Verdi's La Traviata: Premium Edition Review
Verdi’s La Traviata is certainly one of the world’s most famous operas, perhaps because, like La Bohême, Madama Butterfly and Carmen, it has all the dramatic elements that one associates with opera – a romantic affair that is too passionate or ill-matched to be sustained and a fallen woman who is destined to succumb to a tragic and untimely death. Adapted from a novel by Alexandre Dumas (‘La Dame aux Camelias’), based on a real life lover of his, Marie Duplessis, La Traviata also benefits from having the whiff of scandal about it (the title itself literally means, ‘The Fallen Woman’, suggesting ‘The Prostitute’). However, the real reason for its continued popularity must be down to two things – the timeless nature of its romantic subject matter and the sheer strength and character of some of the finest arias and music ever composed for opera.
Although there would scarcely be any courtesans around today as there would have been in 1840’s Paris, the subject matter of La Traviata is still universally recognisable. Violetta Valery is a scandalous, but glamorous woman, a celebrated Parisian courtesan who has known many lovers in her time, but never true love. She longs for acceptance into noble society, but her past haunts her – to such an extent that even when she does find a man who truly loves her, she finds she must give him up to protect his family from scandal. Slowly dying from consumption, she knows she must also spare him the ravages of her illness and tragically gives up her chance for love and respectability. The contemporariness of the emotional content and celebrity lifestyles also allows the opera to be imaginatively and inventively restaged. It is just such a modern updating of the story that was presented by Willy Decker for the 2005 Salzburger Festspiele, conducted by Carlo Rizzi with Anna Netrebko in the role of Violetta, and Rolando Villazón in the role of Alfredo.
The dramatic staging is initially very striking – the set design minimalist, yet thoroughly effective at conveying the tone and emotional pitch of the story. Verdi’s beautifully melancholic preludio is played out over a vast crescent shaped backdrop, adorned only by a large clock marking out the passing of time, Violetta to one side of the stage symbolically trying to escape the mysterious figure at the other end – The Doctor, a premonition of her approaching death, who nevertheless reaches her and passes her a single white camellia. Snapped out of her reverie, her weariness and disillusionment with the course of her life Violetta must fall back into the role of entertainer expected from her, as the guests from the party rush in – “I put my faith in pleasure, as a cure for all my ills”. The scene is brilliantly and colourfully staged to evoke a contemporary celebrity who fits the modern-day courtesan role-model equally well - Marilyn Monroe singing 'Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend' (or Madonna singing 'Material Girl' if you prefer).
These are bold strokes to be sure, but accurate and evocative. While there isn't quite anything else to match this fine and innovative opening act, the hard work has already been done, perfectly establishing the tone and content of what is to follow. Maintaining the minimalist staging Willy Decker then focuses on keeping the already concise and lean storyline (at only two hours long it’s rather nippy for an opera) moving along even through what can be dry, prosaic monologues by using some imaginative, unconventional and quite powerfully dynamic stage direction and performances. This is to say little of the opera itself, which has a great many delights, from Francesco Maria Piave’s incisive libretto to Verdi’s efficient yet brilliant score which is perfectly balanced in terms of light and shade, hitting the most effervescent of joys (the famous Brindisi and "Sempre libera") and the most lyrical of romantic arias ("Un di felice, eterea"), as well as the most bitter cruelty ("Ogni suo aver tal femmina") and the most tragic of death sequences ("Addio del passato"). The opera even manages to showcase an invigorating cabaret sequence and matador ballet that is a little incongruous to the dramatic unfolding of the story (although imaginatively staged here with Alfredo as the unfortunate bull), but emphasises the gulf between Violetta’s life of unbridled pleasure and the tragic circumstances to follow.
The production is also graced with two fine and compelling lead performances from the current “dream couple” teaming of Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón. Individually, they are both superb, Villazón particularly impassioned as Alfredo Germont. Unlike most readings of the role that I have seen, he is no impetuous, jealous young lover, weakly bowing down to his domineering father. Villazón’s Alfredo is ferociously single-minded in his passion, who fights all the way but cannot win, since it is Violetta herself who makes the final break for his sake. The young Russian soprano Netrebko is also technically flawless and really quite stunning in a role that is very demanding both dramatically and vocally. Although rather young to be playing an aging courtesan, she brings great character to the role – partly as I’ve indicated, through the clever staging, which presents her in a modern-day Marilyn Monroe role, but mainly through the impressive tone and range of her extraordinarily pure voice. Even with all this, I don’t think the opera would work quite as well if it didn’t have a strong, commanding presence from Alfredo’s father, and Thomas Hampson gives just that, adding the necessary baritone vocal weight and dramaturgical counterbalance.
