The role of Violetta Valery in Verdi’s “La Traviata” is said to be one of the most complex soprano roles in the repertoire, requiring a soprano with musical versatility and acting skills.
In the past few years, many sopranos have dominated the role and created memorable portrayals. One such soprano is Corinne Winters, the Maryland-born singer who is making a splash this summer at the Royal Opera House in her very second London performances of the title role. Throughout the performance on June 27, 2017, Winters created a heartbreaking portrayal that is sure to elevate her status in the opera world.
A Star in the Making
From the beginning of the opera Winters commanded the stage with her charisma. She is first seen sitting by a column during the prelude as if she is dreaming of something she does not have. But once the party gets started Winters awakened and became the life of the party. While vocally she started a bit hesitant, the voice started to gain force, particularly in the “Libiamo.” Here she showcased complete control. While her Alfredo, Atalla Ayan was completely enveloped in her presence, not turning away from her, Winters’ flirted with him but never truly taking him seriously, her voice taking on a freer and fuller tone.
In the subsequent duet “Un di, felice, eterea” Winters’ moved about the stage spinning the coloratura with aloof phrasing that contrasted with the ardent and passionate singing from Ayan. It was clear that this Violetta was trying to free herself from any opportunities with Alfredo.
But in her aria “Ah! Fors’e lui,” Winters tone obtained a subtle piano timbre that gave the aria an introspective feel. The forte singing from earlier turned to shimmering pianni, the aggressive tone turned to passion. During the climax “Croce delizia” Winters voice gained more weight, engulfing the theater with her beautiful sound. To add to the introspective quality, she was once again sat in the same place where she began the opera.
Once the aria ended, Winters ran over to the champagne bottles, picked up a glass and sang “Folie! Folie!” with vigor, shattering the dream-like state that she had lulled the listener into during her previous aria. Her “Gioir” was dispatched with flexibility and the coloratura was effortless, each time gaining more and more power. One could sense a weight being lifted. And then Winters sang an outstanding “Sempre Libera” that saw her deliver all the coloratura with precision and clarity. This was a true assertion of Violetta’s free will and power. Only when she heard Alfredo was there hesitation, the tone returning to the delicate and vulnerable timbre. But on the repeat, Winters reasserted her power with fortissimo lines. And what was even more impressive was she did not cut any music from the coda, as has been customary from most sopranos. While she did not interpolate the traditional high E flat, she sustained the climactic A natural throughout the entire orchestral coda, which was just as impressive, if not more.
In the second Act, Winters explored Violetta in a different light. When she first entered the stage her voice took on a brighter color, the singing imbuing everything with delight. Everything about her vocalization was sunny as she was all smiles. Even when she read the invitation from Flora she tossed it aside as a joke. It could only be attributed to one thing – that flirt we first met was now completely in love.
Of course, dark clouds arrived in the form of Germont, and Winters voice took on a darker hue. At the beginning of the duet, she was a woman with authority, letting out all her power before creating a shimmering piano that was reminiscent of tears in the “Ah! Dite alla Giovine.” It almost seemed as if she were trying to control the pain that were consuming her, her voice delicate and subdued. She moved about slowly until she sat down, her movements full of hesitance. When she arrived on the word “morro,” the power returned but slowly died down, ending the duet on a gentle piano, Winters holding the note as if afraid to let go.
During the emotional core of the opera, “Amami Alfredo,” Winters never overdid any movements or crying noises. She took a bunch of flowers and started pouring them to the floor as she let out a soaring voice that filled the auditorium. It was the emotional highlight of her performance and it was clear that this was a singer completely invested in the drama, not the soprano antics.
In the ensuing scene, the soprano sang through the potent card scene without slowing down the tempo, instead of moving through each “Pieta Gran Dio” quickly, almost as if she wanted to leave. And in her big confrontation scene with Alfredo, Winters emoted during some of the lines, telling Alfredo that she loved baron and not him. It was powerful and a big contrast to the assertive tone from the beginning because it gave the sense that she was losing control. The concertato saw her voice pour over the chorus, each asencion an increasingly pained outburst from the soprano. At the climax, she weakened fully and collapsed to the floor.
By the third Act, the transformation was complete. During the prelude, she lay on the bed trying to get up but was unable to do so without the help of Annina. During the “Addio Del Passato,” Winters started at the bed before weakly moving about to a nearby chair, before ending on the floor. Her voice started the aria with a pianissimo timbre before blossoming to a mezzo forte that still felt subdued and lacking in power; Violetta’s death felt ever closer. Moreover, she imbued her sound with a grainy quality that gave the passage a pained rawness. Her final “Tutto finì” was attacked with aggression, the vibrato pushing the note slightly out of tune, but then stabilizing and dying down.
The “Parigi o cara” duet saw Winters’ voice regain a delicate and bright tone that was almost reminiscent of her first aria. It was a moment of pure delight and joy and Winters cherished every moment holding on to her Alfredo.
And at the end of the opera, as Violetta regains strength before her death, Winters’ voice obtained vigor emoting each line with increasing power all the way until her final note. She held that final tone out before running with joy to Alfredo and passing out on the floor. It was a heart-wrenching moment as Winters truly conveyed a woman not ready for death.
