Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Diverse Violettas


Marie (born Alphonsine) Duplessis, seen here at the opera or the theatre in a watercolour by Camille Roqueplan, was the real-life model for Dumas fils’s Dame aux Camellias, Marguerite Gautier, who in turn became Violetta Valery in Verdi’s La traviata. A fortnight ago we ended our five Mondays on the opera at the City Lit having sampled multiple Violettas as well as more than a few Alfredos and Germont peres.

Even though it’s the second time in twenty years I’ve taken the students through Verdi’s middle-period masterpiece, I came away with new respect and amazement for both the intimate cast of the love-music and the music-theatre boldness in so much of the score. I suppose the biggest revelation of all was listening to what Muti does with the action numbers at Flora's party on what is unquestionably the best CD Traviata I've heard.


Violetta has returned, heartbroken but secretive, from her country idyll to her old Parisian haunts and her old patron; Alfredo frenziedly misunderstands and torments her. The card-playing scene, its hectic twitching three times interrupted by Violetta’s plaintive phrases at the same tempo – only Muti and Scotto, in my experience, manage this – is followed by the equally pregnant exchange between the lovers at loggerheads. There’s enough material here for a couple of extended duets, but Verdi compresses it all into two minutes.

It always interests me more to get to the nub of how the music informs the drama in these classes than to linger over too many interpretations, but Violetta’s big Act 1 monologue cries out for it. And so, because I don’t believe in the handout culture but I think many of the students wanted an aide-memoire of what they’d heard, here it is in the shape of a short summary as to how we worked our way through the aria and cabaletta.

We used Callas’s masterclass as transcribed by John Ardoin as a constant companion, and heard her in the celebrated (if in the last act disinctly dodgy) ‘Lisbon Traviata’ work her way through the recit. Compared the short, breathy rests at the start of ‘Ah, fors’e lui’ with Gilda’s ‘Caro nome’, both sung by Sutherland. Then heard how a couple of autocratic Russians did their own thing with the refrains and fancy cadenzas: Antonina Nezhdanova in 1906, and Maria Kuznetsova in 1920. Luisa Tetrazzini in 1911 had to take the palm for her cadenza and the whole of ‘Sempre libera’.


Thanks to a link on jondrytay's blog, a film of Edita Gruberova revealed to me that she’s more than a match for Tetrazzini in both 'Ah, fors'e lui' and 'Sempre libera'. As for ‘to sing the extra E flat at the end or not to sing it’, we had Sutherland in ‘The Art of the Prima Donna’ giving us the fullest note you could wish to hear, and Scotto past her vocal but not her expressive prime let off the hook by Muti, who never approves of such things. We watched Gheorghiu for Solti doing the lot on DVD; I recalled how he told me at the time ‘the girl is a piece of butter toast, she can do anything’, and back then, she certainly could.

As an optional extra not entirely approved of by some students, we heard The Worst Singer of All Time, Las Vegas socialite Sari Bunchuk Wontner, trying to get on track for eight hellish minutes (though the orchestra and tenor she hired are just fine). I remain eternally grateful to La Cieca for prodding me in the direction of this piece of sheer vocal filth, to be found on a superbly well presented disc showing us how much worse than Florence Foster Jenkins it’s possible to get.


Moving on to the matter of theatrical expression, I was more or less won over to the sometimes slapdash art of Anna Netrebko in the febrile Willy Decker Salzburg production on DVD.


Both Trebs and Villazon burn for their director, and in Rolando’s case it’s surely a case of burn up. He seems, shall we say, a little hyper in the accompanying documentary, which makes for fascinating viewing. Although the second party scene is shatteringly intense, I didn’t so much like Decker’s last act, so we turned to Stratas in the Zeffirelli film and I found to my horror that he’d shorn about ten minutes off that most succinct of endgames. Never mind, Stratas is magnificent, especially in ‘Gran dio, morir si giovane’.

Well, I shall no doubt watch Renee's Covent Garden Traviata when it comes out on DVD, but from the clips I’ve seen, I don’t hold out too much hope. Her new verismo arias disc is very curdled, the emoting in the extremes of 'Sola, perduta, abbandonata' horribly forced, though as ever there’s plenty of unknown rep alongside the plums (who knows Leoncavallo's Zaza, for instance?). The 1998 Decca Rusalka, on the other hand, is amazingly good. As with Trebs, I eat my words when I hear such great singing; though it’s still the case with both that you never know what you’re going to get.

