Rapturous applause greeted the return of Renée Fleming to Covent Garden for a revival of Verdi's La traviata – and with good reason.
The cast was unusually consistent from top to bottom, with strong leading performances by Thomas Hampson as Germont and Joseph Calleja as Alfredo, while Antonio Pappano's meticulous conducting and the return of Sir Richard Eyre to revive his production for the first time since it was unveiled in 1994 made for a richly engaging experience.
Perhaps surprisingly, this wasn't an especially high-voltage, stand-and-deliver-as-loudly-as-possible Traviata but instead a highly nuanced revival. In particular, there's so much going on in Fleming's interpretation that the connoisseur could not help but be intrigued by what she brings to the role of Violetta. Though she was slightly tentative vocally in the early scenes of Act 1 and inevitably the hectic coloratura passages of 'Sempre libera' did not seem entirely comfortable, her trademark sumptuous tone started to emerge in the love duet and particularly in the recitative to her big aria. And by bringing out the tipsiness of the character during 'Sempre libera' – she staggers round with her champagne glass and throws some ice from the champagne fountain into the air – Fleming gave the number a whirligig feeling that helped propel her through it. In this revival, Violetta also flings open the doors at the start of the second verse of the number, as if to visually emphasise her decision to 'throw herself into the vortex of pleasure' – in other words, to let real life come through the door.
Unsurprisingly, the highpoint of the act was the tempo di mezzo ('Follie! follie!'), which is the most psychologically interesting part of the scena. Fleming added an interesting slant on Violetta's words 'sola, abbandonata' by delivering them with an interrogative inflection, so that one had the sense that this Violetta was asking herself 'Do I want to be alone? Abandoned?' in a far more active way than is usually the case with this section, which is often delivered in a frightened, tentative manner.
Such is the potent approach of Fleming to this role in general, in fact. She came into her own during the great duet with Germont in the first scene of the second act, in which Alfredo's father asks her to renounce his son in order to spare his family's honour. Fleming's acting was so acute that it seemed like the sacrifice was causing her to have a nervous breakdown. The nobility of the character was increased by a number of emotive gestures, such as a long pause before 'Dite alla giovine', in which Violetta finally agrees to leave Alfredo, or beating her chest in anguish on the word 'unico' (during the phrase 'one ray of hope remains'). When she composed the letter to reject Alfredo, Fleming managed to write the long note quite credibly during a short space of time while sobbing bitterly; and during the final scene of the act, when Violetta forces herself to pretend that she loves the Baron Douphol instead of Alfredo, Fleming indeed delivered the anguished lines 'with the utmost will power' as the libretto instructs.
Still, it was the death scene that truly inspired. Though she had only sung one verse of 'Ah, fors'è lui' in Act 1, here Fleming took both stanzas of 'Addio del passato', the second of which includes the crucial line 'No cross and no name mark the grave where I'm lying'. Religious imagery has been underlined in the production here more than had been the case previously, and during the scene Violetta now drops both a cross and a Bible on the floor, a rejection that makes it all the more moving when her attempt to get dressed and go to church to give thanks for Alfredo's return is frustrated by her failing energy. Fleming is a stronger Violetta than we're used to: she really tries to rise out of her blood-stained sheets and get going again, but she keeps falling over. And she leans back against the huge mirror that dominates the now-bare set, no longer able to face her own reflection. Finally, the actual moment of death is intensified by having the stage lights come up strongly during the few seconds of false recovery that signal Violetta's oncoming demise, and the notorious 'lap of honour' as the singer runs around the room and dies in Alfredo's arms actually worked on this occasion, thanks to the tremendous energy with which Fleming threw herself into it.
The soprano's charisma on the stage is truly magical – she looks dazzling in Bob Crowley's costumes, which we've been so used to seeing worn by dark-haired divas like Gheorghiu and Netrebko – and one simply can't take one's eyes from her. She also uses her instrument with the utmost flexibility, sometimes scaling down to the smooth and soft (as in the exquisite 'Parigi, o cara') and sometimes really letting rip (such as in the first scene of the second act). And she foreshadows Violetta's death extremely vividly by coughing especially loudly during all three acts, though the demise is also done gradually so that - unlike some other divas in the role - the curtain doesn't go up on Act 3 with the scene of a Violetta who's already practically dead, since Fleming's Violetta is a real fighter.
But she's not the only great thing about this revival. The casting of the Germonts is strikingly credible on this occasion: Thomas Hampson's stern, paternal Giorgio really has the measure of how to manipulate his son Alfredo, played by Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja. When he doesn't get what he wants after 'Di provenza il mar', Giorgio flings Alfredo to the floor; then the cabaletta of his aria – in which he tries to say that 'God is my guide in all things' – underlines his cynicism.
Hampson's passionate, elegant, powerful delivery rang loudly through the house and drew ecstatic applause from the audience at the final curtain. Calleja, meanwhile, has never performed better at Covent Garden: he remains a wooden actor during the more passionate scenes, but the way he swaggers about and throws the casino chips at Violetta in Act 2, Scene 2 totally suits the character. His voice has gained a new gravity, too, and if I'm still not completely enthusiastic about his fast vibrato style, the security of line and relaxed stance he took made his singing a pleasure. It was a surprise, in fact, when he sang only one verse of 'O mio rimorso' and did not take the high C, since he seemed so much in command of what he was doing.
It was a great night for the Jette Parker Young Artists – Monika-Evelin Liiv's Flora, Kostas Smoriginas' Marquis D'Obigny and Haoyin Xue's Gastone all made their mark even in such stellar company – and Sarah Pring's Annina was admirably vigorous and determined (no pushover servant here). A great night, too, for Antonio Pappano and the Royal Opera House Chorus and Orchestra, who sounded the best they have all season. I found the Prelude perhaps a little too slow, but elsewhere what Pappano does with the score is imaginative. The pizzicato strings accompanying Alfredo's 'De' miei bollenti spiriti' have rarely been so energetically plucked, the gypsy music done so quickly and incisively or the offstage bacchanale in the third act performed as such an intensely nightmarish reminder of how distanced Violetta now is from the outside world. It's impossible to list every detail and colour brought out by the team of Pappano and Eyre in this revival: you just have to go and see it for yourself, or perhaps attend one of the big screen or cinema relays of the performance on 30 June.
Photos credits: Catherine Ashmore
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