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Friday, January 28, 2011

The final Traviata, a truly old school experience


The final La Traviata in this video marathon is the 2007 video from La Scala, starring Angela Gheorghiu, Ramon Vargas, and Robert Frontali. Lorin Maazel conducts. Even though this is the most recent video in the timeline, in many ways it's the most old-fashioned. It's so old-fashioned that I wonder if even Maria Callas would have found it a bit stuffy. Even the bad old cuts are all taken -- Germont's cabaletta, the second verse of "O mio rimorso" as well as the still-standard second verses of "Ah forse lui," "Addio del passato," and "Parigi o cara." Gheorghiu gives her mature interpretation of Violetta, which no matter what you think of her, has to count as one of the most well-known interpretations of her era.



During the prelude the cast credits are superimposed on very pretty floral backgrounds. That sets the tone for the entire video. The direction  is by Liliana Cavani and sets by Dante Ferretti in what looks to be a La Traviata that deliberately erases any sign of vulgarity. The curtain rises on a majestic dinner party, where everyone is exquisitely behaved. There are flowers everywhere, as well as expensive champagne stems and dinnerware. It looks like a gathering the Queen might hold at Buckingham Palace. Act Two's countryhouse is a comfortable mansion, the type that again is more fitting for the Queen of England than a wealthy courtesan. Big bed, upholstered furniture, oriental rugs. The only odd touch is a pool table. Flora's party has a huge staircase and four chandeliers and again seems to be a gathering for royalty. Violetta dies in a luxurious bedroom that makes you wonder who's paying the bills. Yet the production is very beautiful for those who prefer a traditional Traviata. It's tasteful, safe, if a bit constipated. La Scala has a long history of luxurious productions of La Traviata, perhaps the most famous being Visconti's 1955 production for Callas.

To give you an idea of what the production looks like, here are a few pictures.
Just two nice ladies

Very polite dinner party

Dying was never so beautiful

2nd act country estate





La Scala also has a reputation for being inhospitable to Violettas. Renata Tebaldi was booed, as was Mirella Freni. Angela Gheorghiu is another list of prominent Violettas who got booed by Scala's famously unforgiving crowd during the first performance. This performance was apparently taken from a later performance, where the diva takes grand curtain calls to hearty cheers. It's hard to understand why she'd get booed. It's 13 years after Gheorghiu's breakthrough performance at Covent Garden, and it's interesting to see how her interpretation of Violetta has changed and how it's stayed the same. Obviously she's older, so her interpretation no longer has the youthful feel of her Covent Garden performances. But there are other changes. Gheorghiu is now a grand diva, and her Violetta is full of old-fashioned mannerisms. Hand to forehead, twirling around the ballroom, balling her fists together, Gheorghiu does it all now. That it doesn't descend into camp is a testament to her stage charisma, and the fact that she's an incredibly savvy performer who also knows exactly when to dial down the grand diva mannerisms. It's also one of those cases where a performer naturally seems to fit a role. Gheorghiu's pale skin, dark hair, and chiseled face look strikingly like the portraits we have of Marie Duplessis, the real-life inspiration for La Traviata.


I found Gheorghiu's Violetta weakest in Act One. Too brittle, charmless, mannered. It's Act Two and Three where Gheorghiu proves that she's still one of the world's best Violettas. She knows exactly what she wants from the role, and how to achieve those effects -- she knows when to thin her voice to an absolute thread, and then to swell it in crescendo. She knows when to sound hoarse and weak, and when to sound revitalized and strong. She knows exactly when to cough, and when to gasp for air, and when she should start crying. She knows how to milk moments like "Amami Alfredo" for all they are worth. She even knows when to mark the score, so she can save her voice for the Big Moments. It's calculating, but effective. Her voice has remained remarkably well-preserved over the years -- there's a bit of hardening on the high C's in "Sempre libera," and her lower register, never her strongest, has gotten more inaudible, but the dusky, smoky voice is still basically intact. Still, I prefer her 1994 effort for its less mannered, calculating feel. The production by Richard Eyre for Covent Garden I also find to be a more moving, less pretentious production than the La Scala production.

A comparison of "Ah forse lui/Sempre libera" from 1994 and 2007:

1994, Covent Garden

2007, La Scala

A comparison of "Alfredo, di questo core" from 1994 and 2007:

1994, Covent Garden

2007, La Scala
A comparison of "Addio del passato":

1994, Covent Garden

2007, La Scala

Where this production of Traviata is superior to Gheorghiu's earlier video is in the surrounding cast. Ramon Vargas, chubby and a bit stiff, has a sweet voice and an old-fashioned air about him that fits in well with this production. He gets to sing "O mio rimorso" but skips the high C at the end. But he's much easier on the ears than the dry-voiced Frank Lopardo. Roberto Frontali is also an improvement over Leo Nucci. His voice is warmer and richer, and his characterization preferable to Nucci's -- the role of the stern patriarch is more natural, less a stock character. Germont's cabaletta is cut.

Lorin Maazel in general conducts an unremarkable Traviata but during the final bars, he seems to switch gears and think that he's Furtwangler and this is Beethoven's Fifth. Slow, deliberate crashing bars to the end, and this weird effect isn't helped by a shot of him in the pit looking very angry.

The camerawork is very poor. Unrelenting closeups only show the fact that Gheorghiu is wearing a mask of stage makeup even as she's supposed to be on her deathbed, and that Vargas sweats a lot when he sings, and he seems to have stolen the world's supply of hair gel. You can also see where Gheorghiu's wig is pasted to her scalp, and when they show a close-up of her hands you can see her very 21st century French manicure. That's never a good thing, to be able to see that much detail in a production that obviously prides itself on period detail. More distant shots would have helped and given the whole video a less hokey look.

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And thus concludes my video review of all my Traviatas. Obviously I love this opera, it's how I ended up with so many videos. Of the videos I reviewed, there's not a single one that is absolutely without value. Anna Moffo's film is pedestrian but captures one of the classiest, vocally loveliest Violettas. Renata Scotto's video has poor image quality and a bare-bones touring production but has some of the most idiomatic singing, plus Jose Carreras's uniquely sweet Alfredo. The Zeffirelli film is filmed with disfiguring cuts and a Violetta who can no longer sing the music, but visually has some striking moments. Angela Gheorghiu's first Traviata video is one of the great performances caught on record. Both Robert Carsen and Willy Decker presented thought-provoking, modernized productions with excellent casts. And Angela Gheorghiu's second Traviata is notable for her mature interpretation of the role, as well as a better supporting cast than her first video.

If pressed though, I think two videos are indispensable: Angela Gheorghiu's 1994 performance, and the 2005 Salzburg Festival video.

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