14 comments:

David said...

David Damant writes

When mentioning Tetrazzini one should not omit to comment on the fact that she was a considerable gourmet and had a dish named after her - in both respects following Rossini. But can anyone document the stories that it was she, and not the various other divas mentioned, who liked young men before a performance?

David said...

Of course one should omit it, my dear David, if it has no bearing on the subject. And I don't listen to tittle-tattle. She does, however, look like a lady of large appetites. 'Tout le monde sur le balcon', as they say in Paris.

On the subject of sopranos and dishes, I also listened to Melba in 'Dite alla giovane', Act 2 of Trav - appalling, sans charm, sans everything. Whereas De los Angeles is absolutely the most moving of all in that.

David said...

BTW, I meant that I should omit it, but I'm happy for you not to - it leads onwards.

And (I couldn't think where to put this above), do you know whose great outburst of 'Amami, Alfredo' we thrilled to the most? Valerie Masterson's - strictly 'love me, Alfredo', as it's sung in English with great Sir Charles conducting. I'd never have thought the greatest Mabel had spinto drive, but she does. One lady, a very discerning one, was overcome with tears.

jondrytay said...

I'm not going to say anything about Stratas' Violetta chez Zeffirelli, because my mummy told me that if one can't say anything nice it's better not to say anything at all.

My two favourite Violette that you don't mention are Cotrubas and de los Angeles. And- here's where I run for cover- I think Sills was pretty spectacular, too.

David said...

No, go on, Jon, why don't you like Stratas's Violetta? I'll admit we only watched the butchered third act this time, though I remember from years back she wasn't cut out for 'Sempre libera'.

And if you look above, you'll see I footnoted, as it were, De los Angeles's 'Dite alla giovine' (got the spelling right this time) as my all-time favourite. In fact I like the whole of her duet with Sereni. Sills I don't know as Violetta (though I was surprised to find venom about her 'ugly voice' you-know-where), Cotrubas I remember as touching and really should have revisited the Kleiber set, but you can't cover everything.

Any views on Valerie Masterson (see also above comment-to-comment)?

JVaughan said...

Greetings!:

Again I must admit, perhaps to my shame, that the Mackerras/Masterson set was my first extended exposure to this great opera as a whole, though I did hear much, if not all, of a recording on the radio some years ago, with La Stratas as the Violetta if I am not mistaken, and definitely Herr Prey as the Germont. And, of course, the compparison of Violetta with Mabel is apt, particularly as per "Sempre Libera." Miss Masterson is a singer I have long admired, since I first heard her as, yes, Mabel, and, while I do not have the intimate knowledge of this role that you, and presumably most of your readers, do, I personally think she is _QUITE_ convincing, bringing out the passion, tragedy, etc., of it _QUITE_ well in my opinion! And I gather I am not alone in this view! What admittedly interests me, as a sort of amateur musicologist, is 1. the cuts which I understand to often be made in this opera, though it is not overly long, and how much improvised ornamentation, if any, Verdi was willing to tolerate. He reputedly said, as per the high C's in "Di Quella Pira," that they could be added if they were good ones, but I seemed to gather from somewhere that this story may be apocryphal. As per La Scotto being a bit past it when she made her recording with Maestro Muti, she sounds that way to me in an apparently-famous _Gioconda_, with we both presumably know who as the Enzo. Yet _WHAT_ passionate and dramatic singing! I bought this recording on cassettes for study/reference purposes, wishing to find out by it if the also-famous Cerqueti version, which I have on CD and like much (the Gioconda/Laura confrontation in Act II is _DOWNRIGHT_ nasty, as of course, it should be!) for its seeming greater extroversion than that other recording, the presumably-authhentic limited vibrato in the orchestra, and the fastish tempi, though again I regretably have no direct recourse to a score. Yet there are two regretable, yet minor, cuts, lasting no more than two minutes between them, if that. One wonders why they even had to be made, and one of them, in the Act-IVB Quartet, is also made on the first Callas recording. Is this Muti _Traviata_ completely uncut? Of ccourse the _Building_-_A_-_Library_ recommendation, as you presumably know, is the C. Kleiber.

