Recording of March 2006: Verdi: La Traviata

VERDI: La Traviata Anna Netrebko, Violetta; Rolando Villazón, Alfredo; Thomas Hampson, Germont; others; Vienna Philharmonic, Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, Carlo Rizzi
Deutsche Grammophon B0005529-02 (2 CDs). 2005. Rainard Maillard, prod.; Jurgen Bulgrin, eng. DDD. TT: 2:04:13
Performance ****
Sonics ****

This stunning new Traviata, fresh from last summer's Salzburg Festival, is a performance to live with. There's a big hole in the middle of it, but believe it or not, one can live with that hole, given how fine the positives are.

306rotm.jpgAnna Netrebko's Violetta is significant. On her recent recital CD she sang some chirpy coloratura repertoire—her calling card and fach of choice up till now—but also included Desdemona's "Willow Song" and "Ave Maria," and darkened her middle voice sufficiently to make the grand scena enormously effective. Here she seems to have it all—almost. Her charisma comes through even on discs; the voice is gorgeous; she uses dynamics and breath to great dramatic effect (even if the frequent breathing seems like a way to increase volume at times). She exudes an aura of fragility and melancholy even in the Act I duet with Alfredo, and her impetuous launch into the bridge after a lovely "Ah, fors'e lui" is vivid and telling, though the coloratura is smudged. "Sempre libera" is stunning, and she avoids the interpolated E-flat at the end—perhaps a clue as to which direction her fach is headed.

She's authoritative at the start of Act II, nicely withdrawn in "Die alla goivane," and manages a grand, broad, "Amami, Alfredo," with the help of some big, deep breaths before each phrase. The Gambling Scene is a bit lightweight. After a small but successful letter reading, she sings both verses of "Addio del passato" with great feeling and just-right tone, but ends each verse on a sweet, soft pianissimo that just happens to be flat. She misses an opportunity with "Gran dio! Morir si giovane!"—she may still be a size too small to pull it off—but the opera's final moments are properly touching. Her entire portrayal lingers with appreciation and warmth in the mind despite her dreadful Italian diction—we too often find ourselves playing "name that vowel" to forget it.

There are no complaints to be made about the Alfredo of Rolando Villazón. He is being compared favorably with Plácido Domingo, but I will go further: Domingo was (is) a remarkable singer and musician, but one does not remember him for his great ideas about a role—as one does, say, Jon Vickers. Villazón has ideas, and furthermore, his voice is both more pliable and colorful than Domingo's. In the thoroughly realistic dialogue before "Un di felice" his tentative attitude is charming, and he's fervent and thoughtful in the duet itself. His Act II aria is long-breathed and raptly delivered, tones tapered with true sensitivity to music and text. He sounds hypnotically involved. "O mio rimorso" is filled with wild emotion and capped with an impeccable high C, and one can practically see him trembling as he reads Violetta's note later on. He's animalistic and truly terrifying in the Gambling Scene without distorting the vocal line. There's something of Giuseppe di Stefano's passion in Villazón, but his voice is darker and larger, so there's never the same sense of strain. And Villazón's Act III is as sad and rueful as I've heard it. Throughout, he and Netrebko sing together as Nureyev and Fonteyn danced—ideal partners, full of similar subtleties—making the performance hard to resist. They have more chemistry than Gheorghiu and Alagna. Wow!

The fly in the ointment is the Germont of Thomas Hampson. I don't mind his portrayal—he's a very angry Germont who spits out syllables as if they were poison darts—but his voice has utterly lost its luster, and, let's face it, he was never a Verdi baritone. At times ("Dite alla giovane," some bits in Act III) his piano singing wins the day, but mostly the voice is dry, and his cabaletta after "Di provenza" is so taxing that he sounds as if he's about to collapse. His entrance after Alfredo so potently denounces Violetta should be entirely authoritative, and Hampson does have conviction here, but the sound is that of a comprimario: a Marullo in Rigoletto's clothing. Sorry to say it, but it's true. The remainder of the cast neither impresses nor depresses.

Carlo Rizzi's leadership is bizarrely fast at times—his orchestra and chorus can't quite find each other in the chorus preceding "E strano," and the Gypsies and matadors sound vaguely insane—but his pair of young lovers can keep up with him, and the excitement in the Gambling Scene is palpable. The death scene, however, is lugubrious in the extreme and seems somewhat bloated. The Vienna Philharmonic is positively aglow.

The sound is excellent despite stage noises. (Can Villazón really be tossing Netrebko around like a rag doll in the big confrontation? And what on earth are they doing with one another at the start of Act II?) And if this really was taped live at the Salzburg Festival, then the notoriously quiet audience has lived up to its reputation; indeed, they may have been stuffed and mounted: no coughing, no applause, no nothing. Of course, you can't live without recordings by Callas (1955, with di Stefano, under Giulini) or Sutherland (with Bergonzi), but Netrebko's Violetta and Villazón's Alfredo are extraordinary and can stand up to the best.—Robert Levine