Violetta in La Traviata
a Traviata discussion on the Web a while back, folks argued the
relative merits of the available Violettas, and there was disagreement over Ileana
Cotrubas on the Carlos Kleiber set (DG). Speaking for myself, I don't think Cotrubas
is the best Violetta, but she is certainly not the worst. I sense that's the general
feeling among many listeners. She is one of the decent ones: Among at least
forty reputable Violettas on disc, I feel that Cotrubas is in the upper half rather
than the lower.
ultimately, it's all relative.
instance, in absolute terms, Cotrubas remains perfectly fine. Yet when it comes
to relative levels, her
quality of vocalism leaves her in the shadow of those with arguably more glamorous
tones like Ponselle, Muzio, the young Albanese, the young Callas, the young Scotto,
Caballe, Sutherland, Tebaldi, De Los Angeles, Freni, Sills ("live" at
Naples, not the paler studio effort a year or so later), the young Moffo, Zeani,
and so on. At the same time, Cotrubas's vocalism remains perfectly strong in absolute
terms, however more striking these others may be.
the other hand, when it comes to her
vividness as a communicator with a vocal "face", I find she somewhat
overshadows singers like Sutherland or Tebaldi -- at least, when judged purely
by aural impact on disc. And again, that's not to say that the latter group epitomized
by Sutherland and Tebaldi (though in Cotrubas's shadow as communicators) are at
all inadequate as authentic and sympathetic communicators of the part, since they're
still capable of bringing plenty of warmth and sincerity to it. It's the ultimate
level of variety of expression, not sincerity of expression, that sometimes eludes
them. In absolute terms, they still remain effective interpreters, whatever the
greater variety in a few others like Cotrubas.
view Violetta as extremely high-strung, and I expect a degree of both volatility
and brio in the part. The vocal "face" I prefer is one of acute watchfulness
and intensity. There
must, at the same time, be a suggestion of vulnerability that is only partially,
however strenuously, concealed through a deliberately intermittent show of strength.
The occasional failure to project strength even when clearly trying to do so constitutes
a big part of the character. It is this inner conflict intrinsic to the part that
is one of the hardest contradictions to pull off. Yet the two faces of this contradiction
are both undoubtedly there in Verdi's music. That both can be conveyed successfully
is shown in an extremely rare and dimly recorded Acoustic from 1911 of the young
Claudia Muzio's "Amami, Alfredo" from Act II: strength of spirit and
almost painful vulnerability combined. That this need not be a paradox is only
demonstrable through hearing this record. Once heard, it may entice one to bring
the unrealistic expectations surrounding that unique "sound picture"
from a hundred years ago to every other reading -- as I do repeatedly. (And this
is not to take anything away from Muzio's later record of the Letter Scene from
Act III, which has other virtues that are equally special.)
aside questions of sheer loveliness in vocalism (or the lack thereof):
A) I always "hear" this double "face" (shades of Midsummer
Night's Dream: "I see a voice"..............) in Muzio's, Bellincioni's
and Olivero's all-too-few excerpts, in Albanese (the mid-'40s Met broadcast with
Tucker and the Toscanini Dress Rehearsal particularly) and in Callas at her best;
B) I usually hear this quality in Moffo at her best, in Scotto at her best, and
in Stratas, Sills, Freni, Gheorghiu, Cotrubas and Zeani; and
C) I hear this quality more than half the time in Ponselle, Carteri, De Los Angeles,
Caballe, Lorengar, Studer and Netrebko; and
D) I find chiefly vocal delight in the Galli-Curci excerpts and in the complete
recordings of Tebaldi and Sutherland.
this is ultimately relative. After all, in poring over the four different groups
here, it is perfectly possible to find sometimes lovely vocalism in, say, Albanese's
studio cut ('45) of the Violetta/Germont père duet by itself, even
though Albanese still belongs with the successfully conflicted communicators primarily.
And it's also possible to find sincere feeling in some of Tebaldi's singing, even
though she still belongs with the vocal marvels primarily. All I'm doing here
is showing how the range of emphasis seems to shift (in general) from group
don't recall any disagreement on either the vividness of group A as performers,
whatever their vocal qualities, nor the loveliness of group D as voices, whatever
their stature as communicators. I'd bet that the greatest disagreements among
listeners (disagreements, that is, on where certain Violettas belong along the
communicator-to-vocalist continuum) involve my group C, a "crossroads"
territory where I've, in fact, seen direct disagreements as to the intensity and
involvement and imagination of each of those seven portrayals.
selecting the most generally satisfactory recording, in which not just the Violetta
but also her colleagues, her conductor, and the overall performance all combine
to present Verdi's score at its best, the range of choices becomes especially
limited. It's unfortunate that none of the most vivid and absorbing recordings
present a literally complete performance of Verdi's score exactly as he wrote
it. The most committed readings all follow the traditional cuts of a century or
more, and it's sometimes unclear just how many of these cuts were ever sanctioned
by the composer, even though they usually prevailed until quite recently. Still,
it's among these slightly cut recordings that the most consistently satisfying
sets are to be found.
