The Sun, February 6, 2006
Verdi: La Traviata, Metropolitan Opera House, 4 February 2006 (house debut)
Verdi Would Be Proud
On Saturday night, the Metropolitan Opera staged one of the most anticipated cultural events of the season: Verdi's "La Traviata," in the Franco Zeffirelli production. What's the big deal about that? The Met stages this production every other day. Yes, but Angela Gheorghiu has assumed the title role - for the first time ever at the Met. It was in this role that the Romanian soprano had her world breakthrough in 1994: She sang it at Covent Garden, under Sir George Solti.

Miss Gheorghiu proved this weekend that she is justly famous in the role. She has mastered it: vocally, theatrically, psychologically. Verdi did not craft an uncomplicated role here, and he would smile at this star's execution of it.

First to talk about is the singing that Miss Gheorghiu did on Saturday night. She provided her usual beauty of sound, and her usual technical control - almost spooky. The voice is a good weight for Violetta: light enough to portray the fragile consumptive; strong enough to portray the fiery courtesan. At times Miss Gheorghiu sounded a little small in this big house - but you simply had to listen more carefully, and the orchestra had to pipe down. In fact, with her lyrical, unforced, almost conversational singing, Miss Gheorghiu drew you in.

She ripped through the coloratura in Act I. For those keeping score at home, she did not sing the high E flat at the end of "Sempre libera." (Too bad, in my opinion.) Her pitch was almost always spot-on, and this was especially to be valued in exposed - and unaccompanied - passages ("E strano"). I have said many times that this voice can seem more instrumental than vocal. This is a hard thing to describe, but imagine a violinist: What he can do with his fiddle, Miss Gheorghiu can sort of do with her voice. She plays it.

Through all three acts, she never strained or labored. Every page of the part was governed by operatic judgment, or instinct. Miss Gheorghiu was duly poignant - if ever a life were tragic, it's Violetta's - but not histrionic. (Histrionics would have canceled out poignancy.) Her soft singing in "Dite alla giovine" was riveting; her "Morro" was nearly terrifying.

It's said that, during one of those rehearsals in 1994, Solti confided, "I was in tears. I had to go out. The girl [Miss Gheorghiu] is wonderful. She can do anything."

"The girl" is the object of much derision, chiefly for her offstage antics, or what those antics are reported to be. But she is a great singer, and a great singing actress. As Marion Barry said after he was elected to a fourth term as mayor of Washington, D.C.- this was following a stint in jail for cocaine - "Deal with it."

There were other singers involved on Saturday night. The German tenor Jonas Kaufmann was making his Met debut as Alfredo. First, he has what you might call tenor-star looks: long hair, a Byronic profile. Second, he owns a substantial, regal voice. Often it is creamy and refulgent. He was a little tight in Act I - particularly in the Brindisi - but he opened up.

Alfredo's big aria is "De' miei bollenti spiriti," and Mr. Kaufmann negotiated that well. But he dipped a little on that sustained final E flat. He was also flat on a later high C - although the note was essentially there. This was Angela Gheorghiu's night, but Mr. Kaufmann was not a negligible presence.

And doing the honors as Germont was the British baritone Anthony Michaels-Moore. He sang with assurance, and he conveyed the arc of his character: sternness, tenderness, deep remorse.

If Mr. Kaufmann wasn't negligible, neither was the conductor, Marco Armiliato. The orchestra played very well for him. The Prelude to Act I was shimmering and beautiful; the Prelude to Act III was the same. Sometimes the pit and the stage were not quite together, but nothing too awkward occurred. In many spots, the orchestra seemed downright inspired: This was not another day, another dollar, under another multi-syllabled Italian conductor. Mr. Armiliato can be proud of what he brought about.

Finally, I might mention the audience: They coughed more than Violetta at her sickest. In fact, there was so much coughing in Act III, you almost couldn't hear Violetta at all. I half-expected Miss Gheorghiu to stop and say, "Hey! I'm the one dying here!" But it's February, and what can you do? You can do your best to stifle, that's one thing.

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