The Sunday Times, 20 January 2008
Hugh Canning 
Verdi: La traviata, Royal Opera House, 14 January 2008
La Traviata
Anna Netrebko looks a million dollars, but it’s too soon to call her a great bel canto
Well, she came, she sang, and she finally conquered in London. Already an anointed prima donna at New York’s Metropolitan Opera and the State Operas in Vienna, Munich and Berlin, the glamorous Russian diva du jour, Anna Netrebko, at last had Covent Garden’s audience on their feet for her first appearances in the UK as Verdi’s La Traviata. This hadn’t happened on her previous visits, as Servilia in La Clemenza di Tito (her debut in 2002), as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, and as Gilda in Rigoletto two summers ago. So, is La Netrebko a mega-star? Indubitably. A great Vio-letta? Well, that’s more debatable.

Certainly, she is the first soprano in this glitzy, even showbizzy, but now conventional-looking Royal Opera production – staged back in 1994 by Richard Eyre and designed by Bob Crowley – with anything like the vocal and physical charisma of the title role’s incumbent, the then diva du jour Angela Gheorghiu. If slightly plumper in the face and figure than when she sang her waif-like Gilda two seasons ago, Netrebko wears Crowley’s sensational white and black party frocks with the confidence and poise of a seasoned courtesan. Violetta is one of her “signature” roles, although she shot to fame in the part in a modern-dress Salzburg production, wearing the sort of gear in which she might go shopping on Fifth Avenue today.

She nevertheless looks great in her crinolines, with her long black ringlets à la Marie Duplessis (the real-life courtesan on whom Verdi’s source, Alexandre Dumas, modelled his Lady of the Camellias), oval face and expressive eyes. Netrebko has the requisite physique du rôle, and her voice has grown exponentially since I last heard her sing this opera, four or five years ago in Vienna.

This voice, big and beautiful in the middle and upper registers, now sounds ready for even meatier challenges if she can find more penetrating notes in the lower reaches of the part. Here, they sounded effortful in the crucial Act II encounter with Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s Giorgio Germont, in which he persuades Violetta to give up her affair with his son to protect his family’s honour. She negotiated the coloratura hurdles of her concluding Act I showpiece without mishap, but she doesn’t command the effortless florid technique of a Callas or a Suther-land, which might enable her to throw off the notes with insouciant abandon. She also, wisely, ducked the octave leap to high E flat – it’s not written, so it’s not a crime – that she had attempted in rehearsal. At a Met performance of Bellini’s I Puritani last season, she tried a similar stunt and it bombed embarrassingly. If she has this canary-fancier’s note, she clearly can’t rely on it – another reason I think it is premature to compare Netrebko with the great bel canto sopranos of yore. Her intonation can be dodgy, too, her Italian diction sometimes muddy, and she doesn’t really take the trouble to sing trills. A lot of extra work in these departments needs to be done before greatness in this iconic role can be bestowed on the undeniably talented singer.

Nor did she move me as Gheorghiu had done in 1994, but, to be fair, the older soprano was preparing the opera for the first time in her career, from scratch, in an intensively rehearsed new production. Almost 15 years later, Netrebko certainly lifts a “routine” revival way above the level of a run-of-the-mill Royal Opera repertoire Traviata, and the pleasure of hearing such a big, well-produced sound in a theatre the size of Covent Garden is undeniable.

Her Violetta also earns a big “Brava!” from me for declining to do this production’s absurd lap of honour as she thinks her health is being restored before she dies. It is surely a mistake for her to scrabble around for the gambling chips Alfredo has thrown at her in the Flora party scene, when her humiliation is complete. It was tactless, then, of Netrebko’s fans to shower her with what looked like Monopoly money at her curtain call. I know flowers are pricey in January, but it seemed a rather cheap celebration for a new-crowned queen of Covent Garden.

Whatever one’s reservations about the details of Netrebko’s performance, there was unquestionably a gala-night atmosphere at the Royal Opera House on Monday. The prima donna was aided and abetted by a maestro, the excellent Maurizio Benini, who knows exactly how this opera should go, and by luxury supporting partners in Jonas Kaufmann’s dashing Alfredo and Hvorostovsky’s seasoned Germont. The young German tenor made less of an impact than he had in Carmen last season, but he seemed to be suffering from a cold – he coughed and sniffed discreetly into his hands, and the sun didn’t come out in his high notes until Act III. He is a touching actor and an exceptionally musical singer, which made his ill-advised octave leap at the end of his big Act II solo all the more inexplicable. Hvorostovsky’s breath control, and the phrasing of his Provence aria, are still to be wondered at, but his voice sounds greyer than it did in this staging in 1996 and 2001. All told, though, this was a starry night.

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