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Violetta in La Traviata

 


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Violetta in La Traviata

--Geoffrey Riggs

In a Traviata discussion on the Web a while back, folks argued the relative merits of the available Violettas, and there was disagreement over Ileana Cotrubas on the Carlos Kleiber set (DG). Speaking for myself, I don't think Cotrubas is the best Violetta, but she is certainly not the worst. I sense that's the general feeling among many listeners. She is one of the decent ones: Among at least forty reputable Violettas on disc, I feel that Cotrubas is in the upper half rather than the lower.

And ultimately, it's all relative.

For instance, in absolute terms, Cotrubas remains perfectly fine. Yet when it comes to relative levels, her

1) quality of vocalism leaves her in the shadow of those with arguably more glamorous tones like Ponselle, Muzio, the young Albanese, the young Callas, the young Scotto, Caballe, Sutherland, Tebaldi, De Los Angeles, Freni, Sills ("live" at Naples, not the paler studio effort a year or so later), the young Moffo, Zeani, and so on. At the same time, Cotrubas's vocalism remains perfectly strong in absolute terms, however more striking these others may be.

On the other hand, when it comes to her

2) vividness as a communicator with a vocal "face", I find she somewhat overshadows singers like Sutherland or Tebaldi -- at least, when judged purely by aural impact on disc. And again, that's not to say that the latter group epitomized by Sutherland and Tebaldi (though in Cotrubas's shadow as communicators) are at all inadequate as authentic and sympathetic communicators of the part, since they're still capable of bringing plenty of warmth and sincerity to it. It's the ultimate level of variety of expression, not sincerity of expression, that sometimes eludes them. In absolute terms, they still remain effective interpreters, whatever the greater variety in a few others like Cotrubas.

I view Violetta as extremely high-strung, and I expect a degree of both volatility and brio in the part. The vocal "face" I prefer is one of acute watchfulness and intensity. There must, at the same time, be a suggestion of vulnerability that is only partially, however strenuously, concealed through a deliberately intermittent show of strength. The occasional failure to project strength even when clearly trying to do so constitutes a big part of the character. It is this inner conflict intrinsic to the part that is one of the hardest contradictions to pull off. Yet the two faces of this contradiction are both undoubtedly there in Verdi's music. That both can be conveyed successfully is shown in an extremely rare and dimly recorded Acoustic from 1911 of the young Claudia Muzio's "Amami, Alfredo": strength of spirit and almost painful vulnerability combined. That this need not be a paradox is only demonstrable through hearing this record. Once heard, it may entice one to bring the unrealistic expectations surrounding that unique "sound picture" from a hundred years ago to every other reading -- as I do repeatedly. (And this is not to take anything away from Muzio's record of the Letter Scene, which has other virtues that are equally special.)

Setting aside questions of sheer loveliness in vocalism (or the lack thereof):

Group A) I always "hear" this double "face" (shades of Midsummer Night's Dream: "I see a voice"..............) in Muzio's, Bellincioni's and Olivero's all-too-few excerpts, in Albanese (the mid-'40s Met broadcast with Tucker and the Toscanini Dress Rehearsal particularly) and in Callas at her best;

Group B) I usually hear this quality in Moffo at her best, in Scotto at her best, and in Stratas, Sills, Freni, Gheorghiu, Cotrubas and Zeani; and

Group C) I hear this quality more than half the time in Ponselle, Carteri, De Los Angeles, Caballe, Lorengar, Studer and Netrebko; and

Group D) I find chiefly vocal delight in the Galli-Curci excerpts and in the complete recordings of Tebaldi and Sutherland.

Again, this is ultimately relative. After all, in poring over the four different groups here, it is perfectly possible to find sometimes lovely vocalism in, say, Albanese's studio cut ('45) of the Violetta/Germont père duet by itself, even though Albanese still belongs with the successfully conflicted communicators primarily. And it's also possible to find sincere feeling in some of Tebaldi's singing, even though she still belongs with the vocal marvels primarily. All I'm doing here is showing how the range of emphasis seems to shift (in general) from group to group.

I don't recall any disagreement on either the vividness of group A as performers, whatever their vocal qualities, nor the loveliness of group D as voices, whatever their stature as communicators. I'd bet that the greatest disagreements among listeners (disagreements, that is, on where certain Violettas belong along the communicator-to-vocalist continuum) involve my group C, a "crossroads" territory where I've, in fact, seen direct disagreements as to the intensity and involvement and imagination of each of those eight portrayals.

In selecting the most generally satisfactory recording, in which not just the Violetta but also her colleagues, her conductor, and the overall performance all combine to present Verdi's score at its best, the range of choices becomes especially limited. It's unfortunate that none of the most vivid and absorbing recordings present a literally complete performance of Verdi's score exactly as he wrote it. The most committed readings all follow the traditional cuts of a century or more, and it's sometimes unclear just how many of these cuts were ever sanctioned by the composer, even though they usually prevailed until quite recently. Still, it's among these slightly cut recordings that the most consistently satisfying sets are to be found.

