For someone who has truly lost interest in La Traviata, I’ve been quite often in the opera house for it. To be more specific, the only reason why I went to the Deutsche Oper today was Anja Harteros – and maybe I was curious to see Simon Keenlyside after a while (last time, it was 1999) – but it was not to be, for he cancelled due to illness. In any case, an entirely non-Italian cast proved to be interesting. Götz Friedrich’s thoroughly outdated production was given an accidental freshen-up out of having a non-narcissistic tenor and a world-class diva in the title role.
Anja Harteros has sung the role of Violetta Valéry in the world’s leading opera houses and developed her stage performance with various directors, and I can only guessed that, faced with the prevailing shabbiness, she has brought her own stage direction as prime donne in the XVIIIth century would do with their arie di baule. Truth be said, the German soprano’s overall attitude is unfit for the role – she seems more voracious than seductive in act I, more regal than vulnerable in act II and more tragical than touching in act III – but her intent to inhabit the stage and react to what happens in it simply made the show more interesting. This does not mean that it was a gripping performance – theatrically speaking, it was not. It was rather an affair of craftiness than of emotional generosity. But then she needed a director to guide her through this process. In act III, when she decided to stumble around a bit to show Violetta’s declining health and yet her willingness to go on, the poor tenor probably did not get what was going on and kept to what has been blocked, leaving his ailing beloved to fall to the ground and get up by herself. One could say “of course, he is a tenor!”, but I have one good thing to say about Pavel Cernoch. As he seemed to be really doing what he was told to do, his Alfredo seemed particularly composed and naive, what makes far more sense with the libretto than the usual bravado displayed by most tenors. For once, his increasing childishness in his act II scene with his father (by the end, he was in fetal position on a couch) explained a lot his subsequent behavior.
Although Yves Abel conducting missed some important theatrical moments (particularly Alfredo’s “denunciation” of Violetta in Flora’s party), he did give time for his orchestra and singers to build their phrases in a musicianly and meaningful way. The orchestra, in spite of some blunders (especially in the overture), had a beautiful, full sound and the overall impression was of polish and elegance. With the help of his soprano and his baritone’s expressive performances, this approach has somehow paid off.
It is not only Anja Harteros’s attitude that seems distant to the role of Violetta, her big, creamy lyric soprano is not Italianate and lacks the brightness usually associated to it. But what she has works very well for the role – the voice fills the theatre without problem, her low notes are natural, her high notes never turn out shrill and she has enough flexibility for the fioriture. Actually, she seems in absolute command of what she has to do in this difficult part, what is already remarkable. I would guess that she has probably studied some of her famous predecessors’ performances; she seems in this role very keen on producing some hallmark “Italian” qualities, such as the tasteful use of portamento, knowing where to let the natural rhythm of Italian language to lead the way and some acting with the voice (that I am not too happy about). Her balance between portraying the deterioration of Violetta’s health and keeping a pure line in act III was extremely well-judged, and I will not be able to tell if the sudden choke that interrupted a sustained pianissimo was involuntary or not – it just worked perfectly in the situation.
Markus Brück proved to be more than a replacement for Keenlyside – I sincerely doubt that that the British baritone would have done better. As always in Italian roles, Brück sings with unfailing grace, almost Mozartian musicianship and with more than necessary volume and firmness of tone. I know I have written here that some of his Wagner performances were disappointing – especially Beckmesser and Gunther – but I would like to make clear that Brück is a first-rate singer who deserved more acknowledgment outside Berlin.
As for Pavel Cernoch, I am not sure if this repertoire is the best fit for him. At first, he sounds like the poor man’s Neil Shicoff, but unlike the American tenor he lacks brightness and slancio in his high register – and the problematic optional high c in O mio rimorso was reached by virtue of good, old falsettone. He seems to be a sensitive singer and avoided vulgarity throughout, but the voice is basically too tight and lacking roundness for Italian opera. The performance booklet says Steva in Janacek’s Jenufa is his calling-card role and I can bet he sounds far better in it.