Review of Reviews: La traviata shines at Covent Garden

Critical perspectives on the latest London opera production

21 June 2009

ROH Traviata In the current season at the Royal Opera, rarely has the critics' response been more in unison than for the latest revival of Sir Richard Eyre's production of La traviata. With a stellar cast featuring Joseph Calleja, Thomas Hampson, and a terrific Renée Fleming, Verdi's masterpiece came to life on the stage of Covent Garden in a production directed by its creator for the first time in fifteen years.

The leitmotif of the critics' reading is that, if not precise in any detail, the interpreters of this Traviata have achieved something rare: engaging with the work in a deeply nuanced manner, both in the drama and in the music, they have imbued Verdi's piece with an exceptional richness of meaning.

It's a five-star Traviata for Edward Seckerson of The Independent. Seckerson indentifies in the artists that inhabited this well-established staging a fundamental aspect. The centre around which La traviata is composed is the courtesan Violetta, and Fleming achieves a maturity in this role that no one has ever reached before: 'what she has that singers like Gheorghiu and Netrebko before her did not is a wealth of experience and stylistic know how'.

Neil Fisher of The Times also has in mind the latest of the great Violettas that has inhabited Eyre's production: Anna Netrebko, who played the ill-fated courtesan in the 2008 Covent Garden revival. Fisher comments that 'Fleming can more than compete with a voice as warm and rich as a fine single malt. […] this is a world-class voice still on world-class form'. And yet, the same critic points out a recurrent weakness of Fleming's vocal technique: her hesitant coloratura. And, according to Fisher, some uncertainties marred her first act performance and, according to Fisher, 'the real wordplay suffered throughout'.

In fact, Fleming revealed some weak spots and Seckerson also mentions the uncertain coloratura and her almost 'self-regarding' and 'glamorous' tone. 'But what a sound it is and how – in true bel canto fashion – it shapes and defines the emotion', he confesses.

As for Fleming's acting, Rupert Christiansen from The Telegraph has his reservations regarding a certain loss of fragility in Fleming's portrayal of Violetta: '[she] plays her more like Scarlett O'Hara, a spirited Southern belle, and why not? But ultimately I missed the noble soul and tender vulnerability that my most beloved Violetta, Ileana Cotrubas, embodied so unforgettably'.

It is certainly true that Fleming aimed to create a vigorous Violetta, basing her construction on her understanding of Marie Duplessis, the real-life courtesan that was the source of inspiration for the character of Violetta. In her recent interview with Dominic McHugh, Fleming emphasised the special qualities of a woman that counted on her intelligence and anti-conformism to escape the social and economic web in which any woman living in the 19th century was bound to be trapped: 'She learned languages and became extraordinarily cultured', Fleming states. 'She learned how to play the piano – Liszt gave her piano lessons. She would have been the CEO of a company today, to have accomplished all that in so short a time. And she was the toast of Paris. She must have been very talented and very bright'.

ROH TraviataEven if somewhat complaining about Fleming's strong reading of her role, Christiansen is amazed at the interpretive richness of some scenes. In particular, he observes that the duet with Germont 'was sublimely phrased and sensitively dramatised'; and the whole of Act II, especially her farewell to Alfredo, was 'delivered with blazing passion and authority'.

George Hall of The Guardian joins the other critics in praising Fleming's performance and, contrary to most of them, he is convinced also by the virtuoso moments in Act I: she is 'in complete command as Verdi's courtesan', he states.

For many of the critics, the realism of Fleming's interpretation reached the highest peak in scenes when she is ultimately overwhelmed by the disease but does not surrender to it. Edward Bhesania of The Stage comments that Fleming was able to sway from appearing vividly frivolous to 'touchingly wasting as she succumbs to her condition in Act III'. 'What other soprano today can match such superlative craft?', Christiansen asks.

There was general consensus about the quality of Thomas Hampson's Germont. For The Independent, he made for 'a gaunt and commanding father figure' and the tension between him and Violetta 'achieved an agonising intensity'. Along the same lines, The Stage sees in Hampson the depiction of an ideal Germont, initially distant and cold, and later deeply remorseful; this characterization was achieved through the baritone's 'rich, burnished and unfailingly elegant sound'.

Hampson's portrayal of Alfredo's father is seen as a consistent one by The Times too: Fisher considers him as the best representative of Eyre's production, as he managed to fashion 'a chilling portrayal of a hypocritical moralist, and sung with terrific bite and resonance'. Hampson convinced The Guardian as well: Hall reflects that his powerful singing makes him a credible and profound Germont and, as for the acting, 'much of his performance is dramatically thought-through'.

Joseph Calleja is another forte of this production. The Telegraph comments positively on his insightful take on Alfredo, a role that he sang 'with fresh, forthright, vibrant tone'. Seckerson is even more enthusiastic: writing in The Independent, he shows himself to be stunned by the maturity of Calleja's impersonation and on the suavity of his timbre: 'What a distinctive quality this warm and engaging voice has, the flutter of rapid vibrato lending a wonderfully inviting quality to his ample middle range'.

Describing him as both 'vulnerable' and 'headstrong', The Guardian sees in the Maltese tenor a perfect partner for Fleming's Violetta; along the same lines, The Times' Neil Fisher describes him as 'shiveringly good', even if the same critic complains about a certain blankness in his dramatic skills.

Many commentators have also noticed that this Traviata shone thanks to the high standards of the comprimario singers. In particular, The Telegraph writes that 'All the supporting roles were sharply characterised'.

ROH TraviataThe Independent shows huge admiration for Antonio Pappano's work: 'the fifth star is his', Seckerson explains, making clear that it is thanks to the conductor's perceptive and passionate instinct towards the score that the orchestra resounded in all the range of colours that this piece contains. Pappano managed to bring new insight into the piece. The Times is enthusiastic at the achievement of Pappano's interpretation: '[his] first London Traviata is worth the wait'.

As it is clear from the above remarks, the extreme appreciation for Pappano's work is shared by most of critics. The Guardian finds in his reading a deep and renewed understanding of Verdi's work that is truly able to 'sweep [the listener] along'. The Stage also comments on the conductor's ability to re-interpret music that's familiar to him in a way that is never banal: he is 'constantly rekindling [the score] with love and fascination'.

The Telegraph's tones are less apologetic, but overall Christiansen thinks of the relationship between the conductor and the orchestra as very rewarding: 'Pappano conducted with a warmth and vitality which made for a happy orchestra'.

It is a profound sense of fascination that pervades the critics' response to this latest revival by the Royal Opera. For singing, drama, and orchestral rendition, this Traviata is certainly unmissable.

By Marina Romani

La traviata is at the Royal Opera House until 6 July.

Photo Credits: Catherine Ashmore

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Antonio PappanoRelated articles:

Review of the production
Interview with Renee Fleming about this production
Interview with Antonio Pappano about this production
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