Although the taxing lead role of Violetta in Verdi's La traviata is difficult to cast, the opera has been rather well served on record. Most of the greatest sopranos have attempted it over the years, and nearly every interpretation - from Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland to Anna Moffo and Victoria de los Angeles - offers something interesting, even the more flawed recordings. More recently, we've had Ileana Cotrubas in Carlos Kleiber's recording, Valerie Masterson in a classic English-language account, and for me, best of all, Angela Gheorghiu and Sir Georg Solti's utterly fresh account on Decca.
So this new live recording with Verdi has a lot to live up to. Deutsche Grammophon based the release on a series of performances at the Salzburg Festival last summer, when Netrebko, Rollando Villazón and Thomas Hampson under the conductor Carlo Rizzi apparently brought the audience to its feet in standing ovations 'not seen since Karajan's heyday'. Perhaps Willy Decker's new production was partly responsible for this, and the performance will be released on DVD in 2006 to allow us to judge for ourselves.Certainly the CD release is marvellous, with no serious casting flaw. But although the recording outdoes many of its historical rivals, memories of Cotrubas, Gheorghiu and even Callas are untouched. Netrebko's coloratura in the big Act I aria is less secure than any of these three figures, with clipped notes and uneven tempi, and somehow the excitement levels aren't quite as high. She finds a greater level of emotion in both scenes of Act II, however, her downfall at the hands of Giorgio Germont intensely moving and her reaction to Alfredo's public insult of her bringing delicate nobility to the role. The set is worth buying for this reason alone, and the death scene is as emotionally draining as one could hope.
Netrebko is blessed by being partnered by the multi-facted Alfredo of Rollando Villazon. In the theatre I have found his voice small, if beautifully formed, but the recording evens up the levels and the result is pleasing. Ardently sung, Villazon's take on the role combines intelligence and lyricism, and the confrontation scene in Act II Scene II is dark-hued.
Thomas Hampson isn't everyone's cup of tea in Verdi roles, but the insight he brings as Germont pčre is more than compensatory. In particular he deals well with his big entrance at Flora's party, setting off a largo concertante of great passion and surprisingly even ensemble values.
Indeed the recording as a whole is even, and if that extra spark of excitement is missing, neither weathered Verdians nor diehard Netrebko fans will be disappointed.