After an 'A' cast which assembled three of the most sought after singers in the opera world in Anna Netrebko, Jonas Kaufmann and Dmitri Hvorostovsky (reviewed here), it was inevitable that the 'B' cast for the Royal Opera's La traviata would have less sparkle. In the event, Netrebko's well-publicised early departure due to bronchitis and the fact that Kaufmann sang through much of the run nursing a cold did something to make this gulf smaller.
The casting still showed a distinct lack of imagination, fielding two singers, in Norah Amsellem as Violetta and Charles Castronovo as Alfredo, who have been staples of the production's revivals over the last couple of years. Maurizio Benini is conducting the whole run and although it was a respectable account of this masterpiece, there was often a lack of subtlety and a hint of routine. Several passages where Verdi lets melody flood the score simply failed to register. To the audience the conductor made his intentions clear from the tendency to vocalise at key points. Unfortunately, the fact that these entreaties were so audible only really served to demonstrate how the orchestra too often doggedly refused to react.
Making his debut in the role of Germont père was Mariusz Kwiecien. Recent roles for the Polish baritone have included Enrico in Lucia di Lammamoor at the Met and in terms of vocal heft, he's all one would hope for. Unfortunately, though, his performance lacked a sense of Verdian style: he brought too much stentorian tone and anger to 'Di Provenza il mar', he just came across as a bully in his long scene with Violetta and his voice tended towards opacity high up. If the audience cannot necessarily be made to like this character, it should at least be persuaded of his own belief in the nobility of his motives. This unsympathetic portrayal failed in this regard, going some way to unbalance the plot.
Charles Castronovo, dark and handsome, looked the part and acted convincingly as Alfredo. Vocally he seemed similarly reluctant to spin the kind of long, legato lines that should come naturally to a tenor in this role. Despite the darkish timbre, he often just didn't have enough focus or volume to his voice to command one's attention. As the performance progressed, he did rise to some decent top notes and was affecting in the final act, but this did little to make up for deficiencies elsewhere.
Inevitably Norah Amsellem lacks the stellar appeal of Anna Netrebko. She is, however, an experienced Violetta who can be relied upon to deliver a convincing portrayal both in terms of acting and singing. And that's just what she did. In the first act, her 'É strano' was efficient but I missed the extra lyricism and vocal warmth some can bring here; the cabaletta, some slightly wayward intonation at the very top of her cadenzas notwithstanding, was delivered cleanly. She did all she could to inject some drama into the second act – despite Benini's rather tepid conducting at this point and Kwiecien's monochromatic Germont – and in the third act, placed to the front of the stage, acted with intelligence and sensitivity.
With La traviata, a good performance of the final act can often go some way to cover any cracks in what has gone before. However, despite Amsellem's once again excellent acting, the performance rarely rose above the level of reliable professionalism. Matters weren't helped by an audience which constantly punctured the atmosphere with their own consumptive interruptions. Concertmaster Peter Manning's solo accompanying Violetta's brief melodrama sounded likewise afflicted; surely this should be a musical reflection of her inner excitement and yearning, stronger than ever, not of her weak physical state. Rising above all this, Amsellem managed to produce beautifully hushed renditions of both 'Addio del passato' and 'Parigi, o cara'. The 'lap of honour' as Violetta feels herself recovering before death, eschewed by Netrebko, was restored here. This rather rushed and unnecessary visual demonstration of the effects of spes phthisica – all the description one could want of this phenomenon is in Verdi's score – if anything broke the spell that the soprano had finally succeeded in casting.
Many of the smaller roles were taken extremely well and featured several members of the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme: Kostas Smoriginas was suitably roguish in his brief appearence as the Marquis d'Obigny and Haoyin Xue impressive as Gastone.
By Hugo Shirley
Photos: Catherine Ashmore