Sunday Classics snapshots: Look, it's Violetta!
Joan Sutherland as Violetta in Act I of La Traviata
Act I of La Traviata ends with Violetta's great solo scene
[in English] Valerie Masterson (s), Violetta Valéry; John Brecknock (t), Alfredo Germont; English National Opera Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras, cond. EMI, recorded Aug.-Oct. 1980
Last week I tried to explain that in order to continue with the second example I promised of Verdi depicting a conspicuously aging parent, we really needed to give some attention to the composer's triumphs and tribulations with the "double aria" form carried over from the bel canto period. It's what always used to be known as an "aria and cabaletta" -- the first aria typically situational and often reflecting on that situation; the second aria, in reaction to the first, ususally with some additional circumstances tossed in to alter the situation or the perception of the situation, typically more declarative, often energized for pyrotechnical display.
While Verdi was capable of using the format brilliantly, we have a pile-up of evidence that even as he was making his historicthe "breakthrough" into his middle period with the overlappingly created masterpieces Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, and La Traviata, all three operas contain evidence that cabaletta-for-the-sake-of-cabaletta was something that didn't much stimulate his creative juices. By way of demonstration, last week we took as our musical snapshots the celebrated arias for tenor and baritone with regrettable cabalettas tacked on at the start and finish of Act II, Scene 1 of Traviata, the scene in Violetta's country house (where she and Alfredo have been living idyllically), the cabalettas for Germont fils and père, respectively.
I did point out last week, though, that "if we think of the form as 'double aria' rather than 'aria and cabaletta,' then Violetta's "Ah! fors'è lui" plus "Sempre libera" at the end of Act I of Traviata may be the supreme example of the format." And having dropped that loaded statement in, even though we did listen to this great solo scene, which so starkly rounds out an act that began with perhaps opera's most rousing party scene in February 2011, we can hardly escape "snapshotting" it now.
SO HERE ARE THREE REALLY NICE PERFORMANCES
I don't think I need to detail the extraordinary performance difficulties posed by this great scene. The assorted vocal and dramatic difficulties reflect the complexity of Violetta's character, and this scene, in addition to offering us some of the greatest vocal music ever composed, tells us more about, and draws us more intimately into, those human complexities in ways available only to a composer of Verdi's talent level.
The performances that follow aren't "the best," or "my favorites," and they certainly aren't unflawed. Renata Tebaldi certainly never had an easy time with Violetta's florid writing, but the spirit was so warm and generous and the voice at this early stage so beautiful that she's hard to resist. The youngish Renata Scotto's lyric soprano is stretched by the music, especially on top, but she nevertheless manages a fluent and sympathetic portrayal.
And Joan Sutherland, while never what one might call a grippingly personal Violetta, sings the heck out of the music; when it comes to the "display" aspects of the scene, at this point in her career, the music held fewer terrors for her than for perhaps anyone else who's ever sung it, at least in recorded history. I've also included the Sutherland performance because, coming from the first-ever note-complete recording of Traviata, it includes the second stanza of "Ah, forsè lui," still by no means that frequently heard.
La Traviata: Act I, Violetta, Recitative, "È stranno, è stranno!" . . . Aria, "Ah, fors'è lui che l'anima" . . . Recitative, "Follie, follie!" . . . Aria, "Sempre libera degg'io folleggiare"
Recitative, "È stranno, è stranno!"
It's strange, it's strange!
Those words are carved upon my heart!
Would a true love bring me misfortune?
What do you think, o my troubled spirit?
No man before kindled a flame like this.
Oh, joy . . .
I never knew . . .
To love and to be loved!
Can I disdain this
for a life of sterile pleasure?
Aria, "Ah, fors'è lui che l'anima"
Ah, perhaps it is he who,
when my soul was lonely and troubled,
used to tint it with
He who humbly and watchfully
came to the threshold of my sickroom,
and kindled in me a new fever,
waking my heart to love!
Ah, such love so tremulous,
out of the heavenly universe,
mysteriously from on high
come sorrow and gladness to the heart.
[2nd stanza, where included]
To me, when still a child,
a pure and timid desire
sweetly marked this man
as lord of my life;
when, in the heavens,
I would see his beauty's ray,
my whole being fed upon
that divine illusion.
Feel that love so tremulous, etc.
Recitative, "Follie, follie!"
It's madness, it's madness!
A poor, lonely woman
abandoned in this teeming desert
they call Paris!
What can I hope? What should I do?
Enjoy myself! Plurge into the vortex
of pleasure and drown there!
Aria, "Sempre libera degg'io folleggiare"
Free and aimless I must flutter
from pleasure to pleasure,
skimming the surface
of life's primrose path.
As each day dawns,
as each day dies,
gaily I turn to the new delights
that make my spirit soar.
ALFREDO [outside the window]: Love is the pulse . . .
ALFREDO: . . . of the whole world . . .
VIOLETTA: Yes! Love!
ALFREDO: Mysterious, unattainable,
the torment and delight of my heart.
VIOLETTA: It's madness!
Free and aimless, I must flutter … etc.
