La traviata – opera in three acts to a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave after the play La dame aux camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils
Violetta Valéry – Nelly Miricioiu
Flora Bervoix – Anne-Marie Gibbons
Marchese D’Obigny – Matthew Stiff
Barone Douphol – Riccardo Simonetti
Dottore Grenvil – John Morrissey
Gastone, Visconte de Letorières – Thomas Herford
Alfredo Germont – Cosmin Ifrin
Annina – Joanne Roughton-Arnold
Giuseppe – Paul Curievici
Giorgio Germont – Alan Opie
Un Commissionario / Domestico di Flora – Matthew Sprange
Chorus & Orchestra of Chelsea Opera Group
Chelsea Opera Group – La traviata [Nelly Miricioiu]
Sunday, February 21, 2010 Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall
Reviewed by Richard Nicholson
Chelsea Opera Group by no means limits itself to operatic rarities. This performance of “La traviata” was a special occasion, clearly precipitated by Nelly Miricioiu’s desire to sing again one of her signature roles.
Miricioiu was for several years more or less the house soprano for Opera Rara in its exploration of the Italian repertoire of the primo ottocento, Her command of the vocal skills required in such roles, the scales and staccatos, the bravura runs and climactic high notes, was a pre-requisite of her success as the heroines of Donizetti, Mercadante and Pacini but these decorative aspects were accompanied by more refined means of illuminating character and engaging an audience: her response to the librettist’s text and eloquence in delivering it, her moulding of phrases, her ability to shrink her tone into telling pianissimos.
From her debut with Chelsea Opera Group in November 1998 in Rossini's "Semiramide", Miricioiu then fulfilled a similar function for this estimable company: a star in a non-starry context. Supporters of COG, who are both loyal and knowledgeable, took her to their hearts as she brought to life in concert performances works which she might well sing only once.
Not everyone warmed to her. In recent years one prominent critic has consistently used the word “cult” in connection with her performances in London in largely hostile reviews. For him, her very individual technique amounts to vocal eccentricity, the expressive methods hailed by her supporters are annoying mannerisms. It is undeniable that she had a vocal crisis around the time of her Norma at Holland Park in summer 2004 but she has come back from that. The voice was always vibrant and produced with a characteristic glottal attack; both elements have become more prominent but not disarmingly so. Her admirers will see that as a welcome survival of what has given this singer character.
What sceptics cannot deny is that Miricioiu’s range has been remarkable. French lyric roles, verismo in the shape of Puccini, Mascagni and Cilea, even later composers such as Respighi and Zandonai have ranked alongside her bel canto roles and she has never stopped and adding to her repertoire, including Handel as recently as 2007.
There was a valedictory feel about this ‘Traviata. Miricioiu is now in her late fifties. The fact that her British debut was as Violetta for Scottish Opera in 1981 perhaps hinted at a desire to complete the circle before withdrawal, at least from such taxing roles. One wondered beforehand if she really needed to put her reputation on the line by tackling such an operatic peak. Doubts increased when she craved indulgence for a persistent head cold which had put her very participation in jeopardy. Act One is a cruel test for any soprano troubled by insecurity, of whatever kind. Violetta is active throughout, then left alone for her long scena.
This Violetta was no lively young woman; her youth is compromised by the onset of debilitating illness. It seemed that Miricioiu had decided to play Violetta several years older than Verdi had in mind, into her thirties, and to stress the symptoms of tuberculosis with a face (un)made up to simulate gauntness and weight loss. Here Violetta seemed uncomfortable, no longer at home in the party atmosphere of the opening scene, was initially indifferent to Alfredo but found herself unexpectedly charmed by his rather gauche delivery of the ‘Brindisi’. Her response was that of mother to son. In the duet the difference between her suitor’s romantic ardour and her skittering, frivolous figures made unusually clear that she was reluctant to take him seriously.
Understandable, only single verses of ‘Ah, fors’è lui’ and the cabaletta were offered. The andante was given with warmth of tone but an unusually austere expression. ‘Sempre libera’ was vocally a letdown. As the climax approached the singing started to get ragged and the attempt to interpolate a top E flat at the end was botched.
