CD Review: Prima Classic’s ‘La Traviata’
Missed Opportunities Hamper Dramatic Expressiveness of Marina Rebeka & CastBy Bob Dieschburg
It is hard for established labels to profitably market a new release – let alone for an independent one like Prima Classic. Long gone are the days when John Culshaw and Walter Legge spearheaded the industry, setting the standards by which every decade or so had its memorable Violetta.
Prima Classics – with its reduced catalogue of only four titles – wants to take up this legacy and deserves recognition not only for the scale of its ambitions, but also for their artistic sincerity: “La Traviata” is a nicely engineered recording with a set of internationally acclaimed performers whose panegyric praise, in the accompanying booklet, is certainly not necessary to appreciate their individual strengths or indeed milden some of the CD’s recurring deficits.
Marina Rebeka: From Rossini to Verdi
After graduating from the prestigious Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia in Rome, Marina Rebeka gained critical acclaim for her performance as Anaï in the 2009 Salzburg production of “Moïse et Pharaon;” a Rossinian by training and – one might assume – sensibilities, she has quickly made a name for herself as a leading Belcanto singer who sometimes ventures into the French and even Verismo repertoires.
There should be no doubt, however, about the identity of her Fach and “La Traviata” gives ample opportunity to display both technical skills and dramatic intent. Unfortunately, neither is achieved with consistency and Rebeka’s remains a strangely imbalanced and often frustrating study of Verdi’s cherished title character.
It has been famously said that the role of Violetta requires three voices, matching the prevalent dynamics of each act: The singing actor needs to command the sprezzatura of a Belcanto soprano paired with the inflections of full-blown lyricism and dramatic heft.
Naturally, no singer in the post-Callas era was able to boast these qualities to an equal extent and Marina Rebeka does not pretend to do so either. However, she does not manage to make her vocal limits the source of credibility or any deeper, psychological insights; the overarching impression is that of someone confronted with a Gargantuan task, as the role grows larger than life and puts her under strain.
An Incomplete Violetta
A ready example is heard in the opening lines of Act I when Violetta invites her guests to a hedonistic night. The descending phrase – “Flora, amici, la notte che resta” – is typically ended in a chesty sound that explores, at the very beginning of the opera, the lower end of the protagonist’s vocal spectrum. Rebeka’s tone, however, does not retain its focus and it remains unclear if the resonance is created through the use of her chest voice or the more artificial voix mixte. In any case, these nuances – although peripheral to the vocal type – are valid means of dramatic expression and lighter sopranos like Ileana Cotrubas in the 1976 recording under the baton of Carlos Kleiber display a clearer separation of registers.
Another passage proves illustrative. The Act two duet is a notably masterful account of human psychology that gives musical expression to both Violetta’s hesitation and later acquiescence to the paternal authority of Germont. To be sure, Verdi marks the decisive moment by having her resignation coincide with the lower end of her vocal range. The admission of man’s implacable nature – “l’uomo implacabil per lei sarà” – has all the characteristics of a long-drawn-out sigh and it is important to maintain its expressiveness by following the score as closely as possible. Thus, the syllables of “sa-rà” correspond to a different pitch each. Marina Rebeka, however, interpolates a third one by singing what appears to be “sa-a-rà.” This sliding transition or glissando is a technical facilitator that, for convenience sake, is not uncommon in stage performances; in studio recordings it is less justifiable and sacrifices dramatic authenticity.
The latter is also compromised by uneasy choices in the dynamic range, including some declamatory fortes in the otherwise fluent line of Violetta’s arias. How much of an unorthodox modus operandi this is becomes obvious in the showpiece at the end of Act I. “È strano” is the ariose prelude to the monologue which, in the Romantic terms of Stendhal, describes the “crystallization”, that is the nascent love between the protagonist and Alfredo. Traditionally, this realization comes with self-doubts and an assertion of her pleasure-seeking philosophy that the present Violetta, for better or worse, seems to dwarf by the very monolithic rendition of “È sdegnarla poss’io”. Here – as in its subsequent, no less hieratic outbreak – the voice launches a guttural and technically improper attack on the coloratura passage that, in the upper register, reveals the singer’s physiological efforts in a series of strident sounds.
