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Renée Fleming as Violetta Valéry [Photo by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of The Royal Opera House]
26 Jun 2009

La Traviata at Royal Opera House

Four years have passed since the most celebrated American soprano of recent times, Renée Fleming, graced the stage at Covent Garden, in Elijah Moshinsky’s classic production of Otello.

Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata

Violetta: Renée Fleming; Alfredo Germont: Joseph Calleja; Giorgio Germont: Thomas Hampson; Baron Douphol: Eddie Wade; Doctor Grenvil: Richard Wiegold; Flora: Monika-Evelin Liiv; Marquis D'Obigny: Kostas Smoriginas; Gastone: Haoyin Xue; Annina: Sarah Pring; Servant: Jonathan Coad; Giuseppe: Neil Gillespie; Messenger: Charbel Mattar. The Royal Opera. Conductor: Antonio Pappano. Director: Richard Eyre. Designs: Bob Crowley. Performance of Monday 22 June 2009.

Above: Renée Fleming as Violetta Valéry

All photos by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of The Royal Opera House


So, anticipation and expectancy were running high at this performance, the second of seven, of La Traviata. Could Fleming bring the authority, emotional passion and musical intensity which characterised her Desdemona to Verdi’s dazzling courtesan-turned-angelic sacrificial-victim?

Sir Richard Eyre’s 1994 production has had countless revivals with numerous divas in the title role (and it’s scheduled for two more showings next season), but Fleming and the rest of the cast benefitted from the director’s own, and first, return to his conception. A traditional staging, this production convinces throughout, Bob Crowley’s sets and costumes raising many a gasp and round of applause. The assemblage of the sets did, however, necessitate two long intervals but the lavish designs were worth the wait — and, inadvertently, allowed the inter-act diners to avoid indigestion.

Hampson_Germont_ROH.gifThomas Hampson as Giorgio Germont

A frisson went through the audience when Fleming made her glittering entry, sweeping into the sumptuous, somewhat crowded, salon where revellers drifted and twirled around the sparkling ice-sculpture. But the audience were made to wait for the trademark golden, floating tone: Fleming was rather restrained and hesitant, holding back throughout the first act, negotiating rather than relishing the demands of the coloratura fireworks in ‘Sempre libera’. She compensated for her musical caution with exuberant dramatic gestures, flinging back the doors of the salon to hurl her words contemptuously at those who judge her, tossing ice defiantly around the room, and coughing loudly to foreshadow her demise. Fleming seemed a little unhappy with Pappano’s tempi and, surprisingly, her voice lacked depth and beauty in places, but she relaxed in the subsequent act and the audience were rewarded for their patience with singing of outstanding, velvety warmth, poise and pathos. Fleming moved effortlessly between soaring pianissimi and impassioned exhortations: as satisfying a demonstration of the meaning of bel canto as one could wish for.

A dilapidated mirror leaning haphazardly against the flaking wall, cast a sombre shadow over the now-bare stage for the famous death scene. Singing with sublime beauty and tender radiance, Fleming held the audience spellbound. ‘Prendi: quest’è l’immagine’, in which Violetta selflessly frees Alfredo to love another, was exquisitely poignant. Sadly, however, the final moments jarred somewhat. Violetta’s momentary resurgence of physical health, a false respite from suffering, was cleverly illuminated with a surge of light as Fleming sang ‘Rinasce’ (‘I'm reborn’), accompanied by a rising scale of pulsing urgency. But, rather than simply collapsing, overcome and exhausted by the intensity of this moment of joy, Fleming rushed around the room, grasping each astounded onlooker and informing them individually of her recovery. Then she fell to the floor, dead. This was an unfortunately anticlimactic end to an otherwise superb interpretation.

Joseph Calleja as Alfredo Germont and Renée Fleming as Violetta Valéry

Fleming’s partner, in the role of Alfredo, was the Maltese tenor, Joseph Calleja. He more than matched her musical mastery. Possessing a sweet, smooth voice, he sustained an Italianate warmth and took the Alfredo’s rigorous cabaletta, ‘O mio rimorso’, in his stride, although surprisingly he offered us only one verse. Calleja is not a natural actor, and the chemistry between him and Fleming was lacking in potency, but he inhabited the role with increasing conviction as the opera progressed, and in Act 2 his anger and bitterness were truly shocking as he hurled his gambling winnings at Violetta.

There was no weak link among the central trio. As Germont - the bourgeois father who disapproves of his son’s paramour - Thomas Hampson commanded the stage, immediately establishing his stern authority. He used his flexible baritone in his second-act aria, ‘Di Provenza’, to reveal the hypocrisy of this domineering emblem of wealth and respectability and his domineering cruelty — he brutally pushes Alfredo to the ground - while also hinting at the genuine regret which troubles his soul.

Wade_Fleming_Traviata_ROH.gifEddie Wade as Baron Douphol and Renée Fleming as Violetta Valéry

This stunning triumvirate put every ounce of energy, focus, musicality and dramatic commitment to their task. And they were supported by some fine singing by Jette Parker Young Artists present and past in the minor roles, Monika-Evelin Liiv (Flora), Kostas Smoriginas (Marquis D’Obigny) and Haoyin Xue (Gastone de Letorières). As Annina, Sarah Pring was dramatically feisty and musically sure. The chorus, too, were in typically fine form, most notably in the Act 2 gambling scene — stunningly lit from above in complementary reds and greens — where the gypsy girls frolicked and cavorted on the enormous green baize gambling table, while matadors strutted and postured, entertaining the dissolute guests with wild abandon.

Offering a near-prefect reading of the score, Antonio Pappano gave the cast eloquent support. The expressive dynamic range he drew from his players, enlivened even the most mundane accompanying figures, powerfully colouring the words. He coaxed a rich display of expressive hues from the members of the orchestra, especially the superb clarinet solo which accompanies Violetta’s letter writing in Act 2, where the instrument’s innate variety of timbre perfectly conveyed her inner conflict and instability. The Prelude was simply stunning: delicate, scintillating strings commented on sepia projections of times past, images which anticipate the picture that Violetta will present to Alfredo just before her death.

Act_III_Traviata_ROH.gifScene from Act III — Sarah Pring as Annina, Renée Fleming as Violetta Valéry, Joseph Calleja as Alfredo Germont and Richard Wiegold as Doctor Grenvil

The catastrophic première of La Traviata at La Fenice in 1853 has entered the annals of infamous operatic disasters. During rehearsals, the librettist, Piave, had written to the Fenice management that the composer ‘insists with renewed firmness that to sing Traviata one must be young, have a graceful figure and sing with passion’. Fleming certainly ticks all the boxes. Her Violetta Valéry is neither angelic paragon of innocence or knowing schemer, but rather a high-spirited young woman of noble heart and pure soul whose self-contempt and fear of risking love win our sympathy and, ultimately, our tears and love.

Claire Seymour

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