Teatro Real de Madrid 2019-20 Review: La Traviata
Marina Rebeka, Michael Fabiano, Artur Ruciński Shine As Opera Returns to MadridBy Mauricio Villa
(Credit: Javier del Real)
(This review is for the performance on July 4, 2020)
After 90 days of closure, the Teatro Real de Madrid reopened on July 1 with a semi-staged production of “La Traviata.” With the theater at half capacity due to the social distancing protocols instituted, the atmosphere on opening night was enthusiastic and hopeful.
The Teatro Real is one of the first theaters to engage in a full reopening program that features a fully cast opera. What’s more, the company has scheduled in a whopping 27 performances throughout July with five different casts, ensuring continuous engagement with its audiences while providing a model for other companies around the world to utilize as they reopen their houses.
One of Today’s Best
In the role of Violetta, audiences got a chance to see soprano Marina Rebeka. The Latvian soprano has championed the role all over the world at such venues as the Teatro alla Scala, Royal Opera House, the Metropolitan Opera, and Bayerische Staatsoper, among others.
Violetta is one of the most challenging roles in the repertory, requiring sopranos with wide-ranging flexibility. It has been said that you need three different sopranos for the role: a coloratura soprano or Lirico leggera for the first act; a dramatic soprano for the second; and a lyrical soprano for the last one.
Rebeka is a pure lyrical voice, with a beautiful timbre, and round register between G and high C. However, her middle and lower registers lacked force and presence and she seemed somewhat unsteady in the extreme upper register, especially in the first Act. With all that said, she pulled off an amazingly sustained and ringing high E flat at the end of “Sempre Libera.”
Her coloratura was immaculate during “Ah sé ciò é ver fuggitemi” where the scales and staccato notes are within her comfortable register. But she was more cautious during “Sempre Libera” where one could sense short breaths breaking the flow of several cadenzas. Nevertheless, her first act was solid overall.
It was in the second Act where she began to truly shine, with an exquisite interpretation of “Dite a la giovane,” her voice crowned by a floating mezza voce. There was round expansiveness in her high B flats, though her voice disappeared when going down the stave to the lows E flats of “chi morra.”
She gave an emotional interpretation of “Amami Alfredo” with a passionate high B flat. It is a pity that the conductor chose such a fast tempo for “Ah Dio, morir mi sento,” breaking the long Verdi legato line. Then again “Alfredo, Alfredo” was sung with a tiny thread of voice in the second scene of Act two.
Act three featured Rebeka at her best yet again with her version of “Addio del passato” truly unforgettable. She was remorseful and full of pain and suffering. Playing with contrasting fortes and pianos, Rebeka interpreted an incredible crescendo from a whispered A natural to a forte scream of agony. And this went on for the rest of the scene, creating the perfect climax both vocally and dramatically.
From a more physical perspective, she offered a strong characterization of Violetta within the limits of the staging that she was forced to work with (more on this later). Despite some rugged spots in the first act and some weak low notes in other spots, there is no doubt that as far as Violetta interpreters go, Rebeka is probably one of the best today.
Michael Fabiano is an impeccable Alfredo. He has sung the role more than 120 times and it shows. He is romantic and intimate, but also full of rage, and vengeance when needed. While most tenors sing Alfredo at the beginning of their careers and abandon the role pretty early to concentrate on bigger roles with greater dramatic impetus, Fabiano performs the role as if it was one of Verdi’s most potent characters.
His voice is just a jewel. His voice production sounds so natural and his projection is mesmerizing, filling the whole opera house and cutting cleanly through orchestra and chorus. When he sang “Amor e palpito…” off-stage it sounded as if he was singing it in the center of the stage. Some might argue that his sound is too open, but his Italian diction is remarkable.
He showed the torrential qualities of his voice in the second scene of Act two during “Mi chiamaste? Che bramate,” his tone taking on a menacing quality. But some of his most wondrous moments come when he pulls back and sings piano.
In the first act, at the beginning of his duet with Violetta, he sang “Ah si…” with a forte sound, taking a dramatic moment to breathe before continuing with a pianissimo “da un anno” before launching into an arduous “Un dì Felice.”
He sang his aria “ Lunge da lei” with long fiato phrases and ease in the high register, following that up with a passionate and vigorous “Oh! Mio rimorso (he didn’t go for the high C as he has done in the past).”
But his unforgettable moments for me were during “Ah si, che feci” and above all his interpretation of “Parigi o cara,” his tenor whispering in a soaring mezza voce. There was gentle tenderness, further supported by a glorious pianissimo high A-flat.
His acting was strong, particularly in the second scene of Act two when he portrayed a drunk Alfredo engaging in a rather violent and abusive relationship with Violetta.
Ultimately, Fabiano succeeded with an unforgettable performance both vocally and dramatically. His Alfredo is second to none.
The baritone Artur Ruciński was hugely successful as the unpleasant Germont, getting one of the greatest ovations of the night.
While he possesses a beautiful velvet timbre and tremendous ease in the higher register, there is no doubt that the cornerstone of his vocalism is his astonishing breathing technique. Admittedly, when I attend a performance I don’t usually pay attention to where the singers breathe, but Ruciński’s approach simply stands out. It is unbelievable to see him pull off long phrases in a single breath. One such example would be “Ma se alfin ti trovo ancor, ti trovo ancor, Dio m’esaudi! Dio m’esaudi.” Where other singers breathe two or three times to get through this particular line, Ruciński sings it on a single fiato, creating a mesmerizing sense of legato.
One might argue that this approach brings attention to the technique over the artistry, but Ruciński isn’t doing it to just show off. There is clear attention to phrasing and dynamics in this approach that adds to the musical and theatrical tension of a moment. Returning to “Ma se alfin ti trove ancor,” the baritone included a stunning crescendo-diminuendo on the last note of his lengthy breath.
The chorus of the Teatro Real was strong and resonant throughout, although there were some minor problems with the “Toreador” section as they were behind the rhythm of the orchestra.
Nicola Luisotti, the principal guest conductor of Teatro Real, gave a lively reading of Verdi’s score, opting for fast tempi and exaggerated details on the dynamics between pianissimo and forte. He managed moments of hypnotic power, though there seemed to be some trepidation in the first and third act Preludes. Luisotti also decided to cut the score drastically, allowing for no repetition of the verses of the arias or cabalettas. These cuts were likely made in order to minimize the runtime of the performance and reduce the time the audience was in an enclosed environment.
One cannot overlook the splendid work of the Teatro Real’s orchestra. All the members performed while wearing masks, with panels imposing distance between them.
Unfortunately, the semi-stage conception by Leo Castaldi did not work.
On one hand, he had no choice but to manage the social distancing protocols, so the singers were forced to perform at a distance (two square meters, clearly marked on the stage by red squares).
So obviously he was left with few options in terms of how to manage their interactions. So the singing was given the greater emphasis to rule the day. On one hand, that worked well, especially given the caliber of the three leads. But yet, it felt off and you constantly wanted to see the actors truly interact in more realistic manners.
The overall concept was muddled in its execution. On one hand, he had chorus members in tuxedos and cognitively dissonant party hats. So there was some odd “realism” on display. But then he tried to imbue Violetta’s death with an abstract pathos, which felt at odds with the rest of the production.
And while I personally came away feeling a concert performance would have better served the artists and audience overall, credit must be given nonetheless for the attempt and hard work that undoubtedly went into putting this production together hastily. More importantly, it was wonderful to be back in the theater to witness opera once again, especially given the uncertainty that has dominated the past few months. Let this be the hope that guides us forward.