J. V.

p.s. I should have learned my lesson by now, and therefore should have written this message in my E-Mail client, where I can edit and correct, which I am unable to do here due to my software's incompatibility, and then copy and paste it in here. You would then not have had the grammatical mess when discussing the Cerqueti _Gioconda_ and one minor typographical error. Yet it all hopefully made sense in the end.

David said...

The Masterson/Mackerras Traviata was the one I owned on LP, even though I think I'd heard a few in Italian (Trav was also my first opera, at ENO, with Lois McDonall as Violetta - no immortal, but she made my tender youthful self weep at the end). My partner finds VM 'a bit too Celia Johnson for my taste', but I think she does the big surges surprisingly well.

And, yes, the Muti is completely uncut (I think one cut could be made in that interminable narrative of the toreador). Callas always brushed aside the second verses of the arias. The Zeffirelli film even cuts the dialogue between Annina and Violetta at the beginning of III. Crazy, because the way the prelude-music breaks in on the recit is novel (even if it had a precedent in Bellini's Norma).

Some of Scotto's later recordings - Traviata, Boheme, Suor Angelica especially - I prefer even to Callas's, heresy of heresies.

JVaughan said...

I think, as per this Muti _Traviata_,
I must put it on the list, I must put it on the list,
Lest it end up being missed, it end up being missed.

If nothing else, it, as the cassette _Gioconda_, could serve as a good reference/study source as per text, though, unlike the former, I might designate a regular place in my annual rituals to play it, whether during the Verdi birthday month or arbitrarily elsewhere. I gather that Violetta's A-Minor cavatina following her reading of Germont's letter in Act III has a second verse which is, at very least, seldom performed. And cutting the exchange between her and Anina at the beginning of that act seems to make no sense since it seems integral to the drama. Should I buy this recording, which I now can for a quite-reasonable price, I must compare that toreador chorus between this and the Mackerras to find out if the latter is shortened. Is there a good, and hopefully-complete, _Norma_ which you particularly like? I have, and admit to liking (though Miss Rost? has been found wanting), the somewhat-controversial Mackerras _Lucia_.

J. V.

David said...

I'm just, coincidentally, about to review a reissue of Scotto as Norma, which should be interesting.

In the Trav classes, I played Sutherland (1966 version) in Norma's recit at the beginning of Act Two, and was amazed at how intense she is there - great singing, indubitably. And the duets with Horne's Adalgisa are rather classic (though I'd really like Adalgisa, too, to male a beautiful sound, which MH doesn't).

Callas's Casta Diva still moves me the most.

David said...

Freudian slip, perhaps - for 'male' see 'make' (whenever I think of Horne, I always remember Martin Hoyle's description of her Malcolm in Donna del Lago as 'a stout lady in boots').

JVaughan said...

So, by implication, we still await an ideal if possible, and again hopefully-complete, recording of this opera. I feel reasonably confident that I have heard La Callas singing "Casta Diva," but can imagine her doing so if I have not.

J. V.

JVaughan said...

Believe it or not, the first time I ever heard Miss Horne was in Wagner, the "Immolation Scene," in two broadcast performances with the BSO under Maestro Leinsdorf. I would hear these same two artists in that same music live some years later, and Miss Horne greeted me quite warmly thereafter. Since she is also quite the Rossinian, and since another important opera is, in general terms, from around the same time as the ones we have been discussing of late, what about _Il_ _Barbiere_, another opera to which I should doubtless eventually come?

J. V.

David said...

David Damant writes

The performance of Casta Diva by Callas is a masterpiece. Apart from the quality, she realy sounds as if she is addressing a Goddess ( and believes in the Goddess). Also when she moves into the aria she seems to be saying to the people - let us now raise ourselves to a higher plane.

It is when we compare Callas as Norma with Callas as Rosina that one can see what acting with the voice can do. What do productions or physical romps contribute as compared with that? One can always take one's dark glasses, so often needed these days, sadly.

David said...

While of COURSE I rarely agree with you on the last point, David, all else is right by me. I couldn't believe my eyes when I SAW Callas sing Rosina's 'Una voce poco fa' in a Paris concert - she WAS that teenage girl with the iron fist in the velvet glove. Pure charm. The 'Casta Diva' is on there too, but the chorus gets badly out and nearly ruins it.

Scotto's Norma I've now listened to, and it's gripping - you can tell every emotion from her singing, no need to look at the words, and Troyanos is a fabulous Adalgisa. You can skip all the stuff with the tenor and bass, but when isn't that the case?