01 Feb 2005
La Traviata at Covent Garden
Verdi demanded three qualities for his “fallen woman”: looks, anima (soul) and a good stage presence. What he did not want was a glossy prima donna. The part broke convention not just histrionically, in its depiction of a contemporary prostitute, but also vocally. It needs a soprano agile enough to throw off the Act 1 coloratura, and strong enough to meet the dramatic requirements of Acts 2 and 3. That’s asking a lot, and most sopranos fall short. So it was fascinating, at the Royal Opera’s latest revival on Saturday, to come across Norah Amsellem. She has period looks, a pretty smile, a malleable physiognomy. She knows how to adapt her whole demeanour to Violetta’s changing situation, so that the figure we behold on stage is not an opera singer but a human being with the power to disarm us emotionally. That may be a gift of acting, but it also reflects Amsellem’s complete identification with the music. Her soprano is a bit one-dimensional, especially at the top, and she proved a surprisingly plain letter-reader. In all other set-pieces she had the theatre spellbound. “Dite alla giovine” and “Addio, del passato” were especially effective: Amsellem sang them in a beautifully controlled half-voice, stretching the tempo to its very limit. Some might call it self-indulgent; to me it sounded like the truth.