Wednesday, 22 July 2009
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.