Among the most vivid communicators, Albanese and Callas take pride of place for many, and for those listeners looking for a heady brew of reckless determination, volatility and vulnerability, only these two may suffice. For virgin ears, though, I find that no set featuring either one at her best is entirely satisfactory in other respects as an introduction to the score.

If not for so-so sonics, my Albanese choice would be the hard-to-come-by Met broadcast from the mid-'40s, with Albanese at her zenith, the young Tucker in superb voice and at his most sympathetic as one of the finest Alfredos available, and Cesare Sodero at the podium, leading one of the most sensitive readings yet heard. But the RCA Toscanini broadcast is in better sound and more readily available. Sadly, Albanese here is in the least strong voice of all her Traviatas, and with a conductor who can sometimes seem rushed and unsympathetic. A compromise might be the available Dress Rehearsal for this Toscanini broadcast, in somewhat better sound than the Met broadcast, with Albanese in good voice and with a relaxed and sympathetic reading from the Maestro, almost as evocative here as Sodero. But even here, some may find the pervasive presence of the Maestro's "singing along" a drawback (it was a rehearsal, after all). Sometimes, I am troubled by this presence; sometimes not.

Choosing a Callas set is even harder. Although the early Mexico readings and her studio set on CETRA show her in fine shape, the vocal persona is still occasionally lacking in the requisite vulnerability for the part. All that is behind her in the subsequent readings for the Visconti production under Giulini. The vulnerability in her characterization is fully honed in both Visconti broadcasts (1955 and '56). Still, these are in uneven sound, the '55 (with Di Stefano) sonically deteriorating considerably in the second half (a performance available on several labels), while the '56 (with Gianni Raimondi) sounds even worse, especially the first half, although somewhat improved in the second (available only on MYTO). At the same time, the '56 finds Callas with a sometimes warmer and more ingratiating tone than in '55 (where the top may be a bit surer). Better sonics altogether are found in two different broadcasts in 1958, one in Lisbon with uneven conducting from Franco Ghione, and one at Covent Garden where it is Callas's voice that strikes me as too uneven. With her finest Violetta ('56) in sometimes execrable sound, practical choices come down to either '55, where the sound is still somewhat congested in the second half, or Lisbon, with its uneven conducting.

If we were only looking for a fine performance for the aficionado, our search might end with Albanese and Callas, compromised though the sonics are. But for an introduction to the score, I tend to look further. Perhaps, by a miracle, some restoration wizard might yet produce a clean-sounding and vivid transfer of either the '40s Met broadcast with Albanese/Tucker or the Visconti/Callas broadcast with Raimondi. But I'm not holding my breath. Of course, if one isn't bothered by a lovable but distracting "obligato" from the conductor, there is always the more accessible Toscanini Dress Rehearsal.

Setting aside for now these hard choices among the Albanese and Callas options, I still occasionally find, in group B, uncommon vividness matched to the kind of vocal beauty that can entrance instantly, even though it's very occasional. Only five even approach this combination. Their sets too are sometimes a balance of compromises to an extent, although, in most cases, not so acute as for Albanese/Callas.

1) Anna Moffo's energized recording under Fernando Previtali is offset by a rich-toned but sometimes unsympathetic Alfredo in the mature Tucker, so different from his splendid Alfredo with Albanese.

2) The young Renata Scotto's DG set has a fine Scala cast but features sometimes detached conducting from Antonino Votto that is not so inspired as Previtali's on the Moffo set.

3) Beverly Sills's two sets both offer Aldo Ceccato's poor conducting, the first with so-so sound but with her Violetta at its peak ("live" at Naples, 1970), and the second with fine sound but offering her Violetta with an instrument no longer fresh (studio, 1971). These awkward choices are comparable to those for Callas.

4) Mirella Freni's set, albeit with Lamberto Gardelli's more sympathetic conducting, is saddled with a past-his-prime Bruscantini for Germont père whose legato is as often absent as it is present.

5) Having grown up deeply appreciating the finest Violettas who have survived on disc, like Albanese, Callas, Ponselle, Freni, the younger Scotto, Moffo and Sills, I don't mean to take anything away from these artists by saying that my recent hearing of many different sets finds me enthralled most of all by the Virginia Zeani Traviata under Jean Bobescu (on VOX). It's not just that Zeani is one of the very few who combines vocal beauty with the kind of expressive intensity that often attains that elusive balance of would-be strength with evident vulnerability. It's also that this set matches this artist -- caught under optimum conditions in her vocal prime -- with sumptuously voiced colleagues at their best similarly conveying the feelings in Verdi's writing. Add to that the attentive and engaged Bobescu whose mastery at the podium honors both the energy in Verdi's score and its poetry, and you have one of the finest Traviatas on disc, and one that has now become a personal favorite. For me, this studio recording is all of a piece, with its decent sound, its fine conducting, and its responsive and sympathetic colleagues, all alongside a communicative heroine at her best.

Athough I find the Zeani set the most engrossing as a whole, I can well understand why some might still prefer either the Albanese/Toscanini Dress Rehearsal showing everyone in vintage form and in decent sound, or an all-Italian ensemble with the young Scotto, or Freni with a more sympathetic conductor, or Moffo with a more galvanic one. Each one of these offers a generally compelling performance. (In fact, I have encountered a few deeply knowledgeable aficionados for whom one or the other of these four is superior to any.) Among other alternates, it's just unfortunate that Callas and Sills, two of the finest Violettas when at their best, can only be enjoyed in sets that entail distinct compromise.