the most vivid communicators, Albanese and Callas take pride of place for many,
and for those listeners looking for a heady brew of reckless determination, volatility
and vulnerability, only these two may suffice. For virgin ears, though, I find
that no set featuring either one at her best is entirely satisfactory in other
respects as an introduction to the score.
not for so-so sonics, my Albanese choice would be the hard-to-come-by Met broadcast
from the mid-'40s, with Albanese at her zenith, the young Tucker in superb voice
and at his most sympathetic as one of the finest Alfredos available, and Cesare
Sodero at the podium, leading one of the most sensitive readings yet heard. But
the RCA Toscanini broadcast is in better sound and more readily available. Sadly,
Albanese here is in the least strong voice of all her Traviatas, and with
a conductor who can sometimes seem rushed and unsympathetic. A compromise might
be the available Dress Rehearsal for this Toscanini broadcast, in somewhat better
sound than the Met broadcast, with Albanese in good voice and with a relaxed and
sympathetic reading from the Maestro, almost as evocative here as Sodero. But
even here, some may find the pervasive presence of the Maestro's "singing
along" a drawback (it was a rehearsal, after all). Sometimes, I am troubled
by this presence; sometimes not.
a Callas set is even harder. Although the early Mexico readings and her studio
set on CETRA show her in fine shape, the vocal persona is still occasionally lacking
in the requisite vulnerability for the part. All that is behind her in the subsequent
readings for the Visconti production under Giulini. The vulnerability in her characterization
is fully honed in both Visconti broadcasts (1955 and '56). Still, these are in
uneven sound, the '55 (with Di Stefano) sonically deteriorating considerably in
the second half (a performance available on several labels), while the '56 (with
Gianni Raimondi) sounds even worse, especially the first half, although somewhat
improved in the second (available only on MYTO). At the same time, the '56 finds
Callas with a sometimes warmer and more ingratiating tone than in '55 (where the
top may be a bit surer). Better sonics altogether are found in two different broadcasts
in 1958, one in Lisbon with uneven conducting from Franco Ghione, and one at Covent
Garden where it is Callas's voice that strikes me as too uneven. With her finest
Violetta ('56) in sometimes execrable sound, practical choices come down to either
'55, where the sound is still somewhat congested in the second half, or Lisbon,
with its uneven conducting.
we were only looking for a fine performance for the aficionado, our search might
end with Albanese and Callas, compromised though the sonics are. But for an introduction
to the score, I tend to look further. Perhaps, by a miracle, some restoration
wizard might yet produce a clean-sounding and vivid transfer of either the '40s
Met broadcast with Albanese/Tucker or the Visconti/Callas broadcast with Raimondi.
But I'm not holding my breath. Of course, if one isn't bothered by a lovable but
distracting "obligato" from the conductor, there is always the more
accessible Toscanini Dress Rehearsal.
aside for now these hard choices among the Albanese and Callas options, I still
occasionally find, in group B, uncommon vividness matched to the kind of vocal
beauty that can entrance instantly, even though it's very occasional. Only five
even approach this combination. Their sets too are sometimes a balance of compromises
to an extent, although, in most cases, not so acute as for Albanese/Callas.
Anna Moffo's energized recording under Fernando Previtali is offset by a rich-toned
but sometimes unsympathetic Alfredo in the mature Tucker, so different from his
splendid Alfredo with Albanese.
The young Renata Scotto's DG set has a fine Scala cast but features sometimes
detached conducting from Antonino Votto that is not so inspired as Previtali's
on the Moffo set.
Beverly Sills's two sets both offer Aldo Ceccato's poor conducting, the first
with so-so sound but with her Violetta at its peak ("live" at Naples,
1970), and the second with fine sound but offering her Violetta with an instrument
no longer fresh (studio, 1971). These awkward choices are comparable to those
Mirella Freni's set, albeit with Lamberto Gardelli's more sympathetic conducting,
is saddled with a past-his-prime Bruscantini for Germont père whose
legato is as often absent as it is present.
Having grown up deeply appreciating the finest Violettas who have survived on
disc, like Albanese, Callas, Ponselle, Freni, the younger Scotto, Moffo and Sills,
I don't mean to take anything away from these artists by saying that my recent
hearing of many different sets finds me enthralled most of all by the Virginia
Zeani Traviata under Jean Bobescu (on VOX). It's not just that Zeani is one of
the very few who combines vocal beauty with the kind of expressive intensity that
often attains that elusive balance of would-be strength with evident vulnerability.
It's also that this set matches this artist -- caught under optimum conditions
in her vocal prime -- with sumptuously voiced colleagues at their best similarly
conveying the feelings in Verdi's writing. Add to that the attentive and engaged
Bobescu whose mastery at the podium honors both the energy in Verdi's score and
its poetry, and you have one of the finest Traviatas on disc, and one that
has now become a personal favorite. For me, this studio recording is all of a
piece, with its decent sound, its fine conducting, and its responsive and sympathetic
colleagues, all alongside a communicative heroine at her best.