Cosmin Ifrin, boyish of physique and demeanour, revealed a neat, serviceable lyric tenor. He made a hesitant start, lacking buoyancy in the Drinking Song and showing slightly wayward intonation in the duet. He rationed his resources throughout the evening. His Act Two aria was impassive and risk-averse but he was clearly saving himself for a successful and crowd-pleasing top C in the cabaletta, of which only a single verse was given, in accordance with the pattern for the evening. He identified Alfredo’s denunciation of Violetta as another spot to give it everything, even if there was a hint of forcing. In his verse of ‘Parigi, o cara’ by contrast it was the sweetness of his mezza voce which impressed.
It was heart-warming to encounter Alan Opie, another veteran, in this case in his early sixties, a bustling Figaro in 1970s at English National Opera, in the role of Germont père. His was not an aggressive, intimidating characterisation, a father consumed with contempt for his victim’s lifestyle. His entry was reasonably dignified, accompanied by a scowl as it was. Violetta nevertheless shrank before him. The voice has inevitably thickened a touch, the line maintained at the cost of some nasality, but the top retains its ring, the bottom its resonance. He went briefly astray in ‘Pura, siccome un angelo’ but thereafter put ne’er a foot wrong.
The open public spaces in which Miricioiu had seemed uneasy in Act One were now replaced by a tiny intimate area at the front of the platform for the playing out of the ebb and flow of the long, touching duet. Opie was at first schoolmasterly in warning Violetta what she must expect from life in ‘Un di, quando le veneri’ but compassion soon took over. Her resistance broke down quite quickly, dissolving into a ‘Dite alla giovine’ which could hardly have been more movingly presented, the orchestral support first by solo oboe, then by cello chords strongly brought out, their absence making the bare second statement all the more poignant. The scene ended with Violetta defeated but movingly united with her ersatz father. She summoned all the dramatic intensity required for the great declaration ‘Amami Alfredo’.
Opie’s ‘Di Provenza’ was not only securely sung but its second verse was not merely a second outing for a mellifluous tune: He marshalled his arguments to persuade his son, telling him of his own pain at the young man’s absence, with the words about the emptiness of the family seat emphasised in an attempt to inspire guilt. I do not remember ever hearing the baritone’s cabaletta in a live performance and this was no exception.
In Act Two/Scene Two Miricioiu truly cowered before Alfredo’s denunciation. Then, to launch the big ensemble, a ghostly voice rose hauntingly from the ashes to reproach Alfredo and to assert a massive nobility of spirit. One was reminded that Miricioiu could always hold a house in her grip as well as bringing it down.
The emphasis on the effects of Violetta’s illness persisted in the last Act. In ‘Addio del passato’ perhaps the vocal means were attenuated but the intentions were still pursued, its three sections shaped with true musicianship: the farewell to the past, the prayer for divine pardon and the final bars, in which Verdi enacts her desperate attempts to rise to her feet. So weak was she that she had to lean on her Alfredo through the duet and beyond. The controlled piano delivery of ‘Se una pudica vergine’ demonstrated both vocal and emotional stamina in the final pages of the opera.
Gianluca Marcianò was not one of the more ostentatious conductors heard in recent Chelsea performances of Italian opera. He drew powerful sounds from his orchestra in the public scenes and showed attention to detail when accompanying the major dialogues. The layout of the performers did not make it easy to create good ensemble in the second Act finale, with solo singers standing parallel either side of the podium, at a whole platform’s depth from the chorus.
I have always been impressed by COG’s ad hoc orchestra, many of whose players appear time after time for these operas. The opening of this one is cruelly testing for the violins, however; ensemble was scratchy and tuning uncomfortable. The ebullient playing of the party music soon raised spirits, however, and thereafter the musicians did justice to this masterpiece.
This is an opera in which the chorus is mostly required to make merry. The party guests in Act Two let their hair down with gusto, then unleashed waves of indignation when things turned sour. A pity that the concert format robbed us of the colourful costumes of either gypsies or matadors.
With the three protagonists dominating the action, there is little chance of reward for the comprimarii, though COG had assembled a strong team, with Thomas Herford (Gastone), Matthew Stiff (D’Obigny) and Riccardo Simonetti (Douphol) the pick of the men. Flora has a marginally more significant part containing some music which foreshadows that of Preziosilla in “La forza del destino” and Anne-Marie Gibbons made an impact, aptly, at her party.
Roars of approval greeted both men at their curtain calls. For Nelly Miricioiu there was a standing ovation. The vocal anxieties of the First Act had been replaced by admiration for the compelling overall performance of one who remains an outstanding singing actress. She had registered a triumph over adversity.