mundoclasico, 20.1.2008
Enrique Sacau
Verdi: La traviata, Royal Opera House, 20 January 2008
An excellent wine, yet to be branded
Under the title “Hitting the Spot: Pricing and the Brain”, the Science & Technology section of The Economist published an article on 18 January which discussed the direct relationship between paying higher prices for things and enjoying them more. ‘People’, the article says, ‘do not just say they enjoy expensive things more than cheap ones. They actually do enjoy them more’. The weekly paper substantiates this statement by referring to scholarly papers which studied the brain activity of a number of subjects while they were sampling wines. The results show that these people enjoyed the same wine better when they were told it was expensive (hence, they thought, better). According to the scientists involved in this research, there are two possible explanations for this phenomenon: one related to survival strategies and the other one to the desire on the part of the subjects to improve their social performance. I will use the latter for the purposes of this review.

On Thursday 17 January, when they arrived in the Royal Opera House, the public were confronted with dismal news: international diva Anna Netrebko was suffering from bronchitis and had therefore cancelled her performance. Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho had agreed to take an overnight flight from New York to replace her. On Sunday one usher told me that some people had been upset on Thursday and had decided to leave the House before the opera started. I arrived for the second performance sang by Jaho knowing that Netrebko would not sing and so did most members of the audience. There were no defections: in front of a full house which had been looking forward to seeing Netrebko for months Jaho sang one of the most demanding opera roles of all times: Violetta Valéry.

Jaho’s recipe for success is twofold. Firstly, as a singer she displays all the tricks needed for Violetta. Her voice is light enough to accomplish easily the coloratura of act one. Perhaps she does not have the trill and indeed avoids the high E at the end of the aria, but some of the greatest sopranos did the same in this role and were still praised. On the other hand, the colour of her voice is dark enough to sound convincing in both the lyrical act two and the dramatic act three. Her high notes in pianissimo, long legato phrases and savoir dire make of her an extraordinarily moving Violetta. Secondly, her acting is equally commendable. I struggle to believe that she actually managed to learn her movements so perfectly in literally no time and can only imagine how good an actress she could be if she had rehearsed this role properly. In all, Jaho is amongst the best Violettas I have ever seen; she will hopefully sing this role at the most important opera houses in the world.

The good ovation she received in the end, however, did not do her justice and could not match Netrebko’s reward after the only performance she sang. According to Tim Ashley, writing about Netrebko’s performance for The Guardian, “the enthralled audience… greeted each act with the standing ovation it deserved”. However spectacular Netrebko’s rendition of La traviata might have been, Jaho could not possibly be far from her achievement. If Jaho did not get a longer ovation it was the result of her not being known to the London audiences. Guessing that her fee would be lower than Netrebko’s and not knowing her name, the audience's perception of the performance appeared dictated by their expectation. I hope this review (and others) contributes to the branding of this exceptional singer.

Already consecrated as international divos, Jonas Kaufmann and Dmitri Hvorostovsky did not let us down. As usual, the former offered such a great deal of passion that made it possible for Alfredo to come across as slightly sympathetic. This was thanks to Kaufmann’s capacity to show the vulnerable side of Alfredo, who is as much a victim of his stupidity as Violetta. He is my favourite lyrical tenor nowadays and one whose dark voice might allow him to get into heavier roles. Singing Germont, the latter offered the customary hieratic acting, if softened by a voice which sounded lighter, brighter and smoother than usual. His carefully phrased “Di Provenza” granted him one of the best ovations of the night.

The unqualified success of the vocal team could hardly be matched by Maurizio Benini in the pit. He let the singers be, which was good, but did not quite make the orchestra play its fundamental dramatic role. I think the issue is that Benini was self-consciously precious. He aimed for so much nuance and pathos in acts one and two (something obvious in his choice of dead-slow tempi) that there was not much left to look forward to in the intrinsically pathetic act three. Richard Eyre’s poignant production is aging very gracefully and was adequately revived by Patrick Young. The new costumes of the choir members did help to update it. One final wish: I hope Jaho comes back to Covent Garden very soon!

 back top