TB is cured—La traviata in London

I spent last weekend in London at a seminar discussing canon formation in opera. When, how, and why have some operas become canonic while others have not? Who gets to decide? It’s a complicated question (and one we will attempt to tackle in a book). But it was only fitting that while I was in town I saw La traviata, today one of the most canonic of all operas. (The other operas on were, go figure, La bohème and Carmen, but my schedule precluded attending either of those.)

I love Traviata, but I’ve seen it a million times. It’s the kind of opera that I go to see if a singer or conductor or the production particularly appeals to me, or if I feel like I just want that nice familiar feeling (that’s canonicity from an audience’s perspective). In this case,  the novelty wasn’t the production: the Royal Opera House has trotted out this Richard Eyre production on the regular for more than 20 years. It was actually my first experience of Traviata, in the form of the DVD with Angela Gheorghiu; I’d never seen it live before. I signed up because I wanted to see Sonya Yoncheva, because she’s the latest hot singer and when it comes to hot singer bandwagons I am eager to hop on (or tell you that you should not hop on) as early as possible. (In this case I arguably already missed the boat.) She cancelled and her replacement was Marina Rebeka, a singer I’ve heard before and think is only OK. Bummer.

I probably should have given Marina Rebeka slightly more credit. Technically speaking she is an extremely accomplished singer: exceptionally accurate and possessed of the wide arsenal of skills to sing all three acts of Violetta with equal strength. Her coloratura was good in Act 1’s “Sempre libera” (and she sang the final interpolated E-flat), she’s plenty loud in Act 2’s dramatic outbursts, and she’s tasteful and graceful enough for Act 3’s letter aria. Her sound is slightly metallic with a dark sheen, attractive if not immediately memorable. As an actress, she did all the production asked her to do. The problem was that she is not gifted in showing us her character’s inner life. Most obviously, she did very little to suggest Violetta’s illness until Act 3 and even there it was rather spotty. For all its accomplishment, her performance remained curiously unmoving.

The last time I wrote about Traviata I was dealing with Natalie Dessay, a singer whose vocal fragility at times merged with her character’s bodily decay. Dessay was obviously dancing on the edge, pushing her voice places it didn’t want to go. That was a dangerous game and musically there was a price to pay. But her performance had an undeniable depth, even tragedy, which Rebeka’s heartiness never approached. This isn’t an either/or proposition–vocal health is, in general, a good thing and it didn’t really get in, say, Anja Harteros’s way–but it’s nonetheless an interesting question. Rebeka’s vocal wholesomeness ended up being, well, a symptom of her larger disinterest in vocal acting. Your voice doesn’t need to be falling apart, but you need to somehow use it to suggest your character is. A production this bland needs a stronger presence at its center.

Rebeka didn’t really have any help from Marc Minkowski in the pit, who made the fast parts very fast and the slow parts extra, extra slow. He did, however, in his customary HIP fashion, open up many of the opera’s customary cuts, including all the cabalettas (it felt like some of the cabalettas had their own cabalettas) and the second verses of “Ah! fors’è lui” and “Addio del passato.” His prelude was the quietest and slowest I’ve ever heard, a very thin thread of sound which eased into the (still slow) waltz. Later in Act 1 there were some unfortunate coordination issues with the chorus.

Elsewhere in the cast, Ismael Jordi was an energetic, bouncing Alfredo. His voice is bright and fresh and also kind of uneven. At times he micromanages his phrasing and color to discontinuous effect, he bops between registers, and his intonation wasn’t always accurate. That being said, all the effort Rebeka didn’t expend, he definitely did. My pick of the cast might have been Franco Vassallo’s Gérmont, to which he gave a highly sympathetic interpretation. He’s got a real Italian sound and made the text sound more spontaneous than any of his castmates.

I don’t know if there’s a lot to say about the production, which is itself locally canonic. It’s not, however, particularly iconic; the most well-known image is probably Violetta’s Act 2 Scene 2 dress (right). It’s nineteenth-century period, the sets are relatively spare (lots of circular elements), and if you are looking for a symbolic interpretation of the gypsies and bullfighters you are definitely barking up the wrong production. I don’t think this production invented the so-called “victory lap,” in which Violetta takes a triumphant jog around the stage before she dies, but given Rebeka’s blooming health I think it’s safe to say that this was not its most cathartic iteration.

The production continues for 200 more performances this spring and summer and another 750 next season. (Click on the link if you don’t believe me.)

I will be back at the ROH in July for Guillaume Tell. As much as I like London this again has far more to do with academic conferences than anything else. Why aren’t there more conferences in Berlin? But first I will be seeing Yardbird back home in Philadelphia, where I have already returned.

Verdi, La traviata. Royal Opera House, 5/25/15. Production by Richard Eyre (nth revival), conducted by Marc Minkowski with Marina Rebeka (Violetta), Ismael Jordi (Alfredo), Franco Vasallo (Gérmont)

photos copyright Catherine Ashmore/ROH

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  1. I am dying to read a good book about canon formation in opera (and classical music in general) because there is so much good stuff that never makes it into the canon or takes forever to get there.

  2. Well, I'm not sure to what extent we can speak of *a* canon rather than canons in the plural—this was incredibly evident at this seminar—but in a year or so you should hopefully be able to read this seminar's book in progress, The Oxford Handbook of the Operatic Canon, and find out more!

  3. I know it isn't PC to praise her, but I have to say I thought Fleming was among the finest Violetta's I'd ever seen. I'm only a qualified fan and I think her Covent Garden DVD is the better one. Better cast an conductor (Pappano) as well.
    It's to bad Yoncheva cancelled, she was magnificent this season at the met and the decker is of course as stunning production. Considering that a different singer premiered this production, I found it surprising that Yoncheva embodied it more fully than any singer I'd seen in it. FWIW I thought Rebeka was quite good to, though I had similar problems that you voice here (just not to the same extent). I kind of like her.

  4. Peter: I haven't seen Fleming as Violetta and don't have an opinion either way! I'm not always her biggest fan but I've seen her do some beautiful things, I wouldn't prejudge.

    I could imagine that Rebeka could have been more effective in a bolder production like the Decker. And if Yoncheva really is everything I've heard I will have plenty of opportunities to hear her in the future.

  5. Like you I'm not always Fleming's biggest fan (I found her Marschallin to be a surprising disappointment) but her Violetta surprised me. She does tend to lean towards the more traditional elegant Violetta (similar to Harteros) and so avoids some of the potential darkness of the role but her natural charisma and vocal beauty somehow made it work. Yoncheva was amazing. Her high notes are always the best but the technique is superb and the voice is lovely. Furthermore there is nothing about her that is studios and diligent a la Rebeka. After marina poplavskaya hers was the darkest Violetta I've seen yet unlike Poplavskaya she managed to be vulnerable and touching at the same time. Very much look forward to her Desdemona.