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Thursday, May 3, 2018

The Verdi Project: La Traviata

Verdi breaks new ground and causes controversy.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
She's dying here: Angela Gheorgiu as Violetta Valéry in the Met's old La Traviata.
Photo by Ken Howard © The Metropolitan Opera.
There is so much to write about La Traviata that it's difficult to know where to begin. Verdi's 1853 adaptation of the play La Dame aux Camélias was like nothing that came beforee it: a contemporary story with a heart-rending ending that took a bold and unblinking look at a profession and a way of life that was simply not talked about in so-called "polite" society: especially not in Venice where the opera would have its premiere!



Violetta, the heroine of La Traviata is an entirely original creation, one of the most fleshed out and full-bodied female roles in the repertory. Sexy, coquettish, good-hearted and ultimately doomed, she is a heroine fighting incredible odds: both the snobbery and machinations of French society and the tuberculosis that, at the work's end, kills her. And yet the flight of this doomed songbird is so compelling that La Traviata has never left the stage.

The play by Alexandre Dumas fils was seen by Verdi on a trip to PAris in 1852. The composer immediately saw the possibilities in the work for a new and exciting kind of operam one that would take hypocritical bourgeois values and put them right on the stage for all to see. Franceso Maria Piave was recruited to write the libretto, and work started immediately on the opera, which went through a few different titles "Amore e Morte", "Violetta") before the team settled on La Traviata, which means "The Woman led Astray."

With the euphemistic title chosen, Verdi and Piave ran into trouble getting the work onstage at La Fenice. The house management insisted that the libretto bump the story from 1853 all the way back to the 17th century, presumably an era where (they felt) French prostitution was rampant. The period costumes were made even more ridiculous by the choice of soprano Fanny Salvini-Donatelli to play Violetta Valery. She was no soubrette. Ms. Salvini-Donatelli was a 38-year old soprano with some girth, and she did not look like she was dying of consumption. The audience booed and jeered, and the opera bombed.

A year later, Violetta's story emerged from the operating room, where Verdi had made some crucial revisions to the later acts. It was brought back to Venice at Teatro del Benedetto with the beautiful Maria Spezia-Aldighieri in the title role. and presented in costumes more appropriate to contemporary society. In 1855 it took the stage in Madrid, and in 1856, the opera came "home" to Paris. It remains a repertory staple, and the title role of Violetta Valéry is one that almost every soprano wants to sing.

The story of Violetta, her love for the wealthy playboy Alfredo and the forces that come between them (namely Alfredo's father Giorgio Germont) are told to a cavalcade of memorable tunes. The Act I Brindisi, Violetta's high-flying "Sempre libera", Alfredo's idyllic "De' miei bollenti spiriti" and old Germont's moving "Di Provenza il Mar" follow each other in quick succession. The sense of impending doom really kicks in in the final act. Here, Violetta must carry the entire opera on her slender shoulders, with her great "Addio del passato" a moving farewell to Alfredo.

There are basically two ways to present La Traviata. Directors like Franco Zeffirelli took this simple tale and blew it up into over-the-top spectacle with an emphasis on the Parisian parties, glamor and glitz. Other directors have made the opera metaphor for the AIDS epidemic. In vogue recently is the stark, modern approach with simple bare sets and a focus on Violetta's illness and eventual sad fate. However, the presentation means nothing if you don't have a great Violetta, and a who's who of sopranos have sung and recorded this wonderful role over the ages.

This is a frequently recorded opera, and basically any soprano worth her salt with a fat major-label recording contract made a La Traviata during the boom. Of the seven (!) recordings in the Superconductor library, here are some high quality ones from different eras.

Bavarian State Opera Orchestra cond. Carlos Kleiber (DG, 1977)
Carlos Kleiber was an extraordinary conducting talent who made just four major opera 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)
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)
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 in early peak form. And the immediacy of a live recording.

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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.