Renée Fleming returns to the Royal Opera as Verdi’s doomed courtesan, and rightly wins all hearts with her breathtaking performance. She is surrounded by superlative talent that makes this one of the company’s starriest nights of the season and a rousing start to their Italian Season.
Richard Eyre’s production of La Traviata has been revived countless times since its first appearance in 1994, which catapulted Angela Gheorghiu to stardom, but surprisingly this was my first encounter with it, and very impressed I was too. Bob Crowley’s designs may necessitate longer intervals than ideally desired, but they were worth it to accommodate the sumptuousness and period detail of his bold and exquisite sets.
The fact that Eyre was on hand to revive the production himself meant the whole evening had the feel of a new production as his directorial guidance was evident in the minutely-observed detail of the three central relationships. It was heartening to see that the drama was given as much importance as the musical values, and as those values were world class all the elements came together to make this an unforgettable La Traviata.
Renée Fleming’s last staged opera in London was a run of Desdemonas four years ago, so there was a heightened sense of expectancy as not only has that absence been too long, but she was tackling one of the most difficult bel canto roles in the repertoire in a house that has a long and illustrious line of performers who have made the role of Violetta their own. This evidently didn’t daunt the American soprano who embodied the role 100% and delivered some of the most beautiful soprano singing I’ve ever heard.
Vibrant, audacious and throwing off the coloratura in ‘Sempre libera’ in Act One she rightly brought the house down, but it was the way she acted with the voice in the ensuing acts that gave notice that we were in the presence of a star. Her ability to whiten the tone when anguished and spin a barely audible pianissimo where required was mesmerising. Although I was blown away by the technical assurance of her singing, for some reason I wasn’t as moved as I have been in the past by far less starrier sopranos. Maybe there was a slight undercurrent of coolness to her Violetta, but it’s a small gripe in light of an otherwise triumphant performance.
It’s hard to imagine the male roles better cast. As Joseph Calleja proved why he is in such demand by all the major opera houses across the globe. His tenor has a fast, appealing vibrato and despite the fact there wasn’t much sexual chemistry between him and Fleming, he give an exquisitely nuanced performance full of Italianate warmth. As his father, Thomas Hampson gave a towering performance and almost stole the show. In the pit Antonio Pappano exuded warmth and a deep understanding of the score and was rewarded with superlative playing from the orchestra. It’s hard to imagine a better start to the Royal Opera’s Italian Season.
La Traviata plays at the Royal Opera House between 18 June and 3 July 2009. The performance on 30 June will be broadcast live in cinemas throughout the UK and Europe as well as on Big Screens in various open-air locations, including Trafalgar Square and Canary Wharf. A complete list of participating venues can be found at roh.org.uk