It is a very rare and no less fortunate occurrence for two of the leading sopranos in America to release, within months from each other, their respective take on one of the most dangerously underestimated roles in all of opera: Violetta Valéry for whom, so the saying goes, three voices are needed to match the transition from the melismatic first act to the dramatic inflections of “Addio del passato” and beyond.
The earlier release features Lisette Oropesa whose kaleidoscopic, melodramatic rendition (benefitting, for what it is worth, from studio conditions) places her in the illustrious tradition of the 20th century’s tragédiennes, that is Maria Callas and her eclectic following up to Lucia Aliberti and, more recently, Marina Rebeka.
On the other hand, Nadine Sierra showcases her reading of “La Traviata” in a live performance from the 2021 season of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, published by the record label Dynamic and available on both Blu-ray disc and DVD.
It is, in short, a sparkling display of lyricism which in true bel canto fashion makes Sierra decide not to forgo tonal beauty for the sake of dramatic expression at any time. As such, her interpretation is contrapuntal or rather complementary to the one given by Oropesa and, from the angle of historic precedents, reminds me of a little known production from 1973 with the ever graceful Mirella Freni in the title role.
For both Freni and Sierra put forward a well-rounded tone which ideally captures the musical flourish without anatomizing its every shade. This does not imply, however, that her Violetta remains psychologically shallow, so to speak, or confined to the demonstration of virtuosic coloraturas; it rather means that here is a technically versatile soprano who, in addition to blurring the lines between leggiero and lirico, impersonates one of the most charismatic Violettas on screen.
“La Traviata” in 1968
This is mainly the result of her moving around the stage freely, navigating the various decors of Davide Livermore with palpable ease. The latter comprise a condensation of imagery related to the emancipatory movements of 1968, colorful at first, then sterner after the duet in Act two and relying heavily on the projection of close-up photographs in black and white coupled with catchphrases like “Mon corps, mon choix.”
The textual elements, I must admit, do not add any value to the production; on the contrary, the visuals that Livermore creates should not have to rely on their own commentary for them to be effective.
For instance, having the slogan of “laissez nous vivre” decorate the curtain – even before the first bars resound – establishes a moral overtone which limits Violetta’s sacrifice to the condemnation of Father Germont and his bourgeois ideology, making Livermore’s message, essentially, a very traditional and little innovative one (when compared to whatever revisionist, Barthesian lessons the informed spectator would want to draw).
That being said, the Turinese director does mount a visual conglomerate which, ranging from Hollywoodian costumes to an oversize projection of Picasso’s “Dora Maar,” creates a cinematographic and, I should add, cautiously modernist atmosphere that works rather well.
Take, as an illustration, the transposition of Act two from the pastoral idyll of Bougival (as intended by Alexandre Dumas) to a photographic studio with half-naked models buzzing around – or, for that matter, the witty turn Livermore gives to the line of “Oh, qual pallor!” (“O how pale I am!”) when, instead of looking in a mirror, Violetta sees her reflection in a lighter as a present-day memento mori!
A Symphony by Zubin Mehta
The orchestral forces of the Maggio Musicale are led by Zubin Mehta whose generously slow tempi may – at first – seem in contradiction to the frantic pace of the opening act with its waltz rhythms and flashing series of coloraturas. They do, however, convey the morbid aura of the protagonist’s unredeemable fate.
To give a fair measure of the prevailing pace, compare the present recording with Mehta’s studio production from 1992 in which he is equally at the helm of the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. In the latter, the Brindisi lasts some three minutes and 4 seconds whereas in the former it takes him a full three minutes and 31 seconds to reach the climactic tutti – the caveat being, of course, that live performances tend to be slower in general.
It remains that, amid all the “Traviata” records I am aware of, this is one of the slowest, giving ample room to the orchestral colors to unfold as they change from being pastose to indescribably airy (as with the “in sordina” marking to Violetta’s “Morrò, la mia memoria”) seemingly at will.
Consequently, the almost symphonic emphasis that the veteran conductor is putting on display comes at the cost of moving away from the piece’s intimate character as a chamber opera and indeed, the brass interjection at Violetta’s realization of her impending death (“Ma se tornando”) has all the ring of a call from the underworld in the vein of, say, Ramfis’ condemnation of Radames in the fourth act of Aida.
In short, Mehta takes some artistic liberties to transform “La Traviata” into a beautiful, yet unidiomatic fest of quasi-symphonic stature. It is a shame, however, that he went with the customary cuts, leaving all da capos aside except for Sierra’s in “Addio del passato.”
