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Posts Tagged ‘Verdi’s La Traviata’

Unlike Pinky and The Brain, Sonya Yoncheva does not have a plan to conquer the world; she focus on one country at a time. Her journey has really got momentum in France, where she sang everything from Rameau to the three leading roles in Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Her next station was the USA, where her Gilda, Desdemona and Violetta have received rave reviews. Although she had already sung in Germany, a new production of La Traviata made specially for her at the Berlin Staatsoper with Daniel Barenboim seems to be the real beginning of her German “campaign”. I had seen her only once in four very exciting minutes of Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes in the anniversary gala of the Concert d’Astrée – and was eager for more (her lovely CD of French arias plus Violetta’s Sempre Libera made me even more curious), even if it meant having to sit through a whole Traviata. Especially one staged by Dieter Dorn, whose Nozze di Figaro for the Bayerische Staatsoper and Elektra for the Lindenoper are hardly my favorite productions, to put it mildly.

This evening’s Traviata did not made me change my mind. Salvador Dali and Philippe Halsman’s In Voluptas Mors, a photograph showing a skull built from seven naked bodies, is recreated live as an image in Violetta’s mirror, in the top of which there is a very drab looking brown bag supposed to be an hour glass, the sand falling on a writing table. Around it, there is a semicircular black wall with doors. It is a single set for a performance without intermission. This fact alone makes for very problematic situations: Alfredo says he does not have any fun when Violetta is not there – but she is there; Violetta says she is leaving for good, but she is still there. Since the set has almost no piece of furniture, everybody has to sit on the floor and lie down and crawl. This makes me believe that Germont, Snr., is visually challenged – Violetta is shoeless, disheveled, crouching near a wall, there is a lot of her thighs to be seen, and his opinion is “She is so ladylike”. Then he looks around at that rathole and adds “But how about a luxurious place such as this?”. In any case, one could have said: “ok, this is a very ugly Traviata; now let’s focus on everything else!”. But this would not be an easy task. There are some vey basic problems – the blocking is often nonsensical, singers are often uncomfortable with what they have to do and Yoncheva has always her arms stretched out as if she were swimming rather than walking and more than once twirls as a 6-year-old girl… in her anticipation of vortices of pleasure… I don’t want to publish a spoiler, but the death scene is truly embarrassing. Peter Mussbach’s old production was not faultless, but it is worlds apart from this one in atmosphere, Personenregie and insight.

Although I have never been keen on Daniel Barenboim’s Verdi, this evening he has set a new low in his records: to start with, the orchestral sound was so recessed, brassy and unsubtle that one could legitimately believe that the banda off stage was in charge the whole evening through. La Traviata is not one of Verdi’s most inspired examples of writing for the orchestra, and this demands an extraordinary effort from the conductor in order to produce musically and dramatically coherent and refined phrasing. The performance this evening could rather be described as mechanical in terms of rhythm, inexistent in terms of strings and non-functional in terms of expression. If one remembers that the orchestra is the Staatskapelle Berlin, this is even mind-boggling. A moment that exemplifies all the faults in this evening’s performance: the emotional peak in the whole opera is the act II Amami, Alfredo: it features the musical theme of the preludes to act I and act III, it comes as a culmination of a very difficult scene with a truly wide-ranging emotional aspect and it builds up to a vocal and orchestral climax. At this point, Ms. Yoncheva was trying to balance her strengths in a passage that tests her lyric voice. But then the orchestra was still comfortably in ppp. It erupted only abruptly for one second: Amami, AlfrE (outburst from the orchestra)-edo, Amami, quanto io T’A(another outburst)-amo. The effect seemed like cannon shots rather than a crescendo. Why?!

The success of La Traviata depends on the soprano in the leading role – and these performances have a clear advantage there. Sonya Yoncheva is simply the most interesting Violetta Valéry I’ve seen on stage. She knows exactly what every note and word means and does not take any second for granted. She kept me on the edge of my seat during the whole evening by virtue of her imagination and good judgment. To make things better, her voice is interesting in itself. It is not pretty in a classical way and at moments suggests the tonal “flashness” of a Callas (albeit in a lighter and smaller version) with the technical discipline of a singer who sang Mozart and Handel: until act III her passaggio was handled with unfailing precision, not to mention that her coloratura and mezza voce are very adept. And she masters the art of tone coloring – it is a voice that can caress and kill depending on the moment. So why am I not more excited about the performance as a whole? Intelligent, stylish and well-crafted as it was, it never sounded truly sincere. This was Sonya Yoncheva singing La Traviata, and it turned around her many talents, but Violetta’s emotional journey, from the intoxicated despair of act I, via the joys of the newly discovered sense of belonging even at the expense of happiness in act II, towards depression, mourning of her own dreams and hope of spiritual bliss in act III – all this was largely absent. Since act III is also the most challenging to her voice, the lack of a “vision” made this fact very clear. All that said, it is still the most interesting Violetta I’ve seen live (and I’ve seen some very good ones) and I reckon that apter production and conducting plus more experience in the role will make it closer to what it  is meant to be.

