Understanding Alfredo: James Valenti and La traviata [The Royal Opera’s La traviata, 3-22 October 2011]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

The American tenor James Valenti returns to Covent Garden and to the role that earned him acclaim there last year…

James Valenti as Alfredo (La traviata, Royal Opera, October 2011). Photograph: Catherine Ashmore

For James Valenti it all started with The Three Tenors. “I grew up in New Jersey. I was in choirs there and at High School I was Lieutenant Cable in South Pacific. I was aware of Mario Lanza and that kind of thing. But at the age of eighteen I heard The Three tenors and listened intently, and that was the true beginning of my interest in opera: I was just riveted by what I heard. Because of that I applied to a number of colleges and was accepted on a scholarship to go to West Virginia University. There I was lucky to fall in with a really amazing teacher: the tenor Augusto Paglialunga, for it was he who taught me about repertoire, about the basis of breathing and all about what it meant to be a tenor.”

James’s good fortune continued. “I was about 22 when I graduated and applied for a number of Young Artists programmes. I was accepted into that at Minnesota Opera. By taking small roles there like Beppe in Pagliacci and the toy-seller in La bohème I gained initial experience and started a learning process. The next step was when I became a winner in the Metropolitan Opera competition and that suddenly put me on the map in the opera world. So I sought a manager. I found Matthew Laifer in New York and he started getting me jobs right away.” No less important was Matthew introducing James to the voice teacher Bill Schuman with whom he has continued to work. It was Schuman’s presence at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia that led to James studying there between the ages of 24 and 28. “He advised me to stay in school to study while also recognising that it would be good for me to do some professional things. The Philadelphia Academy fitted perfectly for that. It’s unique in enabling you to perform with an orchestra but in a safe school setting while also releasing you to go and do professional jobs. In that way I slowly dipped my foot in the pool.”

James Valenti as Alfredo, with Leo Nucci as Ghermont (La traviata, Royal Opera, October 2011). Photograph: Catherine Ashmore

Once his career had taken off James found himself in demand for the big tenor roles in 19th-century Italian opera. “I feel so lucky that I get to sing this repertoire, roles such as Alfredo in Traviata, Rodolfo in La bohème, the Duke in Rigoletto and Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly. Being staples of the opera world, they are constantly being done so I get to work quite a lot. You have to know when roles are comfortable for your throat and at the moment these romantic leading roles fit in that way. They sort of suit my look too. When I was younger I did things like Nemorino in L’elisir d’amore, but I don’t do that anymore. I’m quite tall and physically it’s not really right for me. On the other hand when it comes to La traviata some of the best Violettas such as Angela Gheorghiu and Anna Netrebko are quite tall themselves so they like having a nice tall Alfredo.”

Regarding other repertoire, James talks of his pleasure in doing Leonard Bernstein’s Candide in Genoa some seven years ago with Vittorio Grigolo. “The singing was in English and the dialogue in Italian, but it was fun and I would love to do that show again. I’d also love to be Tony in West Side Story but that I never did and it wouldn’t be seen as my specialty now. Other heavier 20th-century stuff doesn’t really speak to me, but in contrast to that I just did a concert performance of Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur and I’ve also done Mascagni’s wonderful L’Amico Fritz and I find those very appealing – I would like to do more things like that including Giordano’s Fedora and Cilea’s L’Arlesiana. When it comes to roles such as Don José in Carmen and Cavaradossi in Tosca, I’ve already been offered them but, being only thirty-four now, I feel that I have time and would prefer to do those later. As for my dream role – for the more distant future or which may never happen at all – it has to be Giordano’s Andrea Chenier. Every time I listen to Corelli sing that I go ‘Oh my God!’ and long to do it one day.”

James Valenti as Alfredo, with Marina Poplavskaya as Violetta (La traviata, Royal Opera, October 2011). Photograph: Catherine Ashmore

The repertoire central to James involves roles that a great many of the finest tenors have performed. Does he like to listen to them or is that too daunting? “I think it’s very important to listen to the great singers of the past. Ultimately you want to become yourself, but there are always things that you can steal. Because I have a concert performance of Bohème coming up and haven’t done it for a while I’ve got out my recordings of Pavarotti, Di Stefano and Carlo Bergonzi to take account of how they do different phrases, how they breathe and how they turn the voice. Similarly, working with great conductors and language specialists helps to give you really good ideas. When it comes to Alfredo, I love the young Carreras and then there’s Pavarotti. It’s a role that’s great for a debut because without too much stress you can really make an impact. In Bohème Rodolfo pretty much carries the show, but Traviata is Violetta’s show. Because it’s not an easy sing there’s still some pressure when you do Alfredo, but not so much as when you sing Rodolfo.”

In finding Alfredo an ideal debut role, James speaks from experience since Traviata has frequently been a calling-card for him. It brought him to Salzburg in 2005 and to the Met and Covent Garden last year (the London run with Gheorghiu under Yves Abel extended to the Royal Opera’s tour to Japan with Netrebko as Violetta and Antonio Pappano conducting). Between that and his reappearance now in Richard Eyre’s splendid long-lasting production James has been seen at Covent Garden as Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, filmed in 3D for cinemas next March.

