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Sutherland's First TRAVIATA: An Appreciation

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In 1962 Joan Sutherland, then at the beginning of a great career, recorded her first Violetta in La Traviata. The note-complete recording was conducted by John Pritchard, and with Sutherland in the cast were Carlo Bergonzi as Alfredo and Robert Merrill as Germont. Whatever its initial reception, this Traviata has seldom in recent times been high on the list of recommended recordings of Verdi’s middle-period masterpiece; almost inevitably, Sutherland’s second recording (1979, under Richard Bonynge), the 1977 DG recording with Carlos Kleiber conducting Ileana Cotrubas, Placido Domingo, and Sherrill Milnes, one of the “live” Maria Callas recordings, or the “live” Georg Solti recording with Angela Gheorghiu is recommended first. If the Kleiber set would be my own first choice for an all-around excellent stereoTraviata, the Pritchard would be my second. Moreover, the special virtues of the Pritchard set are such as to delight anyone who maintains that Traviata is essentially a bel canto opera.

The recording does have some faults, and perhaps it is best to discuss these at once. First, Sutherland is not a profound Violetta, nor is Merrill a profound Germont. Neither of these singers is at all inexpressive, but to make a “deeper” impression Merrill would need more dynamic nuance and Sutherland sharper enunciation, as well as a firmer line for such straightforward passages as “Dite alla giovane.” The fact that the opera is being performed note-complete is no help to these singers, and here is the recording’s second fault: the uncut edition used actually bogs the opera down, making it less concise and therefore less dramatically effective. London Green in The Metropolitan Opera Guide to Recorded Opera describes it well: “When, for example, the second verse of ‘Ah forse lui’ is to be sung, it must intensify the vision, the longing expressed in the first verse, if it is not to seem merely a repetition. Sutherland is not the singer to provide that kind of subtlety.” This is precisely the problem, at least as far as Sutherland is concerned. A third fault is that Pritchard’s conducting is occasionally ponderous in Acts II and III.

Whether the fourth fault is a fault or not depends upon your point of view. The Pritchard is not a Traviata for those who see the work as an intimate, chamber opera. For the chamber-opera approach the Kleiber is the better set to hear. The Pritchard is very spaciously recorded–sometimes at too great a distance for true intimacy–and the singers generally “sing out,” the big-voiced Sutherland and Merrill especially. My own favorite approach to the opera is the intimate one–yet at the same time I can recognize the validity of a big-house Traviata, most especially when the singing itself gives the degree of pleasure it does in the Pritchard recording. Those, then, are the faults–now for the virtues.

The Pritchard Traviata, while not a “live” recording, was made on the stage of the Teatro della Pergola in Florence, and to an even greater extent than Sutherland’s later, “Kingsway Hall” recordings for London/Decca, it sounds like a live performance in an opera house; in place of profundity it offers theatricality. To preserve a sense of continuity, long takes seem to have been employed (this was also the custom in Kingsway Hall with Sutherland and Bonynge). The balances and perspectives are superb, as is the inclusion of such live-performance details as Violetta’s coughing–most movingly after the ordeal of her Act II meeting with Germont–and the chatter and laughter of her friends in the party scenes. “Verdi’s Act I,” writes London Green, “is a pattern of gaiety and repose.” It is also a pattern of “public” moments (the Brindisi) and “private” ones (“Un di felice”), and the engineering emphasizes this with, for example, its sonic suggestion that Violetta has retreated to an alcove after her sudden fit of weakness (track #4 of CD #1). That moment and “Un di felice” take place in this more intimate “space.” Such thoughtful detail is, if not a genuine substitute for profound interpretation, evidence that the dramatic side of the opera has not been neglected; theatricality and immediacy are, after all, aspects of drama.

The sense of spontaneity can be heard in the singing, as well. Bergonzi’s use of the rubato technique lends his phrasing a suppleness that suggests the impulsive young Romantic. (With his superb musicality and natural vocal suitability for the part, Bergonzi may well be the best Alfredo on any complete Traviata; the only possible criticism of his performance is that the high note that ends “O mio rimorso” sounds awkward and was probably unnecessary.) Sutherland, too, sounds spontaneous in most of her utterances (throughout the opera but particularly in Act I); much more than in her 1979 recording, her Violetta here sounds like the work of someone who had recently performed the role onstage. And though Merrill is marginally less fresh of voice here than in his 1960 Traviata (with Anna Moffo as Violetta), his better moment-to-moment dramatic involvement (he sounds to be embracing Violetta during “Piangi, O misera”), coupled with his naturally beautiful instrument and his usual grand legato line, makes his 1962 Germont the more satisfying one.

Sutherland, of course, won’t win any diction awards. Still, her astonishing vocal clarity and purity, easy amplitude, and full, round middle register count for a great deal (much of Violetta’s music lies in the middle register); moreover, there is feeling in the sound itself. But Sutherland’s real distinction is that she is surely the most technically complete of all the Violettas who have recorded the whole role. Not only does she have the technique, but she is willing to employ it expressively. Her mastery of coloratura pays off most in the Brindisi and “Sempre libera.” The former is, for once, truly dazzling (and apprehensive in the exchanges with Alfredo) and, as so often with Sutherland, her way of hitting high notes is itself expressive; her “fervido” really does suggest burning, a fever. In the latter, she has all the means necessary–amplitude, confident passage-work, huge, easy high notes, trills, a convincing and musical laugh–to convey abandon. Likewise, her responses to Alfredo in “Un di felice” are both brilliantly accurate and skittish. In “Amami, Alfredo” as she lets her abundant full voice out, the listener hears just how much Violetta does love Alfredo. The always-abundant tone keeps Violetta from sounding “dead before her time” (in his book On the Art of Singing the late vocal pedagogue Richard Miller complains that certain Violettas have been “guilty of lifeless vocalism” before the last act); even in Act III Sutherland’s famed breath control allows her to give the impression of a continuous flow of rich yet silvery sound, particularly in “Teneste la promessa...Addio del passato.” Of course, she provides the trills with which Violetta tries to convince Alfredo she is feeling stronger (track #11 of CD #2). Her pure tone later in “nel ciel fra gli angeli” is worthy of the angels, and her final note suggests a dying fall. But the most wonderful moment of her whole performance is the cadenza and sustained trill with which she ends “Ah, forse lui”: just like a quickening heartbeat (“croce e delizia al core”). Conveyance of emotion is the end to which all vocal technique must be put, and in her first recorded Violetta, Sutherland proves herself a mistress of bel canto expression.

When all is said and done, perhaps the best sequence in the Pritchard recording is everything from the Act I Prelude to Violetta’s parting from Alfredo just before her double aria: the pacing, the expert engineering, and the singing of Sutherland and Bergonzi make it so. Few would be surprised to learn that Sutherland is the ideal “first-act Violetta,” but more would be surprised to hear how involved she seems in the remaining acts. Yet the appeal of the Pritchard Traviata is first and foremost to lovers of beautiful singing, of opulent, healthy voices supported by musicality and sound–in Sutherland’s case, brilliant–technique. Pritchard’s may not be the best Traviata, but it is the best bel canto Traviata and offers dramatic rewards, too.
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Updated Jan-14-2018 at 05:53 by Bellinilover

Classical Music , Opera , Recorded Music