Therefore the marketing department made a major effort and agreed to ask people why they bought or didn’t buy a set. And look and behold, after quite an expensive effort, the marketers got a clear and correct answer, one they could as easily have gotten for free if they had questioned one opera-lover. People buy opera-recordings for the singers and not for the conductor. And the reason that people no longer were buying opera-recordings was clear as well. Domingo-fans probably had bought the RCA Price-Domingo recording. So why did they need another (official) one with the same tenor, even though it was conducted by Muti 4 years, Abbado 10 years and Levine 20 years later? And now Deutsche Grammophon has acted accordingly. The names of Netrebko and Villazon are printed in bold black letters on the sleeve while one has to look carefully to discover that conductor Carlo Rizzi and the Vienna Philharmonic are also participating. And thus is finally restored what ought to be restored since those bad days when conductors like Toscanini and Karajan succeeded in having critics and record executives think they were the important people. Once more the primacy of the singer in recorded opera is acknowledged.
It is true that Rizzi is not a “star” among conductors and that armchair critics always had a lot too say, not always positive, on his conducting. Personally I wonder why. For seasons he was a fixture at the Amsterdam Muziektheater where he conducted many new Verdi productions. He wasn’t the man of grand gestures but he always succeeded in having a good report between scene and pit. He didn’t rush his singers and probably breathed with them (difficult to control from the audience seats in Amsterdam) but neither did he linger or overindulge them. One always came away with a feeling of correct tempi and that’s exactly how I would describe his handling of the Vienna Philharmonic in this recording. Yes, the conducting may be a little bit unobtrusive but that’s only because one is not eternally reminded of the eccentricities of the man at the helm so that one can concentrate on the drama as given to us by the singers. It’s probably no coincidence that the only moment where one notes the presence of the conductor is the one place where no soloist is singing and where Rizzi rushes chorus and orchestra at breakneck speed through the party at Flora’s in the 2nd act.
If this set has one quality, it’s one of youth. This reportedly is the soundtrack (though one is never 100% sure which takes were used) of the now well-known Salzburg performances ending in a DVD, but even without the images one realizes that this is a Traviata sung by singers who have almost the age of the protagonists. Netrebko and Villazon are both in that stage of their career where they have finally mastered their craft while at the same time the bloom of youth is still on the voice; where the overtones point to a youthful sheen that inevitably will lose some of its quality. One is reminded of the first Callas or Moffo sets where the tenors are already a little bit too mature. This set was culled from several live performances and there is some loss too. Netrebko wants to husband her voice in the first act and only gives us one verse of “Ah! Fors’è lui” before launching into “Follie, follie !”. Villazon has no such excuse for giving us one verse only of his cabaletta “Oh mio rimorso.” But it is a hell of a piece to sing — in fact it has some leaps which make it more difficult than “Di quella pira” — and the tenor wants to have some breath left before sailing to a good strong (unwritten) high B. Villazon is in very fine voice, not missing a single point of interpretation; exhibiting charm and boyishness in the first act by a mixture of delicate pianissimo and emotion. As his personal trick he let’s his voice quiver in the now almost forgotten verismo way of the thirties though Villazon is in general more stylish than a Ferrauto, a Merli or a Pertile. In the second act he is very convincingly angry and in the third act once more he finds a fine balance between joy and grief. In fact he sings so well that one tends to forget that his is not a first class instrument. The colour is dark but often a little throaty and comparisons with the sheer beauty of young Domingo’s voice are not correct. Villazon has more in common with Flaviano Labo, though the natural means of the deceased Italian tenor were probably greater. But for this reviewer, Villazon is only surpassed by Carlo Bergonzi in one of his best recordings on the Sutherland-Pritchard-set.
Competition for Netrebko is of course far more stiff. Every great soprano since the thirties has tried to make the role her own and all have left an imposing legacy of official and live recordings. Netrebko is a big lirico and thus not equal to young Callas, Zeani and Caballé; all three of them ladies who could cope with the coloratura demands in the first act while switching into a heavier gear for the rest of the opera. The Russian soprano cannot master the same gifts in “Follie, follie” where she has to tread carefully as she hasn’t the voice for fearless coloratura. Wisely, though always what disillusioning for a top note hunter as myself, she omits the high E. In the second act she is at her best with that beautiful sound used expressively. I sometimes think record producers have taken Freni’s and Scotto’s voices, mixed them together and came out with Netrebko. Now does she plumb the tragedy of Violetta in her big scenes with père Germont, during Alfredo’s unwarranted attack on her, in her farewell too life? Yes, she does and she doesn’t. She gives it her all; but the clear bell like sound of the voice works a little against her. She has not Callas’ vocal depth and even a lighter though darker coloured voice as Gheorgiu’s is better suited to the role as we are now so used to some deep chest tones in for instance “Addio del passato” that we feel a bit cheated if a soprano doesn’t have them. Netrebko is clever enough not to damage her voice by imitating sounds she doesn’t have.
The disappointment of the set is Thomas Hampson. His bright baritone so apt to French ‘bariton-martin’ roles is wrong for Germont père. There are some moments in his confrontation with Villazon where the tenor’s voice sounds deeper and broader. The intelligent singer that Hampson is tries to mask the lack of a broad easy flowing Verdi baritone by interpretation, with a good mezza-voce and pianissimo but that is often no real help. Time and again one thinks here is a rival for Alfredo instead of a father. Hampson knows this himself and he vainly tries to broaden the voice, cannot really make those imposing sounds and then resorts to hectoring which becomes almost painfully comic in his denunciation at Flora’s party. But even in the duet with Violetta, it takes but a few moments before one is reminded of Fischer-Dieskau in his unlucky portrait in that forgotten Decca set: the same problems and the same bad solutions. On DVD it may be possible that Hampson’s histrionic qualities can forget the deficiencies of the voice but on record it’s not possible.
All in all a good though not definitive set but what Traviata is?