That being said, the flaws of “La Traviata” and Rebeka’s heroine should not distract from some inspirational moments such as the elegantly rendered “Addio del passato” with its admirable shading effects and the slimmed down voice. Equally noticeable is her control in the crowd scene of Act two where she displays vocal autonomy against the impressive backdrop of choristers. The aforementioned criticism should thus be seen as a cross-section of missed opportunities that – taken individually – do not make “La Traviata” a bad recording; as a whole, however, they overshadow many of its merits and prevent Rebeka’s portrait to be anything more than an addendum to history of the tuberculous courtesan.
Castronovo’s Descriptive Bourgeois
Charles Castronovo may not have the juvenile tone of someone caught between Romantic naivety and a curious passiveness that, in dramatic terms, makes Alfredo’s an almost subsidiary part; one would expect to hear his grainy and inherently rich voice match the heroic prowess of Radamès rather than the French bourgeois. The tenor nevertheless reprises his signature role in a secure and generally attractive fashion whose only real criticism is the lack of syntony it achieves in the interaction with Rebeka.
The death scene in particular is overshadowed not so much by lack of musical engagement than an utterly bizarre set of histrionics which, for want of a better word, become a grave artistic faux-pas. Marina Rebeka underlines the extended duet after “Parigi, o cara” with an intrusive form of heavy breathing that – it should be said – is a vehicle for pseudo-dramatic expression; it is not conducive to the recording’s aesthetics as a whole nor does it help Alfredo and later Father Germont’s interjections starting with “Oh mio sospiro e palpito”. Granted, this “Traviata” is not a live recording but it should not be given the benefit of pretending to be one.
As for the first acts, the New York-born singer manages to present a technically elaborate, albeit more reticent, portrait of Alfredo than some of his colleagues. Avoiding any kind of psychoanalytical pretense, warranted or not, he prefers a clear-cut line infused with the lyrical colorings of some diminuendos and a touching mezzavoce. This is a perfectly justifiable approach that holistically fits the rather descriptive playing of the Latvian Festival Orchestra.
Petean’s Magisterial Germont
Arguably the greatest asset of the Prima Classics release, Romanian baritone George Petean delivers a masterclass in fine singing, making his a noteworthy and decidedly poetic addition to a varied palette of contemporary interpreters. Following the approach of stylists like Ludovic Tézier, the use of his voice is measured throughout, boasting paternal benevolence and gravitas at will. Moreover, he never ventures beyond what is dramatically appropriate for the role and in the notoriously delicate duet with Violetta we hear a true Verdian reprise the eternal confrontation between baritone and soprano.
Petean strikes the right tone without giving in to preconceptions or a morally biased reading of the intrusive father and nowhere are his sympathies for Germont expressed better than in the central aria of “Di Provenza il mar il suol.”
Making use of Michael Balke’s relatively slow tempi, he adopts a gentle mezzavoce to second much of the cantabile’s melodic building; it is therefore all the more regrettable not to hear him perform the opening words of “il mar, il suol” in an otherwise impeccable legato technique.
That aside, the style is deliberately reminiscent of Golden Age singing and it is particularly delightful to listen to the seldom played da capo of the cabaletta, including the optional high F on “Ah, ferma!”
A Collector’s “Traviata”
Given the label’s mission of establishing under-recorded singers, it is saddening to find oneself confronted with moments of musical finesse that are consistently outweighed by the number of missed opportunities on both the technical and aesthetic sides of what appears to be an underrehearsed “Traviata”. In too many cases do they sacrifice philological accuracy or even characterization, as the protagonists stumble over the score’s difficulties and consistently opt for the easiest way out. As such, the recording is sprinkled with facilitators like false glissandos, staccatos, or questionable dynamics.
It certainly does not do justice to the abilities of the protagonist whose shortcomings are the most striking overall. Despite her strengths in ensemble scenes and a vividly rendered “Addio del passato,” Marina Rebeka does not fully incarnate the fallen concubine from the Parisian demi-monde and some unofficial broadcasts are more favorable to her legacy than this rather eclectic studio recording. Her Violetta remains for collectors only, as the discography is too competitive and unforgiving for the Prima Classic “Traviata” to stand out from an already long list.