In the midst of the wall-to-wall Traviatas that make up the Royal Opera’s Christmas/New Year period, I hadn’t expected anything too special of this performance when I booked it. The bigger money was on Netrebko in January. I came out of the theatre last night severely doubting that January’s performance will out-do this one.
There’s little needs saying about the production: it delivers, and continues to do so handsomely and straightforwardly. A succession of casts both great and not-so-great have passed through it since it debut’d in 1994. This was definitely one of the best.
Ailyn Pérez was last seen in these parts (and for the first time) opposite Domingo in the Rigoletto act of his recent extravaganza, having also joined their Traviata tour to Japan. She impressed, albeit with not a great deal to go on. There had been some very appreciative remarks on Twitter about her Violetta, one seasoned operatic twitterer being especially complimentary, as well as various positive reviews. So there was some expectation and, it is fair to say that by the end of Act 1 I was distinctly unsure. There was certainly no feeling of effortlessness associated with the coloratura of Sempre libera. Although the voice was strong and well-projected, with a nice richness to the tone, it didn’t seem to be quite fitting. That said, there was a detail to the acting which boded well for the intensified drama of later acts. But still, I wasn’t sure, although it was certainly all very interesting.
By the end of Act 2 scene 1, this seemed a different performance. Her voice just seemed to have come alive in response to the more dramatic and conversational demands of this act, sounding much more secure and forthright, but with a fabulous warmth to it. Her characterisation of Violetta had an honest reality and believability that really made the scenes with Germont pére fly, and the gambling scene was similarly intense. The third act was shattering, with all the elements in place: desperation at not seeing Alfredo again, rage at the injustice of her death, resignation and touching self-sacrifice at Prendi: quest’è l’immagine. It was a well-shaped performance overall, and a very special incarnation in this production.
Simon Keenlyside was that Germont pére, and I am a bit torn. Vocally, he was utterly fantastic, a secure and nuanced vocal portrayal. However, therein may lie the problem: he was in almost too rude vocal health. Even with a bit of ageing makeup, some hair whitening and a push for an aged gait, he still seemed too young to be the grand old man of Act 2. He and Perez played off each other fantastically, though, and with all these reservations, they still made that conversational scene the high point that it should be.
As Alfredo, Piotr Beczala was a verismo singer trapped in a Verdian character. In the main, there was a slightly stolid dramatic sense to accompany his heroically secure voice. His acting seemed to suffer for want of the sort of histrionics that are built-in to verismo, but need more careful unearthing from this more delicate Verdian confection. Act 3 was his high point, though, and in particular one very special moment indeed, where he redeemed (for me) the placing of Parigi, o cara in the midst of such tragedy. Normally, it sounds to my ears so ‘oom-pah-pah‘ and out of place in the finely crafted drama that surrounds it. But. with a breathtakingly reined-in, blanched tone to the opening verse, which completely took me by surprise, he conveyed with real power the idea that this duet is an over-optimistic – and heart-breaking – attempt to convince themselves that better times could be ahead.
Patrick Lange conducted a Traviata in the grand style, perhaps a little slow here and there, mostly in Act 1, but overall a very effective pacing of the drama. The steady tread of Act 2 scene 2 was well managed, and the intensity of Act 3 was well-balanced between giving the angst its due space, without stretching it out to become languorous. Supporting cast and chorus all contributed myriad details to the dramatic presentation.
A truly fantastic night, one of the most effortlessly enjoyable nights of opera I can recall for some time. It will certainly be interesting to see how this performance compares with that involving Ms Pérez’s husband, Stephen Costello, alongside Netrebko in January. Given Ms Netrebko’s track record, there must be a fair chance of a last-minute call to get husband and wife together on stage…