Given the choice between Verdi's La traviata and, well, anything, most tenors would prefer to sing the latter rather than poor vocally deprived Alfredo. He has only one aria proper, and is unfortunately not a prime example of "Opera's Greatest Leading Men." Nevertheless, tenors of all stripes are often contracted to sing the role opposite a prima donna Violetta, and while the soprano takes all the glory due to the nature of the plot and the music, the tenor is left lame. Luckily for the audience, the heart of the opera is not the tenor's one aria or the couple's duets, but actually the duet between Violetta and Germont—Alfredo's disgustingly self-righteous father.
Listening to this grand scena, (as Violetta painstakingly resigns herself to a life without Alfredo at the behest of his father) with twenty-first century ears, it is difficult to imagine that the opera was, in the composer's own words, a "total fiasco" at its Venetian première. Surprisingly, that was the thought that continually ran through my head while watching the Royal Opera's revival of Richard Eyre's production. There were two aspects of it that completely missed the mark: Maurizio Benini's tempi and Paolo Gavanelli's Germont.
Ermonela Jaho, however, was superb. She brought a refreshing interpretation of a heavily trodden role to the stage; her Violetta was charming and headstrong, while at the same time subtly frenzied; Jaho managed to create a truly three dimensional woman, one whose very dark undertones (both vocally and theatrically, a nice symmetry) surfaced at key moments to break up the frivolous waltzing. Her rendition of "Sempre Libera" brought these qualities together in a very attractive whole, although there were moments in her upper range that her voice seemed to lose resonance slightly. Her ebullient arm gestures and her tendency to go ever so slightly sharp above high A were the only detractors in her performance.
This lack of glimmer was replaced with well-produced ping as the opera progressed, and by the second act duet she was in top form. This was her most successful scene; there was no overacting, no ridiculous arm movement, simply raw emotional power perfectly translated into an elegant and compelling legato. This made for an interesting juxtaposition with Gavanelli, since what he lacked in style and grace he made up for with inappropriately timed bursts of volume and forced straight-tone, that is, all the time.
The second act was also Stephen Costello's best. His Alfredo throughout was rather blasé, although, as mentioned, the role itself may be partly to blame. He brought, however, a vocal edge to Alfredo that complemented the soprano's Violetta perfectly: his impeccable sense of style oozed out of every line he sang, and, indeed, they were sung with the perfect amount of vocal power, emotional immediacy, and that highly desirable quality that is so important in Verdi, the right balance of volume and stunning legato.
What was perplexing, however, was the way Costello treated the pivotal scene in the second part of the act, when he accusingly throws money at Violetta's feet. I felt he lacked the qualities that made his previous singing so successful; it was almost as though he was rushing through it to get to the third act, and this scene is far to important (and one of the best) to simply toss it away at a hurried pace.
Of course, as I mentioned earlier, this may not entirely be his fault. Maurizio Benini took the orchestra too fast through most of the intimate moments in the opera; it was almost as though he sacrificed the emotional poignancy that can be drawn out of the music for the sake of simply getting through the work quickly. Despite the production's merits, then, Benini presented the opera as thoroughly un-Italian (!) by choosing crisp, quick tempi, never allowing the signers to really take their time with the phrases that blossom. In fact, this was unfortunately the fastest Traviata I have ever heard. And while this worked for one or two "numbers" (the Brindisi and the Gypsy music, for example), generally I felt the really classic moments were over just as they'd begun. The one exception to Benini's warp speed was "Addio del passato," which was literally breathtaking.
The tempi notwithstanding then, one must give credit to the orchestra for their outstanding timbre and extremely well executed vacillations with the singers onstage. The chorus was equally well prepared, though, as always, left something to be desired in the crowd scenes. The smaller roles (more important to the work's dénouement than this review is making them out to be) were also well sung, especially by Justina Gringyte (Flora).
The classic and "historically authentic" production has been glossed over by many as an adequate vehicle for great singers, and I see no reason to disagree with that astute conclusion. However, I felt the sinking opera house set (I can think of no other way to describe it), complete with large hanging table light in the second act really didn't work; if everything else is "authentic" and not avant-garde in any real way, why create that sort of visual disjunction for the duration of what in this production amounted to the most important scenes?
Although this revival for some was surely sentimental, heart breaking, and romantic, for me it emerged simply as another Traviata that almost worked, and had it not been for some really outstanding singing, would've wholly failed.
Interview with Renée Fleming about this production
Interview with Antonio Pappano about this production
Review of this production's previous revival with Anna Netrebko
DVD Review of La traviata with Renée Fleming in Los Angeles