Other sets of historic interest -- but which also, like the top five I've singled out, are not literally complete -- include the most sumptuously vocalized performance of all, featuring Ponselle, Jagel and Tibbett from a "live" Met broadcast under Ettore Panizza, but only in poor sound; and the De Los Angeles set, distinguished more by the very finest conducting heard on disc, from Maestro Tullio Serafin, than by an accomplished but not gripping cast. More recent sets of note include the Cotrubas set referenced above with an appealing heroine and featuring superb sound, but with Carlos Kleiber's rushed conducting; the Gheorghiu set enlivened by an imaginative Violetta and encumbered with an uneven Alfredo; and a current-day Salzburg lineup, featuring an alert duo in Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon, under a sympathetic but inconsistent Carlo Rizzi.

Finally, if one is looking for a literally complete reading of Verdi's original score, only the Caballe set under Georges Pretre, with Bergonzi's stunning Alfredo, sounds like more than a straight recitation, even though it's still not so vivid as the best ones in this survey.

 

THE FINER VIOLETT - E (in order of personal preference):

1 [alphabetically]. Licia Albanese/Gemma Bellincioni/Maria Callas/Claudia Muzio/Magda Olivero

2 [alphabetically]. Ileana Cotrubas/Mirella Freni/Angela Gheorghiu/Anna Moffo/Renata Scotto/Beverly Sills/Teresa Stratas/Virginia Zeani

3 [alphabetically]. Montserrat Caballe/Victoria De Los Angeles/Amelita Galli-Curci/Angela Gheorghiu/Anna Netrebko/Rosa Ponselle

4 [alphabetically]. Rosanna Carteri/Pilar Lorengar/Cheryl Studer/Joan Sutherland/Renata Tebaldi

 

CONDUCTORS:

1. Tullio Serafin

2. Carlo Maria Giulini

3. Jean Bobescu/Ettore Panizza/Fernando Previtali/Cesare Sodero

4. Lamberto Gardelli/Arturo Toscanini (Dress Rehearsal)

5. Franco Ghione/Carlos Kleiber/Georges Pretre/Carlo Rizzi/Georg Solti/Arturo Toscanini (Broadcast)/Antonino Votto

6. Aldo Ceccato

 

TOP OVERALL SETS:

1. 1968 - Virginia Zeani/Ion Buzea/Nicolae Herlea/Jean Bobescu --
the most generally satisfying set, with a genuinely appealing heroine, sympathetic colleagues, assured conducting, good sound

2 [in chronological order]:
A) 1946 - Licia Albanese/Jan Peerce/Robert Merrill/Arturo Toscanini (Dress Rehearsal) --
the most probing heroine to boast both decent conducting and sonics, albeit with some distracting sounds from the podium
B) 1960 - Anna Moffo/Richard Tucker/Robert Merrill/Fernando Previtali --
the best-sounding set to combine appealing heroine and good conducting, although unsympathetic partner
C) 1962 - Renata Scotto/Gianni Raimondi/Ettore Bastianini/Antonino Votto --
the best combination of appealing heroine and idiomatic cast, although detached conducting
D) 1973 - Mirella Freni/Franco Bonisolli/Sesto Bruscantini/Lamberto Gardelli --
the best-sounding set to combine appealing heroine and simpatico partner, although sometimes uneven supporting cast

3. 1955 - Maria Callas/Giuseppe Di Stefano/Ettore Bastianini/Carlo Maria Giulini --
the best-conducted of the more probing heroines, although so-so sound

4. 1970 - Beverly Sills/Alfredo Kraus/Mario Zanasi/Aldo Ceccato ("live" from Naples) --
one of the more appealing heroines, although so-so sound and poor conducting

5. 1935 - Rosa Ponselle/Frederick Jagel/Lawrence Tibbett/Ettore Panizza --
most sumptuous voices of all, although so-so sound

6. 1977 - Ileana Cotrubas/Placido Domingo/Sherrill Milnes/Carlos Kleiber --
an appealing heroine with reasonably accomplished colleagues, in superb sound, although rushed conducting

7. 1959 - Victoria De Los Angeles/Carlo Del Monte/Mario Sereni/Tullio Serafin --
greatest conducting of all, accomplished but not always gripping cast

8. 2005 - Anna Netrebko/Rolando Villazon/Thomas Hampson/Carlo Rizzi
strong theatrical duo of today caught in good voice and good sound with somewhat inconsistent conducting

9. 1994 - Angela Gheorghiu/Frank Lopardo/Leo Nucci/Georg Solti
vivid and imaginative Violetta opposite an uneven Alfredo

10. 1967 - Montserrat Caballe/Carlo Bergonzi/Sherrill Milnes/Georges Pretre --
the only literally complete set that doesn't sound like a dry recitation, but still somewhat studio-bound

-- © 2005 Geoffrey Riggs

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