A Compelling Conductor
While Winters was the star of the show, Maurizio Benini showed mastery of Verdi and Bel Canto style. Yes, he began with a languid prelude and he placed too much emphasis on the percussion during the brisk opening moments. But he turned it around in the second Act as he leaned on the violins and strings to express the passion in Verdi’s music. During the “Amami Alfredo” he let out the full power in the orchestra thought never covering the singers and instead adding to Winter’s voice. In Germont’s aria, the winds took dominance, shaping the music with rhythmic precision. And in the second scene of the second Act, he gave the gypsy song an Italian flare. The card scene was played at a brisk speed that allowed the drama to come through, never slowing down and always moving forward like the plot.
The Act three Prelude was also a highlight as he conducted with delicacy, allowing the violins to bring a yearning sound of nostalgia. Unlike the bouncy first Act, there was a pensive and expansive tempo that really played to Violetta’s withering character. And during the final moments of the opera, Benoni crescendoed until an explosion of sound came roaring from the orchestra that emphasized the tragic ending.
What makes Benini so vital to Verdi’s music is his Bel Canto approach. He never covered the singers and his tempi, while sometimes a bit slow, moved the drama forward and created a real tension in the score. This was demonstrated particularly in the Violetta and Germont duet as the orchestra adjusted to each dramatic point. Overall it was an impressive night for Benoni.
The Rest of the Cast
In the role of Alfredo, Attala Ayan had a mixed evening. In March, Operawire reviewed his Alfredo at the Metropolitan Opera and noted that he had an ardent tone and was a capable actor. Unfortunately, this performance was quite different, and not always in the most positive of manners. His voice seemed strained many times, particularly at the end of his Cabaletta where he let out a high C that didn’t sound too comfortable. His volume tended to get covered easily, particularly in both duets with Winters. There was also a noticeable wrong entrance in the second half of the final duet.
After seeing such a vibrant Alfredo in New York a few months back, it was a tad disappointing to see him quite uncomfortable in a more traditional set in London. Simply put, his most dramatic moments didn’t play out naturally. When Alfredo is asked to throw money at Violetta in the confrontation in Act two Scene two, Ayan threw it without any signs of anger. When he was in a tussle with Germont in the first scene of Act two he fell too easily, killing the tension. Ayan didn’t even look at his father during the final moment in Act three where he reproaches him for Violetta’s fate.
But then there were other moments where he was inspired. One such moment came at the beginning during the “Libiamo” as he sang with a lush timbre that expressed his ardent feelings for Violetta. He looked right into her eyes, moving about uncontrollably like a young teenage boy. And in the second Act when he begins searching through Violetta’s letters he threw papers all around in a hysterical way.
While the first two Acts showed a strained and weakened tone, the third Act saw Ayan regain strength and his voice finally seemed to find the bright color. He sang “Parigi, o cara” with a beautiful passionate voice that really expressed his intense adoration for Violetta. During the final quintet, his upper register bloomed.
As Germont George Petean showed off a Verdi baritone that is hard to find. His first entrances saw a commanding and demanding Germont singing with stoic phrasing. But it softened throughout the duet. He blended well with Winters during the “Dite alla Giovine” giving his timbre a weeping quality. His phrasing permeated hesitance that really expressed Germont’s remorse. And the final lines of the duet, he paused for a great moment, almost as if he would retract his request.
Petean phrased his “Di Provenza il mar, il suol” with a smooth tone that showcased a compassionate figure. He ended up garnering the biggest applause for the aria.
The stoic presence returned as he reprimanded his son for his actions in the second scene of Act two. The staccato phrases were delivered without exaggerated accents, but always with a forte sound. However, he quickly turned to a smooth legato line as he looked at Violetta. There was remorse that was expressed in the creamy sound that his singing took on.
Richard Eyre’s production dates back to 1994 and it is very traditional in its costumes. But what is striking is how crammed each space is. The first and second scenes of Act two are shaped in semi-circles with barely any space to move. And the first scene of Act two is placed in a hallway with little depth and pictures thrown around. Each space had a less obvious entrance way, almost as if showing Violetta being trapped within her society and never being able to escape. That is greatly emphasized in the final Act where the doors are all hidden, the immene space surrounded by blinds. The party scene is seen through shadows, completely isolating Violetta.
The costumes also play a role, as Violetta is forced to wear constraining costumes, each one more covered than the previous one. While the first white gown has a v-neck cut, the second greenish-beige dress has a more covered top that is followed by a black dress that covers Violetta’s neck. It is almost as if she is being strangled by her costumes. While the final white costume has no shape, Violetta is portrayed as completely disheveled. She has been destroyed by her surroundings.
The one detriment to the production is the Act two scene two dance. It all amounts to stomping feet and jumping. There doesn’t seem to be any type of order and it all seems too elementary for a production so intricate and well-designed as this one.
Overall this was Corinne Winters; show and she proved that she is a soprano that every major house needs to bring.