This recording of La Traviata is released in the UK by Deutsche Grammaphon. The DVD, manufactured for international release is in NTSC format and is not region-encoded. It is available in a standard single-disc edition as well as a 2-disc Premium Edition, containing a number of extra features on the second disc. The Premium Edition is presented in a fold-out digipack and includes a booklet, which documents the event that was La Traviata at the 2005 Salzburg Festival, also providing a scene-by-scene synopsis and track-by-track listing. The booklet is in English, German and French.
The opera is presented in 16:9 anamorphic widescreen. Filmed live for television broadcast, probably in High Definition Digital Video, it therefore is flawless in respect of any analogue marks or damage and inevitably looks very impressive. With the minimalist staging of the opera and the big bold expanses of colour, any digital flaws in the transfer would be readily apparent, yet there is scarcely a flicker or even a hint of any macro-blocking compression artefacts to be detected, nor aliasing or stepping in diagonal lines. The image is slightly soft, perhaps on account of the amount of red and blue lighting, but this only serves to take the edge of the overly clinical look of the image, which during brightly lit scenes has a disconcertingly immediate and lifelike presence. Colours and blacks are all reasonably well defined, with only a touch of blue line bleed and edge enhancement visible in some scenes. The only real issue that prevents the image from being quite perfect is some slight movement blurring.
Dispensing with Dolby Digital mixes, the opera is presented with a choice of higher quality DTS 5.1 and PCM Stereo options. The DTS mix is strong, clear and warmly toned, showing no obvious distortion or difficulties with reaching the highest notes and loudest of chorus singing. It does tend to slightly flatten out at higher levels and lose something in the higher dynamic range, but it copes with this with a pleasant rounded clarity. There is also a certain “airiness” in some passages, but this is nothing more than you would expect from the use of stage microphones recording a live performance. This is really as good as it gets. The PCM Stereo mix handles these issues a little more cleanly and accurately, but not by any great margin. The surround-sound for the DTS track is well mixed, singing being resolutely centre channel for individual voices, with choruses opening out slightly across the front channels for a quite effective wider dispersal of the sound. The orchestration is discretely mixed around all channels, often seemingly floating and filling the room from no direct source, which perhaps doesn’t give enough colour and detail to the individual sections of the orchestra. They are however brought forward and well placed towards the front for the major arias, complementing the centre channel singing, yet allowing it to remain distinct and clearly audible. Audience noise is similarly well dispersed, but tending towards the rear speakers.
As I noted above, the PCM Stereo mix is marginally clearer, stronger and more accurate in tone, but the enveloping DTS mix has a warmer, in-the-theatre sound and is probably the better option.
Optional English subtitles are provided and are slightly on the large and bold side. I’m always happy to see the original libretto provided on opera DVDs, and this is here on the Italian option. German, French, Spanish and Chinese options are also included.
Documentary: Behind The Scenes – The Rehearsals for La Traviata (43:58)
As the latest “dream couple”, the young performers are aware of the pressures on them to deliver, but seem to be completely at ease with their talent, having a great deal of fun during the rehearsals - Villazón in particular is irrepressible - but they are completely professional when it comes to performing, putting heart and soul into their preparations. With lots of interviews with cast and crew (although strangely mostly ignoring the conductor and the orchestra's rehearsals), this is a very insightful film into the process of putting a production like this together.
Introduction by Rolando Villazón (3:03)
Assuming the role of Alfredo, Villazón, speaking in German, gives a synopsis of the whole opera, doubtlessly recorded to introduce the acts to the TV audience.
Picture Gallery (2:17)
A selection of stills are played in a slideshow to the Brindisi.
An Netrebko Discography
Cover illustrations for Anna Netrebko's CD and DVD recordings for Deutsche Grammaphon.
Trailer: Anna Netrebko “The Woman – The Voice” (10:56)
A sample of the DVD is shown here and what I could see of it looked interesting, the director making promo-style videos for the soprano's performances. However, playback problems on my copy of the DVD prevented me from watching this in full.
Mainly delving through their back-catalogue for classic opera performances, Deutsche Grammaphon have perhaps lost a lot of ground to the likes of Arthaus and TDK when it comes to presenting new recordings of opera on DVD. Scooping the acclaimed 2005 Salzburger Festspiele production of La Traviata with the rising talents of Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón is a bit of a coup however and DG gives it the royal treatment it richly deserves in their 2-disc Premium Edition, superbly directed for television, as ever, by Brian Large. Not too many people were fortunate or rich enough to meet the extraordinary prices being asked for tickets at the original performance of this production at the Salzberg Festival, so we are fortunate enough to now be able to share in the experience and the buzz of this world-class opera production, and see it presented so well.