Jim Pritchard
Verdi: La traviata, Royal Opera House, 17 January 2008
Verdi, La traviata
Anna Netrebko sang on the first night and conquered her London audience as Violetta but then fell sick with a recurrence of bronchitis. The Royal Opera management must be sick themselves of the ‘cancellitis’ they have had to endure this season. But in true ‘show must go on fashion’ a potentially great disappointment for the sold-out house was turned into a memorable voyage of discovery. A new operatic superstar may not exactly have been discovered – Ermonela Jaho who flew in has after all been singing the role since she was 17 and performed it in Tirana, Germany, Italy and France – but she will be welcomed back to Covent Garden anytime. She is undoubtedly one of Albania’s finest exports,

Richard Eyre’s monumental and very solid production was new in November 1994 and I saw it then with Angela Gheorghiu as Violetta, Frank Lopardo (Alfredo) and Leo Nucci (Germont) and conducted by Georg Solti. This opening night won for Gheorghiu stardom almost overnight. Redolent of the opulent architecture of the Paris of Napoleon III with costumes to match it begins with a vision of Violetta reclining on a chaise longue in a tightly corseted crinoline gown. I have never seen her on stage but reviews of Netrebko hint that she possesses outstanding attributes other than just her singing whilst here Ermonela Jaho is quite petite and slender and must benefit from actually looking consumptive. Her voice sounded small to begin with and there was an undoubted East European lilt to it. She remained quite quiet in the recitatives between the showstoppers but when her big moments in Act I came along (‘Sempre libera degg’io’) she did not disappoint exhibiting a fine coloratura with laser-sharp top notes. She was not frightened of singing with her back to the audience at times as if reflecting on her destiny and seeking answers from higher powers.

The audience were very receptive and attentive throughout and obviously willing Ermonela Jaho on despite a number in the house appearing to share Miss Netrebko’s bronchitis. In the first night reviews the realism of her character’s cough had been remarked upon, yet her absence this evening put a new complexion on this. What was unacceptable was that by the opening of Act III no sooner had Violetta asked Annina (Sarah Pring) for a glass of water then bouts of hacking coughs plus one or two sneezes spread through the auditorium. At this point the audience seemed in worse health than the titular character.

But I am jumping ahead of myself. Miss Jaho was not of course alone on the stage but shared it with two other imposing principal singers. In Act I we were introduced to Jonas Kaufmann’s Alfredo. I don’t write this without due consideration but this tenor reminds me in many ways of Domingo in this ability to combine singing with presenting a real character on stage. In front of the supposed ice sculpture at the centre of the stage he sings in praise of wine and love (‘Libiamo’) and of course it was probably in the production book but the extra glass of ‘champagne’ he drank for courage seemed so natural. His is not an Italianate sound but is undoubtedly one of a rare breed – a German lyric tenor. That he was a bit pallid and lovelorn was because of the part he was playing but the lack of a sexual spark between him and Violetta was possibly more the result of them apparently never having sung together before and therefore possibly only meeting for the first time on stage that day.

In Act II, in the intimate faded Wedgwood blue country house decadence, Jonas Kaufmann sang a plaintive account of his cabaletta ‘O mio rimorso! O infamia’ but signalled much too early that he was cranking up for a top C that to his credit he got but only just. (News from his own diary published in a national newspaper reveals he has had a cold since Christmas and this would also account for the spreading of his tone earlier in ‘Dei miei bollenti spiriti’.) He was recently a potent Don José, I am also looking forward to his role debut as Cavaradossi later this season at Covent Garden but his future undoubtedly lies in Wagner (Parsifal, Lohengrin, perhaps Siegmund and Walther) and I cannot wait.

Enter the third star of this revival – Dmitri Hvorostovsky – as Giorgio Germont. His debut with the Royal Opera precedes this production that he previously sang in 1996 and 2001 but with his white mane he has always seemed older than his years without ever giving the impression he is a ‘pater familias’. It is astonishing that he has developed so few dramatic skills during those years and it might well have been a concert performance when he sang ‘Di Provenza il mar, il soul’ as he stood stock still then as he did most of the rest of evening. Hvorostovsky’s lack of acting ability is not new news and the listener can at least luxuriate in the refulgence of his dark baritone. It was early in his encounter with Violetta that Ermonela Jaho took an unshakeable grip on the doomed heroine. From the moment she sank to the floor as she agrees to part from Alfredo, through her despair when Alfredo throws his gambling chips at her in Scene 2 and on to her railing against fate at dying so young (‘Gran Dio! morir sì giovane’) in Act III she transfixes us with her destiny. She too reveals herself as a potent dramatic actress and perhaps even a future Butterfly.

Act II Scene 2 contains the surprisingly superfluous and over long Gypsy dance – what was Verdi thinking of? Here in Bob Crowley’s designs it is in a red imitation of a bull ring with the largest possible lamp hanging over the large gambling table. It at least allowed the strongly cast comprimarios to take centre stage for a short while. Act III is less cluttered again and allows us to experience the huge shadowy apparitions of the Carnival looming almost like Dickens’s shades of times past over the death chamber.

Maurizio Benini was a conductor who was very supportive of the solo and duet moments for all three principals; taking his cue from them as when to start, stop and move on. He seemed unconcerned by the orchestral detail in the chorus moments in between and these too soon, in most cases, raced headlong into routine Verdian ‘rum-titti-tum’. The preludes to Act I and III were undoubtedly eloquent but it was as though the thinking was that the audience have only paid their money to hear Jaho, Kaufmann and Hvorostovsky and the rest is unimportant. This does Verdi a disservice. Is it me or does the Royal Opera House orchestra sound a little military band-like at these rushed moments? The only conductor I have recently heard at Covent Garden to draw a true symphonic sound from pit was Bernard Haitink for Parsifal and he outshone anything his successor has achieved in Wagner or other repertoire despite the admiration I have for Antonio Pappano’s work.

Despite these reservations Benini never really spoilt anything and under his baton the closing moments of the opera had great emotional power. Despite her small physique Ermonela Jaho had been displaying all the powerful fragility of Sutherland but her final collapse in Alfredo’s arms must have saddened even the hardest of hearts. Perhaps it is a false memory but wasn’t there a furore about Gheorghiu running around the stage arms outstretched at the 1994 première and that this was something she put in herself? Regardless Violetta’s death-throes here remain immensely moving.

Final credit must go to revival director Patrick Young and his production staff for integrating Ermonela Jaho into this 13 year old production so seamlessly at very short notice. Kaufmann’s published diary notes that at times she improvised ‘so well that no one notices the little mistakes. Her performance turns out to be fantastic.’ So in traditional fashion ‘a new star is born’ and it will be interesting to see what effect this success for a most welcome visitor from Albania has on Anna Netrebko’s recovery from illness.

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