I find the Zeani set the most engrossing as a whole, I can well understand why
some might still prefer either the Albanese/Toscanini Dress Rehearsal showing
everyone in vintage form and in decent sound, or an all-Italian ensemble with
the young Scotto, or Freni with a more sympathetic conductor, or Moffo with a
more galvanic one. Each one of these offers a generally compelling performance.
(In fact, I have encountered a few deeply knowledgeable aficionados for whom one
or the other of these four is superior to any.) Among other alternates, it's just
unfortunate that Callas and Sills, two of the finest Violettas when at their best,
can only be enjoyed in sets that entail distinct compromise.
sets of historic interest -- but which also, like the top five I've singled out,
are not literally complete -- include the most sumptuously vocalized performance
of all, featuring Ponselle, Jagel and Tibbett from a "live" Met broadcast
under Ettore Panizza, but only in poor sound; and the De Los Angeles set, distinguished
more by the very finest conducting heard on disc, from Maestro Tullio Serafin,
than by an accomplished but not gripping cast. More recent sets of note include
the Cotrubas set referenced above with an appealing heroine and featuring superb
sound, but with Carlos Kleiber's rushed conducting; the Gheorghiu set enlivened
by an imaginative Violetta and encumbered with an uneven Alfredo; and a current-day
Salzburg lineup, featuring an alert duo in Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon,
under a sympathetic but inconsistent Carlo Rizzi.
if one is looking for a literally complete reading of Verdi's original score,
only the Caballe set under Georges Pretre, with Bergonzi's stunning Alfredo, sounds
like more than a straight recitation, even though it's still not so vivid as the
best ones in this survey.
FINER VIOLETT - E (in order of personal preference):
[alphabetically]. Licia Albanese/Gemma Bellincioni/Maria Callas/Claudia Muzio/Magda
[alphabetically]. Beverly Sills/Virginia Zeani
[alphabetically]. Ileana Cotrubas/Mirella Freni/Angela Gheorghiu/Anna Moffo/Renata
[alphabetically]. Montserrat Caballe/Victoria De Los Angeles/Amelita Galli-Curci/Angela
Gheorghiu/Anna Netrebko/Rosa Ponselle
[alphabetically]. Rosanna Carteri/Pilar Lorengar/Cheryl Studer/Joan Sutherland/Renata
Carlo Maria Giulini
Jean Bobescu/Ettore Panizza/Fernando
Toscanini (Dress Rehearsal)
Franco Ghione/Carlos Kleiber/Georges Pretre/Carlo Rizzi/Georg Solti/Arturo Toscanini
1968 - Virginia Zeani/Ion Buzea/Nicolae Herlea/Jean Bobescu --
generally satisfying set, with a genuinely appealing heroine, sympathetic colleagues,
assured conducting, good sound
[in chronological order]:
1960 - Anna Moffo/Richard Tucker/Robert Merrill/Fernando Previtali --
best-sounding set to combine appealing heroine and good conducting, although unsympathetic
B ) 1962 - Renata Scotto/Gianni Raimondi/Ettore Bastianini/Antonino
the best combination of appealing heroine and idiomatic cast, although
C ) 1973 - Mirella Freni/Franco Bonisolli/Sesto Bruscantini/Lamberto
the best-sounding set to combine appealing heroine and simpatico
partner, although sometimes uneven supporting cast
3 [in chronological order]:
A) 1946 - Licia Albanese/Jan Peerce/Robert Merrill/Arturo
Toscanini (Dress Rehearsal) --
the most probing heroine to boast both decent
conducting and colleagues, albeit with some distracting sounds from the podium
B ) 1955 - Maria Callas/Giuseppe Di Stefano/Ettore Bastianini/Carlo Maria Giulini
the best-conducted of the more probing heroines, although so-so sound
4. 1970 - Beverly Sills/Alfredo Kraus/Mario Zanasi/Aldo Ceccato ("live"
from Naples) --
one of the more appealing heroines, although so-so sound
and poor conducting
1935 - Rosa Ponselle/Frederick Jagel/Lawrence Tibbett/Ettore Panizza --
sumptuous voices of all, although so-so sound
1977 - Ileana Cotrubas/Placido Domingo/Sherrill Milnes/Carlos Kleiber --
appealing heroine with reasonably accomplished colleagues, in superb sound, although
1959 - Victoria De Los Angeles/Carlo Del Monte/Mario Sereni/Tullio Serafin --
conducting of all, accomplished but not always gripping cast
2005 - Anna Netrebko/Rolando Villazon/Thomas Hampson/Carlo Rizzi
theatrical duo of today caught in good voice and good sound with somewhat inconsistent
1994 - Angela Gheorghiu/Frank Lopardo/Leo Nucci/Georg Solti
and imaginative Violetta opposite an uneven Alfredo
1967 - Montserrat Caballe/Carlo Bergonzi/Sherrill Milnes/Georges Pretre --
only literally complete set that doesn't sound like a dry recitation, but still