La Traviata, by Giuseppi Verdi

{Ed. Note:  In my article on the Limited Edition Club editions of Camille, I mentioned Verdi had written his famous opera La Traviata based on Camille. Since Books and Vines contributor DlphcOracl has provided many excellent articles in this realm, I asked him his thoughts on what the best versions of La Traviata are. Despite his protestations on a lack of formal musical training, his articles in this regard are always top notch so am I thrilled to include them.}

I do not have formal musical training so I feel a bit awkward trying to make my recommendations into a formal article.  However, I do feel confident making one or two recommendations for La Traviata.  Despite my lack of music training I can usually select a recording or two that is worthwhile in just about any classical venue.   Similar to a Supreme Court justice trying to decide if something is pornographic, I may not know how to describe it but I know it (a quality recording or performance)  when I see (hear) it.   Despite the numerous performances and recordings of La Traviata over the past 50-60 years, this is a straightforward call.  There are two performances/recordings that go straight to the head of the list, one a vintage recording and one a modern recording.  Both share a common trait: they are  recordings of live performances.

1. Vintage recording: Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro Nacional de Sao Carlos, Lisbon (Portugal); Maria Callas, soprano; Alfredo Kraus, tenor; Mario Sereni, baritone; Franco Ghione, conductor.  EMI mono 556330-2, recorded live 1958.

The role of Violetta in Giuseppi Verdi’s La Traviata may have been Maria Callas’ supreme role and no one has ever been able to duplicate her sense of tragedy, pathos, and desperation in the critical scenes of La Traviata. Simply put, “she gets it” and understands this character thoroughly and completely,  What really makes this a special performance is that Alfredo Kraus (tenor) as Alfredo Germont is more than up to the challenge of singing opposite Maria Callas.  He sings with elegance, impeccable phrasing, and a sweetness and earnestness that provide a perfect foil to Callas’ Violetta.  The duets between Callas and Kraus are especially memorable.

Although Franco Ghione is all but forgotten nowadays, he was a specialist in conducting this opera and he gives Callas great latitude in her role without losing the shape or pace of the performance.  The orchestra and Ghione’s conducting are both excellent.  The recording is marred by audience noise (coughing) at critical times and the score is truncated and cut to shorten the performance as was the custom at that time. Nevertheless, this recording must be obtained for Callas’ unequalled performance.

2. Modern recording: Orchestra & Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; Angela Gheorghiu, soprano; Frank Lopardo, tenor; Leo Nucci, baritone; Georg Solti, conductor. Decca 430 491-2, recorded live 1994.

Of the modern recordings this is probably the best of the lot.  Although Gheorghiu and Lopardo are not quite the equal of Callas and Kraus,  Gheorghiu DOES  give a wonderful performance.  It is not as powerful as Callas’ (what performance ever can be??) but her singing is fresh, youthful, and she sings the role with great subtlety.  What makes this a commendable performance and recording is that the Decca recorded sound  is excellent for a live performance and Solti is a masterful opera conductor who paces this performance perfectly.  The duets between Gheorghiu and Lopardo are also a high point of this performance but in a very different way when compared to Callas/Kraus.  They seem fresher, less contrived, with less of the emotional ‘slug it out’, ‘give and take’ that is a part of Italian opera and sometimes takes on a rather predictable feel.  Here, there is a sense that these duets are a real dialogue, not a performance.  If they are a bit less emotional and powerful than the Callas/Kraus duets they compensate with their intimacy and immediacy.

Incidentally, this performance is also available on DVD and it is worth owning because Angela Gheorghiu is simply beautiful and she looks and acts the part of Violetta.  Throw in her wonderful voice and vocal performance and this excellent live performance truly comes to life.

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