Her Alfredo was Moroccan tenor Abdellah Lasri. It is a very particular voice, something like: Joseph Calleja minus the vibratello, the idiomatic Italian, the imagination and the technical finish. Now being fair: he was evidently very nervous, and I am sure that the wrong notes, the frogs and the extra breath pauses probably won’t be there by the end of the run. But there already is plenty to cherish: the good taste, the mezza voce, the flexibility, the naturalness and the good size for a lyric voice. The all-round more complete performance this evening was, however, Simone Piazzola’s as Germont, père. His Renato-Bruson-like baritone may lack some volume in its higher reaches, but the style comes to him without effort and he alone seemed to have some real emotional connection with what was going on on stage, even if one might call the approach rather generalized compared to the prima donna’s meticulous understanding of her lines.

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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.

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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.

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25% of your ticket price? Every opera house states that there is no guarantee in what regards casting: you may pay a fortune to see a dream-team and ultimately have to put up with a second-rate assortment. In this sense, one should praise the Deutsche Opera for its policy of giving a 25% discount-voucher for those who purchased a pricier ticket to see Angela Gheorghiu and were finally surprised (?) by her cancellation, but the underlying question is – in an opera like Verdi’s La Traviata, how much is the prima donna worth? 

I have had the chance of seeing Angela Gheorghiu as Violetta Valéry and found her vocally and scenically compelling, but hardly electrifying. What is beyond doubt is that her stardom has to do with a generalized sense of glamour hard to explain but immediately palpable. Considering how difficult the role is, the Deutsche Oper has done a good job in finding Carmen Gianattasio for replacement.

At any rate, this Italian soprano has offered a praiseworthy performance – the animated applause at the end (especially by orchestra members) is an evidence of that. She seems to belong to the kind of Italian sopranos who are not really concerned about producing beautiful sounds but still respect the basic rules of bel canto somehow.  Although Gianattasio’s soprano has a somewhat veiled tonal quality, her squillante top notes can be quite forceful. She is not entirely adept in coloratura, but is rarely caught short in the key moments for she always finds a musicianly and/or dramatically effective way of dealing with them. Unfortunately, she does not count with mezza voce among her expressive tools, a liability for Addio del passato. As a matter of fact, her Violetta was more incisive and less touching than most. Contrarily to the libretto seems to suggest, she eschewed Germont’s patronizing in their long duet and, when she asks him to hold her as if she were his daughter, it seems more like a fleeting moment of weakness. In act I, there is not much room for loveliness either – her Violetta is more feisty than beguiling and one would not have a doubt about her line of business here. That said, intelligent as her portrait is, Violetta is a prima donna role and the last sparkle of charisma was not there – was it the lack of a more charming tonal quality? It is hard to say, specially when we are speaking of a last-minute replacement performance. But what happens to a Traviata when there is not a prima donna?

I do not believe an Alfredo could make a Traviata memorable, but it certainly helps to have a first-rate tenor in the role. That was not exactly the case this evening. My first impression of James Valenti was extremely positive – his voice is really pleasant – it s a truly dulcet sound, firm, a little dark and easy on the ear. However, it progressively became clear that his comfort zone seats a bit low for a tenor in the Italian repertoire. While his low register was very positive, his top notes were clearly less powerful than the rest of his voice. At first, this was not a problem; he is an elegant singer who is not afraid of softening his tone, but O mio rimorso was a complete misfire. His breath control did not resist his intent of producing a larger sound and, when he abandoned his lines to prepare for the interpolated final note, I feared the worst – and the worst materalised in the shape of a tiny, recessed, nasal and unfocused high c.  I wonder if he is not in the wrong repertoire. To make things worse, he did not seem very comfortable with the stage direction and looked quite goofy making big gestures with his kilometric arms.

Lado Ataneli was the single “important” voice in the role. Although his phrasing has too many cupo moments, his dark, firm, forward-placed baritone finds no difficulties in this role. No wonder he was clearly the audience’s favourite.

La Traviata is a score that tends to sameness and, in the hands of a bureaucratic conductor such as Marco Armiliato, it seems to last forever. To start with, the orchestral sound was kept in such recessed volume throughout that there were moments you could hardly hear it. Even in the preludes to act I and III, no concern about subtlety and variety seemed to exist. The ensemble in the end of act II was such a mess as I have never seen in an important opera house before.

Götz Friedrich’s production was premiered in 1999, in what seems to be the begin of the strange Berliner fashion of  mixing costumes of different decades in the same staging. Here garments that ranged from the 1900 to the 1990 were paraded in one only all-black set that shifted from Violetta’s house to her country villa and to Flora’s place with minimal changes (but for serious decay – in the end, it looks as if a typhoon had visited the place). Maybe that explains why everybody goes and comes back from Paris so fast in act II. Other than this,a hospital bed seems to be “the concept” – disguised as a divan in act I, as… a divan in act II… until you finally see it as a hospital bed in act III.  Do I need to say more?

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