La Traviata was the most modern text that Verdi ever set, and its realistic portrayal of illness and raw emotional charge reflect this ‘modernism’. Written in 1853, the same year as Il Trovatore, La Traviata tells the story of the ill-fated love between Violetta, a Parisian courtesan, and Alfredo, a callow man of neither common sense nor fortune.
Verdi’s musical interpretation of the story is quite astonishing, even 152 years after its premiere. In typical style, he juxtaposes the poignant Prelude, which depicts Violetta’s illness and sadness, with an exuberant party scene in which frivolousness and vivacity are rife. This procedure is repeated throughout the opera, even in its final act: Violetta is dying, alone and poor, in her apartment, while the strains of the carnival outside are heard through the window.
Romance, however, is very much at the heart of La Traviata, as heard in the frequent waltz-like accompaniments to many of the arias. Richard Eyre’s production for the Royal Opera, now in a revival by Patrick Young, may successfully portray the modern and medical aspects of the opera, but it often fails, sadly, to get to the romantic heart of the work. However, Eyre does, at least, allow the text to speak for itself rather than loading the piece with ‘concepts’.
The lead role of Violetta is one of the most impossible roles for any soprano, and only Angela Gheorghiu has succeeded in portraying most aspects of the character in recent times. However, the new Violetta, the French soprano Norah Amsellem, gave a satisfying account of the role on the whole. She possessed the coloratura necessary for the cabaletta at the end of the first act, was gut-wrenching in the second act encounter with Alfredo’s father, and was especially excellent in the final act, when she held the audience in the palm of her hand with some beautiful high pianissimo and general legato singing in the aria, Addio del passato. Occasionally Amsellem stepped too far out of character in an attempt to show off her vocal prowess, but was otherwise enjoyable.
Joseph Calleja played Alfredo. Calleja possesses an old-time tenor in the manner of Bjorling, but he lacks sufficient power for some of the bigger moments. True, his aria in the first scene of Act 2 was beautifully sung, but he could not dominate sufficiently in the dramatic final scene of that act.
The star of the evening was in many respects Anthony Michaels-Moore, playing Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father. He produced amazing tone throughout, especially in Di provenza il mar, and also showed a vivid acting ability, portraying the manipulative father with an inventive sincerity.
The chorus and orchestra were in excellent form under Maurizio Benini, who showed again what can be done with revival productions. He did a magnificent job on Faust last year, and here again showed a knowledge of the importance of the orchestra in the drama while providing a sympathetic accompaniment.
Well worth catching for a satisfying, though unchallenging, evening of Verdi.