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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Opera Preview: Learning to Love La Traviata

Ed. Note: This is a preview/recording recommendations piece for the new Met production of La Traviata. To read the Superconductor review of the January 4, 2011 performance at the Met, click here.

I used to "hate" La Traviata.
Marina Poplavskaya as Violetta in La Traviata. Photo by Klaus Lefebvre © The Netherlands Opera
Yes, I know. It's one of Verdi's greatest works. The passionate story of the courtesan Violetta Valery and her race against the clock of tuberculosis is one of the most personal, and moving works Verdi ever wrote. The music is great: from the famous Brindisi to "Sempre libera," "Di Provenza il mar" and other great highlights.

But it took me a long time to "like" it.

Part of that is because I associate Violetta's illness with the final sickness and (eventual) death of my father when I was 11 years old. Traviata was the first opera that we went to without Dad--he was too ill to attend. Even after he passed away (in Feb. of 1985), Mom and I kept going to the opera--which is part of why I do this now.

As I got into this business, I made sure over the years that I saw very few Traviata performances. I saw both productions by Franco Zeffirelli at the Met, but when the opera came up on my regular subscription I'd exchange it for something else, make an excuse, or simply stay home. I couldn't handle it.

I compensated. I learned everything I could about it, so I could write confidently and convincingly. I owned one recording (more on that in a bit) but it sat in its jewel case, silent. I even interviewed a soprano (Patricia Racette) debuting as Violetta in the '99 Met production.

Last year, a good friend of mine got sick. Really sick. She has cancer--a different kind than my Dad. She's still alive as I write this, fighting like hell and hanging on to her life with both hands.

That experience gave me a whole new perspective on Traviata. I started listening to it. Getting recordings. Working my ears around the notes of the score--learning what makes it tick, something that a certain conductor failed to do at a Met performance I attended last April. All this exposure to Traviata helped immeasurably. It made the fear and trauma of going through the (repeated) experience of having someone close to me sick easier to deal with.

Now, the Met will end 2010 with a new Traviata, a spare, intense staging from German director Willy Decker. Premiereing on New Years Eve, this is the same production that was recorded and filmed for Salzburg with Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon. At the Met, Marina Poplavskaya stars as Violetta. The Russian diva is fresh off her success as Elisabeth in Don Carlo, and should bring all the fire to Violetta that she had to rein in for that opera.

She is paired with the American tenor Matthew Polenzani, well known for his Met performances of Mozart and Wagner. Gianandrea Noceda conducts. At the press conference last week, he promised a driving rendition that emphasizes the central crisis of the opera--the leading character running out of time.

On to the recording recommendations:
Coro e Orchestra La Scala, cond. Antonio Votto
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've recommended it before, and will continue to do so.

Bavarian State Orchestra cond. Carlos Kleiber
Violetta: Ileana Cotrubas
Alfredo: Placído Domingo
Germont: Sherrill Milnes
Carlos Kleiber was an extraordinary conducting talent who made very few recordings. This was one of his best, a studio, note-complete Traviata with a sensitive heroine in Ileana Cotrbas. 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 della Scala cond. Riccardo Muti
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. Just reissued.

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