Who among opera buffs have not seen the old videos from the NHK Hall with Japanese subtitles and Mario del Monaco, Giulietta Simionato et al indulging in a plethora of stock gestures surrounded by merely functional sets? I have certainly seen my share of such black and white movies, but never thought I would see one of them live – in something very close to sepia.
The Bunka Kaikan Concert Hall itself is a time tunnel – Kunyo Mayekawa’s 1961 building has an outdated charm with its hallmark wood decoration on the auditorium’s side walls that almost makes you believe that Renata Scotto and Carlo Bergonzi are going to be your Violetta and Alfredo. However, my ticket offered me instead Daniela Bruera and Stefano Secco for this evening’s La Traviata.
The absence of colours other than variations of brown in the sets, the repeated use of lace curtains to hide the change in scenic elements upstage, the oversentimentalized approach of Beppe de Tomasi’s production (refurbished by Norio Baba) and a stage direction that consisted basically on indicating entrances and exits – all that could be a cherishable visit to the golden age if there were a concept behind it. And a key element of it would have to be the larger-than-life stage charisma singers of that generation used to exude. I do not want to fault the group of talented singers assembled here – it is the director’s responsibility to drench the cast in a stylistic concept. That did not happen here. When you have a singer frozen in the middle of a gesture in the end of an act waiting for the lights to fade, it is very clear that something is really wrong in the larger picture.
I have known Daniela Bruera’s previously as Despina in Barenboim’s video of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte from the Staatsoper unten der Linden and my first impression tonight was indeed that Violetta was quite a stretch for her. Her basic tone has this quicksilvery sweetness of a soprano taylor-made for the -ina roles, but Bruera is a singer capable of the necessary morbidezza in the lyric moments. She does sound stressed in more exposed passages, when diction and pitch also have its dubious patches, but she can gather her resources to pierce through the orchestra when this is necessary. She is a cunning singer and knows where her strengths lie – she is unfazed by the coloratura demands, can float soaring high mezza voce and produce beautiful legato phrasing when not taxed by the writing. However, what makes her Violetta a praiseworthy creation is the aura of naiveté and tenderness that makes sense into this story of a fallen-woman-turned-into-angel.
Violetta is a character that only makes sense if you understand her as someone whose lifetime as an outcast has developed a strong desire for approval, what she finally finds not in Alfredo, but in his father – she is ultimately a fatherless girl who wants someone to say she has done it right in the end of the day. This vulnerability, this willingness to please (who has taken Violetta to the life of a courtesan) is exactly what Bruera’s pretty but not patrician soprano was able to portray. Her touching Addio del passato was definitely the highlight of the whole evening.
Stefano Secco’s bright easy tenor has its overly open moments but he is a likeable Alfredo who is not afraid of pulling back to softer dynamics and of colouring the text. He was particularly effective in the end of Act II, when he portrayed his character’s regret for his rash behaviour to perfection. A colourless interpolated high c following a series of unsung phrases in O mio rimorso may be overlooked considered this singer’s achievements in this performance.
Although Masato Makino seemed not to be in his best shape (his low register became quite wayward right in the moment of his big aria (here performed with the complete cabaletta), his was the most immediately impressive voice tonight: a pleasant large firm-toned baritone, a bit hard in the upper reaches. He has feeling for Verdian phrasing and is particularly musicianly too. Germont, père, is not the most eventful of roles and I would have to hear him more before I say that he seems to be a valuable Verdi baritone.
Conductor’s Giuliano Carella’s hard-driven performance suggested a Toscaninian inspiration, what placed a strong demand on his orchestra, which acquitted itself really commendably, especially in fast divisions. If Carella showed mastery in the art of giving a dramatic purpose to his phrasing, especially in what regards recitative accompaniment, I would say he failed into recognizing that some passages were crying for a moment to breathe and achieve the right effect, such as the big concertato in the end of act II. Also, his rhythmic straightjacket paired with the absence of really full-toned strings led him to the trap of making some passages sound like marching band-music.