It was a shame that legendary soprano Nelly Miricioiu was unwell, because this performance of Verdi’s La traviata was to be a celebration of her tenth anniversary of appearing with the Chelsea Opera Group.
But not even the infection – which was clearly so bad that she was almost forced to pull out of the event – could stop this from being a happy occasion. Over the years, Miricioiu has given us everything from Adriana Lecouvreur to Lady Macbeth, and from Odabella in Attila to Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda, and the Chelsea crowd loves her. And although she was probably not able to give the type of performance she might have planned, the diva’s remarkable artistry came to the fore and she ingeniously turned her ailment into Violetta’s, emphasising the spinto touch in Verdi’s characterisation of the dying consumptive.
La traviata is, of course, an uncharacteristically well-known piece for the Chelsea Opera Group to have chosen, considering that their typical fare is the lesser-performed works of Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi and Bellini. But in the end, this concert performance was very much worth it as an experience in which the writing came to the fore. There were no directorial interventions to get in the way: this was all about Verdi and Piave – and the committed cast, of course.
Miricioiu was once a regular Violetta, but she hadn’t sung the role in public since 1991 until this performance. That made the COG’s presentation all the more intriguing: how would the 57-year-old soprano fare? In the end, of course, her head cold got in the way, but by any standards this was a moving rendition of the role. Miricioiu seemed slightly cautious in Act 1, no doubt pacing herself carefully into the big scena at the close of the act, and some of the top notes were tighter than would normally be the case with this singer. But the coloratura runs were as remarkable as ever – clean and beautiful – and the level of expressivity was unimpeachable. For instance, Miricioiu’s treatment of the tempo di mezzo was gorgeously understated, and one was only sorry that only one verse of the andante was performed.
Predictably, Miricioiu came into her own in the second act, especially the encounter with Germont: ‘Morrò! la mia memoria’ was done with a real sense of mortality, and in general the way the soprano applies vocal gesture to each bar of music was as compelling as ever. And the final act was a real tour de force of vocal acting, bringing the evening to a riveting close and a standing ovation for the soprano.
Wonderfully matched to Miricioiu’s powers was Alan Opie as Giorgio Germont. Already a superior Rigoletto, Nabucco and Falstaff, Opie is a natural for Germont, and his performance complemented Miricioiu’s ideally. Indeed, their scene together was by far the dramatic highlight of the evening. At the age of 64, Opie’s voice shows no signs of wear – he was absolutely secure at the top of his two set pieces, and he mixes technical solidarity with a wide expressive palette.
The trio was completed by the Alfredo of young tenor Cosmin Ifrin, who was a firm favourite with the audience. His flashy top C at the end of ‘O mio rimorso’ drew particular admiration from the crowd, and there’s no denying that he’s a natural lyric tenor. That said, for me he did not engage with the drama on the same level as his co-stars, in spite of his impressive singing.
The same goes for the secondary roles, in fact: the rest of the cast used the score throughout the performance, unlike Miricioiu, Opie and Ifrim, and this proved to be very distracting, making their contributions rather earth-bound. The chorus, too, seemed slightly under-rehearsed, though their enthusiasm made up for some sloppy diction and lack of accuracy.
On the other hand, the orchestra has never sounded better at these events: the string tuning was admirably co-ordinated for most of the evening, and Gianluca Marcianò’s conducting was stylish and urgent. Indeed, for the amateur forces, this was an impressively professional performance. My only point of concern with the conducting was in the Act 2 finale: Verdi deliberately avoids writing a stretta in order to bring the party scene to an abrupt end, but Marcianò speeded up more than should be the case.
In most other respects, though, his interpretation was convincing and often riveting. Coupled with the Miricioiu-Opie alliance, this was another vintage evening for the Chelsea Opera Group. No wonder they got a standing ovation. And I, for one, can't wait for February 2011's performance of Donizetti's Belisario, which will bring together Nelly Miricioiu with Richard Bonynge - two of the all-time greats of bel canto opera.
Review: Met announces 2010-11 season
Interview: Nelly Miricioiu on her debut London recital
Interview: Nelly Miricioiu on her magnificent return to Covent Garden in 2009
Review: Nelly Miricioiu's London recital in May 2009