Thursday, September 25, 2003

A Traviata not to miss

--Geoffrey Riggs

An elusive goal among disc collectors continues to be that one Traviata that will satisfy in every respect: a dramatically engaged and mercurial heroine with the requisite technique and voice for the part, a conductor who is at once energized but sympathetic with his singers, an Alfredo with both the youthful ardor and the musical elegance needed for the role and a Germont pere with both a gravitas and the occasional simpatico warmth to match his music. While a few sets that can boast a magnetic heroine may have one or two of these other ingredients as well, the entire package is so rare that some have given up on finding it. They were wrong. They can now find it "live" at the Metropolitan Opera House. They can turn off the hi-fi.

Having now returned from today's Dress Rehearsal of the Met's Opening Night Traviata, I would have to call it one of the most compelling experiences I have ever had at the opera. Focused, clearly motivated acting, musical attentiveness of a high order, vocally plush sounds from every one, a sympathetic and alert maestro at the podium -- all come together in this, the Traviata ensemble for our generation. Too many routine Traviatas can make one forget what a genius Verdi is in portraying the sense of desperate entrapment at the heart of this drama. But when played the way it was today, Verdi's vision triumphs.

Renee Fleming's Violetta dominates, as well it should. Granted, there was the odd scoop here and there at certain less intricate phrases in the "Sempre libera", for instance, but such moments were relatively rare and never seemed pointless or inexpressive. Beyond that, whenever precision and a clean fleetness were needed in rapid passagework, Fleming always delivered. Incidentally, she also has a superb trill. Her interpretation embodied a woman almost scared of the sudden intensity of her feelings for Alfredo, then filled with real horror at the thought of returning to her frivolous party world in Paris. The heart of her reading lies in her daring choice to sing both verses of "Addio del passato". The image of a pauper's grave in the second verse becomes all too real in Fleming's delivery: the pent-up loneliness of a dying reject flailing helplessly against a cruel fate, with the shadow of the grim reaper a constant companion. It will be hard accepting this aria in its abbreviated form after hearing Fleming's vindication of Verdi's original design.

Ramon Vargas may have the most engaging lyric-tenor voice before the public today. His Alfredo shows him in vintage form: shapely phrasing, clean diction, a suave legato line. With Alfredo's taxing "O mio rimorso" included, it was nice being reminded that this role ought not to be ghetto-ized among the second-stringers frequently given this part. Ramon Vargas is a true primo tenore these days, and it is hard to think of anyone now capable of performing this role better. (Unfortunately, probably due to its being a rehearsal, Vargas chose not to go for the optional top note at the close of "O mio rimorso".)

Dmitri Hvorostovsky has developed a gleaming, pure vocal line. As heard in his Germont pere, the tone itself has more point and sheen to it than ever. And the most amazing development has been his increasingly assured mastery of breath and phrasing. If he started his career with one weakness, it was his tendency to curt phrasing and to occasional lack of steadiness and focus toward the end of phrases. That is now behind him. Clean secure tones were heard at the close of dozens of phrases staggering in their sheer length. When was the last time you heard the first four lines of "Di Provenza" taken on one breath? Oddly enough, he was not given his cabaletta, and with Fleming doing the second verse of "Addio del passato" (although not of "Ah! fors'e lui") and Vargas his "O mio rimorso", it seemed an odd lapse.

Gergiev's reading of the score honors both Verdi and this vivid and heartbreaking performance from his three principals. Crowd scenes and the larger ensemble moments are kept taut and mobile, while all the poetry is brought out in the more private, inward moments. Togetherness of ensemble may not have been impeccable throughout, but there weren't the unfortunate train wrecks we have heard on off-nights like Gergiev's Fliegende Hollaender, for instance. Moreover, Gergiev's mastery of the pivotal scene between Fleming and Hvorostovsky in Act II shows, again and again, what a master this conductor can be at allowing a deceptively simple musical line to "speak" for itself.

I urge everyone to attend this Traviata if they possibly can. Who knows when such an ideal ensemble will be heard again in this piece? Aside from Opening Night, you can hear the same cast on October 2, 8, 11 and 17. Go.

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