Returning to Traviata, I ask James how he has found the approaches of the various directors. “For the most part the Traviatas I do are pretty straightforward. The one at the Met was by Franco Zefirelli and it was so beautiful, but they are mounting a new production so it may not appear again. Richard Eyre’s approach is again traditional but I like that for this opera even though in Salzburg Willy Decker’s style was minimalist and modern. I recall a strange staging in Bologna many years ago: for Act One Violetta’s house had become a swimming pool rather as though the YMCA had been converted into a night club. It didn’t really work and was not well received. But the oddest I was in was that by a Russian director in Toronto: it was all S & M, whips and chains and people in leather: it was a good cast but we all thought it was terrible.”

In contrast James speaks positively of a production by Pier Luigi Pizzi, in which Act One showed the party happening on the left but used the other side of the stage to represent Violetta’s bedroom and thus to indicate the sexual licence of her life-style before she meets Alfredo. There is more variety in the way directors tackle Traviata than one might expect! In the first Act Violetta extols pleasure as the essence of life but Alfredo counters that by saying that it’s not true for those who know love. Thereafter we discover that Violetta has been converted by his love for her, has given up her old ways as a courtesan and is living happily with Alfredo in the country. Thus far he has been seen only as a devoted lover, but later he angrily turns against Violetta and humiliates her in public. This reveals a darker side to Alfredo, but these actions are the result of not knowing that his father has persuaded Violetta, who has not long to live, to give him up due to the scandal that their liaison is causing to Alfredo’s family. Only when the truth comes out are the lovers reconciled, but Violetta is dying.

At this confrontation at the gambling tables Violetta – once again in the company of Baron Douphol, who had kept her in luxury – comes face to face with Alfredo who turns on her with the full force of his anger. James, although relishing the drama of this scene, finds Alfredo’s behaviour understandable. “He comes to this party and he is extremely jealous, just waiting to pick a fight. And then he sees Violetta with the Baron and it tears him apart: he had felt that the two of them were in love and happy, but suddenly there she is making a fool of him in front of everybody. In fact it was the father who messed it up, but since he doesn’t know this he’s just bitter and extremely pissed off.” James expresses his view very clearly and reasonably, but it’s intriguing to look back to an interview that I did for The Classical Source in 2008 when Jonas Kaufmann was Covent Garden’s Alfredo. He adopted a very different view to James, saying: “What is problematic for me is finding positive and sympathetic sides to the character. It’s not easy because he’s either naive and inexperienced – which I like to think is the case – or else he is just dumb in his failure to recognise what Violetta gives up. It’s even worse when he goes on to revenge himself… So at first I found it difficult to play this character and to really like him”.

Despite this contrast in their views, both singers doubtless respond in the same way to the challenge of the opening of Act Two. It offers an aria in which Alfredo, now not suitor but lover, has to express that change while also acting as narrator by explaining that three months have elapsed and that he and Violetta have set up home together. As James puts it, “It’s interesting that the audience sees nothing of these happy months. Consequently Alfredo has a lot to express in his aria: how all of his hopes and dreams have been about wanting to be with her and how suddenly he is living it. Love and ardour are pouring out of him and he thinks that nothing can go wrong.”

In this aria he refers back to his past declaring that “the violent fire of my youthful spirits was tempered by the quiet smile of her love”. That could be interpreted as meaning that far from being Violetta’s opposite, an idealistic romantic, Alfredo had been flirtatious, or more, until he was gradually converted by the recognition that what he felt for Violetta was true love. He states that he had first seen her a year before the opera’s opening scene in which they speak at last and he had only slowly come to understand the depth of his feelings for her. “That it took a year is a bit strange, but I think of him as a serious young man for whom love matters profoundly. But when in that first scene he enters Violetta’s world I think he is uncomfortable simply because it is not a world of which he feels part.”

Any differences of opinion about Alfredo’s character only add to the richness of this familiar work which, through the intensity of emotion in its last Act, often reduces audiences to tears. And with its Prelude foreshadowing the tragedy to come and providing a brilliant contrast with the glittering party scene that follows, claims can be made that La traviata has one of the finest of all First Acts. Violetta sings the famous ‘Sempre libera’ while Alfredo’s substantial contribution contains within it something very special. “The words ‘misterioso altero’ – the description of love as mysterious and noble – are so set that it’s one of the most haunting phrases in all opera. This is such a great piece. I must also say that it’s a privilege to be back here at Covent Garden. I love London and I hope that I shall be returning.”

  • La traviata – Seven performances with this cast at 7 p.m. from Monday 3 October to Saturday 22 October 2011 (followed by fifteen further performances with different casts until Saturday 25 January 2012)
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera
  • Interview with Jonas Kaufmann

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