Renata Tebaldi (s), Violetta Valéry; Giacinto Prandelli (t), Alfredo; RAI Milan Symphony Orchestra, Carlo Maria Giulini, cond. Broadcast recording, 1952
Renata Scotto (s), Violetta Valéry; Gianni Raimondi (t), Alfredo Germont; Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala (Milan), Antonino Votto, cond. DG, recorded 1962
And with both stanzas of "Ah, fors'è lui"
Joan Sutherland (s), Violetta Valéry; Carlo Bergonzi (t), Alfredo Germont; Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, John Pritchard, cond. Decca, recorded November 1962
WHAT, NO CALLAS? OKAY, AND VIRGINIA ZEANI TOO
We actually heard these performances in that February 2011 post, and with regard to Callas's Violetta I have to say that I like the idea better than the actuality. There's much to admire, but the voice is really under heavy pressure, especially in the famous "Lisbon Traviata," whose fame -- as I've noted -- seems to me to have had more to do with its longtime rarity than with its quality. Although there's a case to be made for La Callas's Lisbon colleagues, for the solo scene I think I'd incline to the earlier Cetra recording, on vocal grounds.
As for Zeani, the music isn't easy for her either, but her Violetta seems to me one of the all-around most satisfying on records.
Maria Callas (s), Violetta Valéry; Francesco Albanese (t), Alfredo Germont; RAI Turin Symphony Orchestra, Gabriele Santini, cond. Cetra-EMI, recorded September 1953
Maria Callas (s), Violetta Valéry; Alfredo Kraus (t), Alfredo Germont; Orquestra Sinfonica Nacional (Lisbon), Franco Ghione, cond. Live performance at the Teatro Såo Carlos, Mar. 27, 1958
Virginia Zeani (s), Violetta Valéry; Ion Buzea (t), Alfredo Germont; Orchestra of the Romanian National Opera (Bucharest), Jean Bobescu, cond. Electrecord-Vox, recorded 1968
CAN WE HEAR THE UNCUT SCENE AGAIN?
Sure, I thought we'd hear two more performances, quite different from each other and from Joan Sutherland's. Montserrat Caballé's may not add up to a great dramatic statement of the scene, and one may not approve of all (or many) of her vocal choices, but those choices were made from among a range of vocal possibilities with regard to dynamics (note especially the gorgeous soft singing as well as the huge sound she can modulate into) and tone colors that must mystify present-day sopranos. And while Beverly Sills recorded her Traviata late in the day, and it shows in the more tremulous and forced condition of the voice, she still sounds better than an awful lot of the Violettas who have followed her, and like Renata Scotto brings a nicely specific feeling for the scene.
Montserrat Caballé (s), Violetta Valéry; Carlo Bergonzi (t), Alfredo Germont; RCA Italiana Opera Orchestra, Georges Prêtre, cond. RCA, recorded 1967
Beverly Sills (s), Violetta Valéry; Nicolai Gedda (t), Alfredo Germont; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Aldo Ceccato, cond. EMI, recorded July 1971
A COUPLE OF MORE RECENT PERFORMANCES
I know you're tired of all these old performances and want to hear newer ones, especially since I admit myself that the old ones are far from perfect. Okay, here are a couple of more recent ones. I won't be listening to them often, but don't let me stop you.
Renée Fleming (s), Violetta Valéry; Joseph Calleja (t), Alfredo Germont; Orchestra of St. Luke's, Patrick Summers, cond. Decca, recorded May 2003
Anna Netrebko (s), Violetta Valéry; Rolando Villazón (t), Alfredo Germont; Vienna Philharmonic, Carlo Rizzi, cond. DG, recorded live at the Salzburg Festival, August 2005
TWO LOVELY SINGERS I'D LIKE US TO HEAR FROM
Anna Moffo was a really lovely Violetta in the visual as well as vocal senses, so I thought we should hear her RCA studio recording, and then I decided to include her performance in the December 1964 La Scala Traviata with Herbert von Karajan (who conducts a very particular sort of Traviata, an opera he somehow never recorded commercially), in addition to a chunk of the week-earlier dress rehearsal featuring the still-new-to-the-role Mirella Freni, obviously an enormously likable singer. Then I thought we might as well hear Freni's 1973 recording.
Anna Moffo (s), Violetta Valéry; Richard Tucker (t), Alfredo Germont; Rome Opera Orchestra, Fernando Previtali, cond. RCA, recorded June 1960
Anna Moffo (s), Violetta Valéry; Renato Cioni (t), Alfredo Germont; Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala (Milan), Herbert von Karajan, cond. Live performance, Dec. 22, 1964
Mirella Freni (s), Violetta Valéry; Renato Cioni (t), Alfredo Germont; Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala (Milan), Herbert von Karajan, cond. Recording of the dress rehearsal of Dec. 15, 1964
Mirella Freni (s), Violetta Valéry; Franco Bonisolli (t), Alfredo Germont; Berlin State Orchestra, Lamberto Gardelli, cond. Acanta-MHS, recorded 1973
FINALLY WE'VE GOT ONE LAST PERFORMANCE
And it's a honey. It may be that at this point in time Eleanor Steber could do more of the things a Violetta has to do than any other singer I've heard in the role.
Eleanor Steber (s), Violetta Valéry; Giuseppe di Stefano (t), Alfredo Germont; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Giuseppe Antonicelli, cond. Live performance, Jan. 1, 1949