Becoming Violetta Valéry
As mentioned above, Sierra is the backbone of Dynamic’s release of “La Traviata,” making a formidable role debut in which technical as well as dramatic nuance are perfectly embedded into the continuous flow of her full-bodied, lyrical voice. Her breath support is unrelenting throughout and works as the foundation for the impeccable execution of her trills and coloraturas, including the high E flat at the end of “Sempre libera.”
The voice itself has a warm timbre, radiant towards its extensions but less robust when moving into the chest register. It shows all the mellifluous qualities traditionally associated with the Bellinian and Donizettian repertoires which extend, needless to say, into the stylistic skillset of fine legato-singing.
Yet, it is not the cavatina of “È forse lui” and its subsequent cabaletta which, despite a flawless execution, I find the most memorable; it is rather the heartbreak of “Addio del passato” which captures one’s attention through the soprano’s painstaking efforts to vary, shade, and modify the dynamics of the line without ever shying away from potentially exposing her voice to some imperfection. Note, for instance, the sotto voce when embarking on the aria and the delicate intensity (filato) of the final “finì.”
Certainly, the drama in Sierra’s interpretation is not as existential as in Lisette Oropesa’s and its limits – if there are any, that is – lie solely in her strict adherence to the emphasis on beauty of sound rather than psychological incisiveness.
Ardor & Eloquence
She is supported by the Italian Francesco Meli, a fixture from the roster at La Scala whose role choices in recent years (especially Manrico, Radames, and Enzo Grimaldo) have sharpened the voice and given it a steely, somewhat harsh sounding edge every time it goes above the passaggio. Whether that is also the reason for Meli not singing the customary, albeit unwritten, C at the end of his cabaletta in Act two, I do not know.
Its lyrical core, however, is not lost for it transpires in the soft modulations of “Un dì felice” when the tenor, with full breath control, starts the melodic arch mezza voce, carefully shaping the line up to “vissi d’ignoto amor.” His Alfredo is an ostensibly sensitive one, poetic, and eloquent, but growing more casual and seemingly less curated – vocally speaking, that is – in the confrontation scene at Flora Bervoix’.
Here, the forte is achieved in a staccato-like manner which persists in the final act, during the reunion scene (just before the duet of “Parigi, o cara”) in which I believe him to be too loud when compared to Sierra, as well as somewhat out-of-place characterwise. It is not a bittersweet farewell we are listening to, but a separation which on Meli’s part feels strangely cold and inexplicably mannered.
Yes, he varies the dynamics of his singing, but the juvenile ardor of his first aria cannot be recovered.
The Monolithic Leo Nucci
As for Father Germont, the Florentine production relies on the incomparable experience and charisma of Leo Nucci who, at the time of the present recording, was 79 years old. This, of course, shows in an altogether declamatory style which does not allow for the gloriously spun lines that in his heyday the baritone was able to uphold at command. The vowels also tend to be too open, as when Germont exclaims his famous “Piangi” in the duet with Violetta.
Regardless, the timbre seems untouched and retains its allure throughout the tour de force of “Di Provenza il mar, il suol” which Mehta conveniently speeds up a bit. It equally has preserved its incisiveness and, all in all, serves as a vivid testament to the soundness of Nucci’s technique which the present “Traviata” records in what may well be one of his last stage performances.
The cast is completed by a high-quality set of comprimarii among which Francesco Samuele Venuti deserves a special accolade for his acting the part of Barone Douphol. Their musical performance together with that of the chorus is beyond reproach.
The release of the Maggio Musicale’s “La Traviata” on DVD and Blu-ray has a lot of strongpoints which, in the end, boil down to Sierra’s riveting debut in the role of the Parisian courtesan. Livermore’s production, if not to everyone’s taste, cannot be faulted for taking away from the protagonist; on the contrary, it often provides Sierra with the opportunity to have the proscenium to herself, as it makes her visually dominate the action by projecting her portrait onto movable screens or canvases.
Similarly, Meli proves a musically judicious partner whose care for dynamic variation and shading, particularly in Act one, echoes her own striving for technical, as well as stylistic versatility. Finally, she can rely on the monolithic presence of Nucci with whom she had a more than memorable run at La Scala in 2016 when the “Vendetta” in the second act of “Rigoletto” was famously encored. Back then, she may still have counted as a star in the making, in “La Traviata” she has reached artistic maturity.