La Traviata at Covent Garden: Third Cast Best Yet

06/01/2012

Verdi La traviata (III): Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Maurizio Benini (Conductor), Covent Garden, London, 02.01.2012 (CC)

Cast:

Violette Valéry – Emonela Jaho
Alfredo Germont – Stephen Costello
Giorgio Germont – Paolo Gavanelli
Flora Bervoix – Justina Gringyte
Marquis d’Obigny – Jeremy White
Baron Douphol – David Stout
Doctor Grenvil – Robert Lloyd
Gastone – Ji Hyun Kim
Annina – Hanna Hipp
Giuseppe – Neil Gillespie
Messenger – John Bernays
Servant – Jonathan Coad

Production:

Director Richard Eyre
Revival Director Rodula Gaitanou
Designs Bob Crowley
Lighting Design Jean Kalman

… And so we come to the third cast for the present run of Covent Garden Traviatas. By some way this was the most satisfying musically, and that was due to the efforts of one man – Maurizio Benini, a conductor whose credentials in this repertoire are impeccable and who has conducted in all of the major opera houses of the World. There was a new confidence to the orchestra that dwarfed their contributions to either of the earlier outings I have covered (conductors Jan Latham-Koening and Patrick Lange). There were nuances in this reading that neither of the two earlier conductors could presumably even dream of – and in fact the orchestra itself was unrecognisable in its sheer confidence and burnished sound. Those difficult high string passages of the work’s opening, for example, were lovingly moulded with not the slightest hint of strain or discomfort. Above all, though, it was Benini’s feeling for the work’s structure that made the evening so complete. He imbued everything with a tangible sense of inevitability that walked hand in hand with the onstage drama, yet was separate from it. His way with Verdi’s use of contrast was telling, something that we hear right from the start: after the near stasis of the act I Prelude the blazing (orchestral) light of the party scene. Here, in fact, the atmosphere Benini created seemed to out-dazzle the golden sets. The second act, with its examination of difficult inter-personal relationships, was the finest of the three Traviatas I have experienced, with Benini bending with the dramatic flow superbly, illuminating the characters’ emotions from within via the medium of music.

Of course we need singing to match this excellence. In general it was forthcoming, although not uniformly so. The Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho, the Violetta for the night, had a lovely open, appealing voice and quite looked the part of the fragile beauty. Yet her long section from “E strano” onwards, showed some weaknesses. The main problem was that for much of the evening it seemed impossible to engage with her emotions – this was all about technique and the difficulty of the music, rather than an exciting outpouring. Her final act worked fairly well. Here her fragility was undiluted by pretence, and it was here that Jaho came closest to bonding with Violetta.

Stephen Costello gave a mixed account of Alfredo. His “Libiamo” was nice and virile, yet his “Un dì felice” was annoyingly bleaty. He rose to the challenge of the second act’s “De miei bollenti spiriti” (urgently and brilliantly accompanied by Benini) and, like Jaho, he found his best in the final act.

After Nucci and Keenlyside, Paolo Gavanelli’s Giorgio Germont seemed pale in comparison. A huge bulk of a man, he nevertheless did not have the stage presence of his predecessors in the role. His voice, too, seemed to show strain. “Pura siccome un angelo” suffered particularly; here vocal melodic lines bulged uncomfortably and unnaturally. “Di Provenza il mar” was not much better.

Generally the smaller roles get a rather perfunctory paragraph, and indeed one can whizz through many of the characters quickly. Jeremy White was a huge-voiced Marquis, Ji Hyun Kim was a rather weak Gastone, while Hanna Hipp once more impressed as Annina. But if you have read the cast list at the head of this review, perhaps you saw Robert Lloyd’s name there … yes, the same Robert Lloyd who was such a memorable and benevolently wise Gurnemanz in his heyday. He imbued the role of Doctor Grenvil with unimpeachable dignity. It was wonderful to see and hear him in action again.

Regarding the production, I am amused (and amazed) to report that the matadors of act II seem now to be in a competition to out-camp the über-camp of previous performances. An amusing take on the latter stages of the second act, to be sure. But it was Benini’s vision that enabled us to truly appreciate, for the first time in this long run of Traviatas, the genius of Verdi’s score. And for that we should be truly grateful.

Colin Clarke

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