The Spectator
Michael Tanner
Verdi: La traviata, Royal Opera House, 14 January 2008
Powerful trio of stars
Something I didn’t think was possible has happened this last week: I have been strongly moved by a performance of La traviata. That was due very largely, of course, to the way the title role was performed. Anna Netrebko may not have the perfect voice for the part, her vocal technique might be lacking in this or that respect, but she was amazing, and was recognised by the audience to be so. She got a reception befitting a great artist who had just delivered a classic account of a major role. My surprise is the greater because I find the hype about her, much of it cleverly auto-generated, incredibly annoying, and I was on the verge of relegating her to that category of fairly gifted singers who are ruined by the contemporary celebrity-making machine. That is still possible, but what this revealed is that she is a remarkable actress, capable of giving a complex and convincing account of what is not really a very satisfactory role, as conceived by Verdi, and working with her colleagues to bring the whole tired old work to vivid new life.

I have never found this production of Richard Eyre’s very satisfactory, and the way that the Royal Opera has, year after year, used it to fill the house for January while its serious concerns lie beyond has usually given it a depressing air of routine, with moderately endowed performers going through the motions. Presumably it was decided that the time had come for Netrebko, who has made several unsensational appearances here already, to be properly launched. There was every sign that care had been taken in thinking the production out anew, with this powerful trio of stars. For Netrebko’s achievement in moving us freshly at Violetta’s fate was helped enormously by the two male leads. Jonas Kaufmann, though to judge from his discreet coughs he was suffering from a cold, sang Alfredo with a freshness to equal Netrebko’s. This Alfredo is a spoilt and handsome youth, experiencing an alarmingly wide range of feelings for the first time and in quick succession, and not prepared for any of them. He copes by sulking or ranting, a more pitifully passive victim than Violetta. Beyond that, Kaufmann and Netrebko generated a sexual tension which I have never before seen even so much as hinted at between this pair of lovers. In steps opera’s prime old misery, to make sure that no one enjoys themselves since he can’t, brought to unusually insinuating life by Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Instead of bawling Violetta out he worms his way into her confidence and demoralises her completely, satisfied that he is acting according to the dictates of morality; and because he is subtler than usual, I minded less that Violetta capitulated to his blackmail.

I still minded somewhat, as I gather Netrebko does. So she puts all the stress not on Violetta’s victimisation by the ghastly collection of hypocrites she is surrounded and even partly defined by, but on her physical agonies as life ebbs rapidly away. This was an intensely corporeal experience, with Violetta emitting croaks and gasps of hideous realism. When that approach is tried normally, it involves bringing up cupfuls of blood. They weren’t needed here, because Netrebko, in her movements utterly different from any of her predecessors’ in this production — and the colours in her voice, as she moved from the anxiety and exhilaration of Act I through the torments of Act II to the illusions and exhaustion of Act III, conveyed Violetta’s decline with an inwardness which would have been cheapened by visual aids. I only wish that, as soon as the curtain came down, Netrebko hadn’t bounded into view to welcome her deserved reception with such lavish smiles: she could have lived the role a little longer. I wish, too, that the appreciative audience didn’t feel called upon to demonstrate its appreciation after every cavatina and cabaletta — oddly enough awarding the loudest applause during the show to Germont’s stupefying ‘Di Provenza’. It was an evening to remember, even so.

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