Leo Nucci Excels As Germont In Covent Garden’s La Traviata

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Verdi La traviata (Cast 1):  Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Jan Latham-Koenig (conductor), 3.10.2011 (CC)

Violette Valéry:  Marina Poplavskaya
Alfredo Germont: James Valenti
Giorgio Germont: Leo Nucci
Flora Bervoix: Liora Grodnikaite
Marquis d’Obigny: Jeremy White
Baron Douphol: Robert Poulton
Doctor Grenvil: Richard Wiegold
Gastone: Ji-Min Park
Annina: Sarah Pring
Giuseppe: Neil Gillespie
Messenger: John Bernays
Servant: Jonathan Coad


Richard Eyre’s production (here under revival director Harry Fehr) is certainly well-used. Jim Pritchard reviewed a 2010 revival, referring to the 1994 production; the Royal Opera Houses’ blurb refers to this as “one of the Royal Opera’s most popular productions”. Jim’s review [http://www.musicweb-international.com/SandH/2010/Jul-Dec10/traviata0807.htm] raised some important issues about the production (Richard Eyre’s; the revival director is Harry Fehr), yet allowed for the opulence. The opening image as the Prelude to Act I plays is of Violetta at the side of the stage, followed by projections against the curtain of Violetta as a young girl. Certainly effective, yet as the act gets under way there is an impression of over-busy stage work, not to mention far too much stage noise at the beginning of “È strano”. The gambling scene (Act 2 Scene 2) seemed cramped; in contrast, Violetta’s bedroom in the final act was like a barn. Here, in the work’s closing stages, an effective use of shadow play to depict the revelers outside, should be noted.

There are to be three separate casts, and I will review all three all being well (there was a ticket mix up on this first night). Here, Marina Poplavskaya, who has previously taken the role of Violetta at the Met, Netherlands Opera and in Los Angeles, got off to a rather shaky start. She projects the flighty side of Violetta well in the first act, but there is little magic in her portrayal. There was, too, a real sense of her warming into the performance. By the end of the first act there was a commendable use of coloratura as gesture, of working Verdi’s writing into the dramatic moment. Even here she seemed at a remove. Nucci (see below) encouraged her to some fine reactions in the second act, and by the end she was capable of some of the pathos Verdi’s heartbreaking end requires. But despite the international status of Poplavskaya, it seemed she was keeping the role warm for someone else later in the run (Netrebko, in case you don’t know).

James Valenti’s Alfredo (surely one of the tallest Alfredos?), in spite of an elegant “Un dì felice”, was similarly  unconvincing. He was ill-matched with Poplavskaya; there was little or no tension between them, sexual or otherwise. His big moment, “Dei mei bollenti spiriti” (opening Act 2) again was less than believable, sung as if it was a one-off aria rather than part of an ongoing dramatic narrative. Moreover, Valenti sounded identifiably tired by the end of the second act, his pitch wavering uncomfortably and his anger unconvincing.

The true star of the evening was Leo Nucci. To say he is experienced is to understate the case: he made his debut in 1967 as Figaro (Barbiere); his Royal Opera debut was as Miller in Luisa Miller in 1978. A slight graininess of voice is quite apposite to Germont père, and his dramatic presence was simply huge. His diction, his way with the words, and his unfolding of the dramatic scene between Giorgio and Violetta was simply masterly. This scene was arguably the dramatic high-point of this performance, eclipsing her death in the final act. The third element in this scene is of course the conductor, and Latham-Koenig produced his finest conducting here, drawing spell-binding playing from the orchestra. Later, Nucci’s “Di Provenza del mar” was simply astonishing in its emotional depth. This, tellingly, provoked the first sustained cries of “Brava” from the audience, which had been remarkably (but understandably, perhaps) restrained until this point.

The smaller roles were well taken, with Sarah Pring a focused Annina, Richard Wiegold making his mark briefly in the role of the Doctor. Lithuanian Liora Grodnikaite, a name new to me, made a fine job of Flora Bervoix. Only Ji-Min Park’s bleaty Gastone was a disappointment.

Jan Latham-Koenig is currently Chief Conductor of Noraya Opera, Moscow, and debuted at Covent Garden in 2000 with Tosca. Shortly afterwards, in 2002, I reviewed his Avie disc of Ibert’s Persee et Andromede on Avie, http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2002/Dec02/Ibert_Persee.htm. His work here was less impressive, notably in some decidedly shaky ensemble between chorus and orchestra in the first act. Yet he ensured the famous Brindisi (“Libiamo”) bounced along infectiously, and the agitation of the accompaniment to Act 2’s “Dei miei bollenti spiriti” was a high point of the evening. The orchestra conveyed all of the anxious energy the score contains; later, in the final act, he ensured the long high violin lines had all the emotive meaning they contain.

Just how the different casts shed different light on Verdi’s masterpiece will be fascinating indeed, but this particular evening was far from a finished product. Watch this space.

Colin Clarke