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Saturday, January 15, 2011

Italian Traviata in Japan

Next up in my La Traviata video marathon: a 1973 performance from Tokyo that has probably as idiomatic of a cast as could be found: Renata Scotto as Violetta, Jose Carreras as Alfredo, and Sesto Bruscantini as Germont. It is also available now on VAI.

The video is taken from a live broadcast, and it has embedded Japanese subtitles in the background. The video is okay, but not great. All the then-traditional cuts are taken (both Germont's and Alfredo's cabalettas, parts of "Parigi o cara," the second verses of "Ah forse lui" and "Addio del passato," plus one unusual cut right after the final "Oh gioia! in the orchestration). The production is traditional, but somewhat drab and bare-bones. Ironically, this makes the settings believable -- Violetta's party in Act One looks like a smallish gathering in a spacious Parisian apartment. The country house also looks like something Violetta could actually realistically afford. Flora's party doesn't seem to take place in a palace. The last act really does take place in a sparsely decorated bedroom.

One watches this Traviata not for the production though, but for the singing. Renata Scotto is now considered to be the last genuine post-war Italian soprano, for better or for worse. She has the dark, thick, ripe middle voice that was such a part of their appeal, along with the unreliable, shrill top that was also part of the package. In 1974 she hadn't yet taken on the heavier roles, and her voice still has a lightness and agility that would disappear in the later videos she made at the Met. Vocally, she's a more stylized singer than Anna Moffo. She was one of those Violettas who did like to add vocal effects, with a tendency to play with the dynamics a lot. Lots of ppp's and gasping for air during "Addio del passato," taking the voice down to an absolute thread and then swelling it back up in crescendo in "Parigi o cara" and "Gran dio" and other effects. It's a joy to hear her sharp, pointed Italian diction though, and even the more acidulous timbre in this role.

Physically, she was also still chubby. It takes away her believability as a frail, consumptive courtesan, but does give the performance a kind of old-fashioned charm. I even love her thick frumpy red wig. Her acting tends to be on the broad side, it doesn't have the subtlety those later Met videos would show, but it does have an old-fashioned, unaffected, almost veristic approach. One thing about Scotto though is that she loves to play with her rather hands as she sings -- the hand movements were much-imitated but seen in an entire opera on closeup, they probably lost the effect that they likely had in the theater. Oh there they cross her heart, then they spread out like eagles, and then they twiddle aimlessly. This is a large-scale theater effect, and not meant for the intimacy of video.

Another great bonus in the performance is the young, fresh-voiced, sweet-faced Jose Carreras. Carreras is another singer who took on heavier and heavier roles that taxed his basically lyrical instrument. But what a joy it is to see an Alfredo who's earnest instead of stiff, who seems genuinely in love, and who one can imagine visiting Violetta when she was sick. And how lovely his youthful voice was! It's unfortunate that the performance observed the then-standard cut of "O mio rimorso."

Sesto Bruscantini is Germont pere and his is also a rather old-fashioned interpretation. Recent interpretations of Germont have tended to emphasize his hypocrisy and coldness. But Bruscantini, with his glasses and stolid style, makes Germont a country gentleman, a bit stuffy, but basically a good man. Vocally he's smooth-voiced and appealing, his voice doesn't have the glamour of a lot of the bigger star baritones of his era, but compared to the dry barking we've had to endure for so many years (paging Thomas Hampson), it's refreshing to hear a Verdi baritone with real weight and meat to the voice.

This video, along with the 1968 film, I think show the relatively straightforward, no-fuss, no-muss approach to Traviata that was prevalent at the time. The story is told in a simple A-B-C fashion, the interpretations are sensitive without ever reaching for high tragedy, the acting tends to emphasize the romantic aspects of the story, rather than the lurid spectacle of a woman dying before our eyes. This is a live performance, and has a realness to it that the Moffo film lacks, but which video you prefer is likely to depend on which soprano you like better.

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