The Observer, Sunday 20 January 2008
Peter Conrad
Verdi: La traviata, Royal Opera House, 14 January 2008
A Violetta to die for
From dazzling elation to the depths of despair, Anna Netrebko astounds in La traviata
'They hate me here,' grumbled the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko when I interviewed her last summer. She was complaining about the half-hearted notices she customarily receives in the British press: the local hacks sniff at a career based, according to them, on glamour and vocal glitz, boosted by the couturiers and jewellers with whom Netrebko has endorsement deals. 'But,' she added in a challenge to herself, 'so far I never did anything great in London.'

On Monday, her predestined chance came when she sang in the Royal Opera's revival of La traviata, and no one who was there will ever forget it. I watched her through my tears, added some hoarse yelping to the hubbub of acclaim that greeted her when it was over, then stumbled home to spend an entirely white night re-enacting it all in my head. In front of the velvet curtain Netrebko herself - instantaneously resurrected after her haggard collapse as the dying courtesan Violetta - jumped up and down in girlish delight, snatching the bouquets tossed at her as a blizzard of confetti whirled down. At that moment she was simply the most excitingly reckless, scorchingly charismatic opera singer in the world, and she had just given the finest performance anyone could remember in one of the most demanding roles in the repertory. She justified her own hype, and also vindicated the venerable art of opera, which stays alive thanks to superlative talents like hers.

I have always been captivated by Netrebko's ecstatic energy: seduction is easy for her, as she demonstrated when she sang an operetta aria about her own hot lips at the Last Night of the Proms in September, transforming the Royal Albert Hall into a stewpot of simmering desire. But I wasn't expecting the introverted restraint and deep compassion that she brought to Violetta, the fallen woman who forgives and redeems her male exploiters and accusers. At Salzburg in 2005 her Violetta was a contemporary party girl, a wired harlot in a miniskirt; at Covent Garden, more sedately costumed to fit the Victorian setting of Richard Eyre's production, she was obliged to look beneath the character's hedonistic surface. Her Salzburg performance was chillingly pathological; at Covent Garden, she was tragic - nobly sacrificial, initially selling sex but later lavishing love on an unworthy world. For the first time ever, I found myself believing that Violetta, dying in poverty, would distribute her remaining coins to the carnival crowd whose jubilation mocks her agony.

The ardour and abandon of Netrebko's singing vouched for Violetta's generosity of spirit. But her finest moments came when she reflectively reined in that opulent voice and confessed her private doubts. The Covent Garden audience, miraculously silenced, leaned forward to catch every nuance of her soft singing, as if eavesdropping on the character's thoughts. Netrebko was even more astonishingly eloquent when she stopped singing, for instance after her lover's father - who parts the young couple to protect his family's reputation - hands Violetta a photograph of his virginal daughter. Netrebko took it, beatifically smiled at an image she should have resented or reviled, then delicately returned it. Within a few mute seconds she had accepted her own end and also quietly asserted her own moral supremacy.

Along with the dazzling elation of Netrebko's top notes and the confessional secrecy of her pianissimi, the sounds I will remember longest were non-musical: the harsh, strangled spasms of coughing which are symptoms of Violetta's fatal illness. The greatest performers take the most audacious risks: I could hardly believe I was hearing Netrebko imperil that lush, expensive throat of hers.

Her self-debasement in the gambling scene was shocking. Sprawled on the floor, she scrambled to collect her lover's discarded winnings, and rubbed the grubby coins on her body. Could Netrebko, I wondered, be reconsidering the pleasure she has so far taken in the material spoils of her career? By the end, despite Violetta's tubercular wasting, she had taken on a true moral grandeur. Her lament for the lost past and her enraged outcry about premature death were purged of self-pity; singing as if from beyond the grave, she was protesting, on behalf of us all, against the iniquity of mortality.

The men in attendance - including the conductor Maurizio Benini - gallantly accepted their secondary status. Jonas Kaufmann could not match Netrebko's vocal fire, but exactly captured the adolescent callowness of Alfredo; his remorse, as he sustained her with false hope on her death bed, was painful to watch. As the elder Germont, Dmitri Hvorostovsky maintained a façade of haughty rectitude while his voice poured out a consoling balm. The suppressed shudder of revulsion with which he refused to embrace Violetta spoke volumes; even more touching was Netrebko's impromptu decision to ignore the slight, which established her as the conscience of this hypocritical society.

Life as a Netrebko fan is not easy: stricken by bronchitis, she cancelled the second performance on Thursday, which must have prompted those with tickets to slash their wrists or swallow poison, if not both at once. But opera is about living dangerously, and the dizzy heights inevitably lead to miserable abysses. Despite that hiccup, Netrebko need have no fear about being hated in London. Now we all love her - and, not wanting to be outdone by the multitude, I personally adore her.

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