Damrau rules

After a week in New York, with five performances at the Met (andfor which I still haven’t processed all my notes to write it up – that will follow!), it was nice to be back at ‘home’ (aka Covent Garden) for a revival of the nigh-on 20-year old production of La Traviata. Particularly nice, because from the soprano point of view I can’t recall being quite so completely dumbstruck by a performance.

Of course, there have been some remarkable incarnations. Fleming was vocally luxurious; Jaho was movingly vulnerable; and Ailyn Pérez (who steps in later in the run) effectively bridged the vivacious-yet-tragic heroine’s polar opposites. The first Violetta in the production – Gheorghiu in her more serious days – of course, had set a memorably sensational standard.

And then there’s Damrau. Every detail rethought. Every phrase, if perhaps not entirely idiomatic, but thrillingly in thrall to the drama of Violetta’s story. Some slightly odd breath-placing in the coloratura of act 1 merely points up a fleeting thought through the character’s mind. The twitchy, febrile coloratura episodes one moment, then the plangent, quiet laments. Every movement and gesture so effectively placed. My arms ached whenever she was on stage, since I was glued through my binoculars to catch each eye movement and expression. Her vocal shading was tirelessly complex, and she made the ‘victory loop’ ending completely compelling – after her run around the furniture, the moment of her collapse was just slightly after she fell into Alfredo’s arms… the effect: shattering. Eschewing anything saccharine in this romantic story, was this a ‘German Expressionist’ Violetta?!

Being showered with the sparks of this energetic performance, it’s unsurprising the two male leads had their work cut out. Francesco Demuro seemed overparted for much of the time, particularly act 2 as he seemed to run out of steam a bit. It was an attractive tone, with a touchingly plaintive sound, but gave the impression of being flogged rather mercilessly at times. The dry voice of Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Germont pére warmed up a little for Di provenza il mar, but he looked suitably grand in his fatal conversation with Violetta, and was touching in realising to what this had led. Sarah Pring made a vivid impression as Annina, and as Flora, Nadezhda Karyazina (a Young Artist) had a wonderfully fruity but flexible and crisp mezzo tone: I found myself speculating about whether Eboli would be in her future years.

I spent most of the performance falling in and out of love with Dan Ettinger’s reading of the score. It seemed as febrile and ever-shifting as Damrau’s Violetta. On some occasions, choral and ‘act-close’ passages seemed thumpingly brash and noisy, if undoubtedly thrilling; elsewhere, extreme gear changes, again especially with the chorus, seemed designed to jolt the audience into attention. However, the colours that were revealed in the score were gorgeous: as one example, the second passage of the gambling scene revealed an almost Mahlerian acid in the lower string tone that conjured up menace for the building confrontation without at all breaking the ominous rhythm. Where space was needed for the singers to get across their characterisation, it was generously supplied and never hurried. In the end I was won over: I think it’s a dangerous strategy which will not always go so well, but this was edge-of-seat stuff.

I go again in two weeks time for the second cast, the exciting combination of Pérez, Stephen Costello and Simon Keenlyside. I can’t wait to go through it all again.

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