At the end of my scribblings on the Traviata in November last year, which starred Ailyn Pérez, I noted that her husband, Stephen Costello, would be singing Alfredo alongside Netrebko in the new year, and concluded the piece with:
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…
Sure enough, the cancellation came, this time due (not unreasonably) to having to have surgery on her foot. There was a tense few days and then we were told that Ermonela Jaho, who was the principal protagonist for the post-Christmas run of Traviatas, would step in. So it seemed that the prophecy was not to be fulfilled. However, at the last minute, Jaho also fell ill and, lo! Pérez is summoned from her rehearsals for the same piece in Hamburg. Opera does like a good off-stage drama, and sure enough there was a bit of a buzz for the first performances together of this husband-and-wife team in this repertoire.
It began with Kaspar Holten, Director of Opera making the announcement, to the effect that sometimes, with late replacements, you worry about them picking up the finer points in the restricted rehearsal time and whether or not there would be any chemistry between the principals, but on this occasion…
Pérez was indeed as impressive as she had been before Christmas, even more so. She was a little unwieldy in the coloratura of Act 1, but again acts 2 and 3 really brought out the intensity of her performance. She seemed more wont to let phrases die off here and there for dramatic effect, injecting strong dynamics if they suited the dramatic purpose. She gave off an air of dramatic fearlessness in how she threw herself into the depths of the character. She injected full force into such declamatory moments as Act 2’s Morro! La mia memoria or Amami, Alfredo! or Act 3’s Ah! Gran Dio, morir si giovine. Elsewhere, details reigned, with lovely attention to other singers’ contributions.
Stephen Costello is a less natural stage animal, and I can’t compare other outings to know whether the special circumstances drove him to something beyond other performances. His voice rings out beautifully, despite sounding predominantly like quite a subtle instrument, and he shades it nicely in response to the text. However his physical presence could do with loosening up a bit, with the addition of a bit of danger and a reduction in arm-gesturing, in order to add the necessary extra dimension to a character such as Alfredo. Still rewarding to experience, though, no doubt.
Paolo Gavanelli’s Germont père was a world away from Simon Keenlyside’s earlier incarnation and, despite Keenlyside being generally able to walk on operatic water, I have to say I preferred the older man’s presentation. Gavanelli’s voice, with an attractive weathering to it, is nonetheless able to project the text with solidity and shading, and with effective use of a soft-toned piano even if volume does sometimes jump alarmingly. His character had a more naturally believable quality to it than had Keenlyside’s ‘acted’ age.
There was lovely, attentive detail in both Hanna Hipp’s Annina and Justina Gringyte’s Flora (who reminded me of the vivid Flora of Leah-Marian Jones in the first outing of the production). Surely the very definition of luxury casting, even at this late stage in his distinguished career, is Robert Lloyd as Dr Grenvil, but he added many minor details that amplified the drama: his tending to the insulted Violetta in Act 2 scene 2 was touching indeed.
Chorus and orchestra were on fine form, although in comparison the revival direction felt a little lacking, with a some slightly saggy movement and too much front-facing, though how much of that is down to direction and how much to the actors’ styles, or to the cautiousness introduced by the late substitution, is hard to say. Violetta ended up down stage left for the throwing of the money at her, and given she was already on the ground (after Alfredo had rather roughly yanked her about, it has to be said!), she had nowhere to fall when the violins make that lovely descending ‘collapsing’ motif in the opening bars of the succeeding ensemble. Slightly disappointing. Benini’s reading was rather interventionist, but effectively so: sudden slowings to emphasise moments, combined with an orchestral sound that was strongly delineated into its constituent instrumental parts, added up to an old-school Italian reading, even if a slight lack of grace robbed it of an Italianate quality. Nonetheless, it drove the drama nicely, foregrounded the principals, and kept bringing interesting details to the fore.
This performance did have a special aura about it, and even if the few minor cavils did detract slightly, it nonetheless joins the pre-Christmas Pérez performance, high up in the pantheon of tremendous outings of this production.