas. The redoubtable team of Sherrill Milnes and Placído Domingo recorded a lot of operas together in the 1970s, but they manage to convince the listener as father and son.

Coro e Orchestra de La Scala cond. Riccardo Muti (Sony, 1992)
Violetta: Tiziana Fabbricini
Alfredo: Roberto Alagna
Germont: Paolo Coni
Expert Verdi conducting and a compelling performance by Roberto Alagna as Alfredo. Tiziana Fabbricini is a very good, involving Violetta who is helped by the live, theatrical recording made in Italy's most famous opera house. Reissued last year.

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Carlo Rizzi (DG, 2005)
Violetta: Anna Netrebko
Alfredo: Rolando Villazón
Germont: Thomas Hampson
I will also put a word in for this entertaining live recording from the Salzburg Festival. Anna Netrebko, captured in great form as Verdi's bird in a gilded cage. Rolando Villazon before he lost his voice. And like the Muti set, this has the immediacy of a live recording.
Return to the Metropolitan Opera Season Preview!

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.