I would not have believed that I would see again Götz Friedrich’s production of Verdi’s La Traviata, but I was too curious to resist the opportunity to hear Vittorio Grigolo live for the first time in my life and to see Patrizia Ciofi again (actually, I saw her once in her all too short contribution to a performance of Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges conducted by Lorin Maazel in the Avery Fisher Hall a couple of years ago). Then I discovered that Leo Nucci was to sing the role of Germont, père, and all things considered I like him and was impressed by his forceful Macbeth in Vienna back in 1999.
I would like to be in Patrizia Ciofi’s mind for 10 seconds to discover why she has decided to lead her career towards Romantic roles that are invariably heavy for her delicate voice. She is an intelligent singer, with a lovely fleece-like tonal quality, clear diction and foolproof musicianship. Her intonation is so pure that some much abused phrases in the part of Violetta Valéry sounded unusually fresh to my ears. However, she lacks the low register for much of the role and has to cheat with parlando effects that soon became predictable. Also, passages that require a heftier voice too often sound tremulous and squally. The closing of Sempre libera deserved praise for the wrong reasons – although she was experiencing the horrors of overpartedness, she could nonetheless cold-bloodily manage failing resources to vocalize in the most uncomfortable vowels and more or less keeping the text, even while venturing into an uncomfortable high e flat and then closing the aria without the ah, sì usually invented to produce an extra breath pause. As it was, Ciofi would sound particularly convincing in the tender lyric moments as Dite alla giovine.
Before Luciano Pavarotti’s death, you would hardly read a positive assessment of his artistry but often a mention to the end of the era of overweight tenors – but once he was not here anymore, everyone quickly remembered the pleasure of hearing an unbelievably spontaneous voice even to the very end of the tenor range and sometimes beyond. It is most curious that some reviewers had decided that Vittorio Grigolo is the new Pavarotti, with the extra advantage that he cuts a Romantic figure on stage. Although the young Italian tenor certainly relishes the leading man routine even when the situation requires a little bit more abandon, he will have to eat far more pasta if he wants to sound remotely close to Pavarotti. The 1,000,000-question is: whence the comparison? If I had to say that there is something in common between these voices, it would be: both are Italianate lyric tenors with an immediate, natural sound and unforced projection. I had no problem hearing Grigolo’s voice, even when the orchestra was indeed loud. Which is the difference? Before Pavarotti became the world’s tenor next door, he had sung some very difficult bel canto roles, including Arturo in Bellini’s I Puritani and he even toyed with Mozart’s Idomeneo. His liquid, gracious and full-toned singing of these roles inscribed his name in the history of opera. While Grigolo works hard for mezza voce, is sensitive to the text and is all-right fervent and impetuous, can anyone seriously imagine him in a Donizetti or a Bellini opera? Considering that he won’t be able to sing Radamès or Manrico, this is not a rhetorical question. He certainly has the elements of an important voice, but they are a bit chaotically handled – his voice seems to be placed in many different ways, sometimes in the same phrase; he is amazingly free with tempo (and I don’t mean in the I-know-better-than-the-composer, Caballé-like way) and the high register is often too open and unconnected to the rest of the voice. O mio rimorso was all over the place and what he sang before a tense high c was not really what Verdi wrote. But don’t mistake me – it has been a while since I’ve heard a truly pleasing-toned natural Italian tenor who also happens to have some imagination. If a more solid technique had been applied to it, I can only imagine what he would be able to do.
As for Leo Nucci, I am tempted to write about a veteran’s performance, but his voice is still so firm and powerful that he could still hold the competition to some singers in this repertoire. Of course, there are occasional rough patches and he finds it hard to soften his tone and is often wooden and unconcerned, but still, when it comes to truly “honest” singing, he gave the evening’s most commendable performance. I must not forget Andrea Ihle’s beautifully acted Annina and Jana Kurucová’s lustrous-toned Flora.
Roberto Rizzi Brignoli belongs to these conductors who likes to conduct his orchestra with frantic gestures and loud hissing. I find it distracting – and it seems that the orchestra did not warm to the approach. The louder he hissed, the more impassive the orchestra seemed to be. Although the audience understood from the hissing that there should be more passion in the music-making, the passion was left to imagination. I know, no orchestra can really have fun playing Verdi’s La Traviata, but a sensitive conductor makes all the difference of the world in this music. I did find the flowing tempi pleasant, but the poor synchrony in the orchestra, between orchestra and chorus and some singers (following the evening’s leading tenor’s wayward rhythm is actually a feat to any conductor – and Brignoli really did his best in this department) suggests limited rehearsing. After the intermission, the performance evidently improved – the big ensemble in the end of the scene depicting Flora’s party was very well-balanced and the prelude to the last act was quite sensitively played.