Only the presence of Simone Piazzola helped to partially redeem the atmosphere of aurea mediocritas permeating this Traviata. The thirty year old Italian baritone, who has been active since his early twenties, is now enjoying full vocal and artistic maturity. Gifted with an attractive authentic baritone, he has perfected a text book technique; his remarkable range, a perfectly equalised, supple vocal production with amazing breath control allow him to scrupulously respect the composer’s intentions. For example, he imparted to “Di Provenza” a wonderful, almost hypnotic fluctuating rhythm, observing the alternation between phrases indicated as “marcate” and the immediately following ones that Verdi wants to be performed “dolcissimo”, and he did all this with a ravishing legato and true pianissimos with no hint of falsetto. Score in hand, there is no dynamic mark that Piazzola neglected. His noble, restrained phrasing, capable of exploding without spreading the voice and losing its compactness is reminiscent of those old school Italian baritones of the very early twentieth century, and if for some such a ligne du chant might sound a bit too mannered, for me it is like a breath of fresh air.
Aquiles Machado was largely disappointing as Alfredo. Except for the most agitated moments such as the invective against Violetta, where he could take advantage of the beauty and sturdiness of his full lyric instrument, by far and large this role emphasised his current limitations. Every attempt to sing piano led to anaemic, nasal falsettos; consequently his duets with the soprano and his cavatina suffered from his difficulty in properly supporting the sound. Alfredo’s role does not unduly tax the very high register, but sits on the most arduous area for any singer, the “passaggio”, which the Venezuelan tenor often sang too open for comfort. The high C at the end of the cabaletta, which he nailed the last time I heard him in this role three years ago, was now a short and squeezed note. It is entirely possible that after venturing into a much heavier repertoire – he has recently debuted operas such as Tosca, Adriana Lecouvreur, Norma, Carmen, Simon Boccanegra and even La forza del destino – Alfredo may no longer be a good fit for him. The protagonist, Ekaterina Sadovnikova, is a light soprano with a bright monochromatic timbre; her range is sufficient to allow her to cap “Sempre libera” with a decent E flat, even though her top tends to spread and therefore does not possess the richness of overtones and the ping that enables a small voiced soprano to run across the orchestra and fill the house. Moreover, her agility left much to be desired. Her middle register, let alone the bottom, is too weak to pay full justice to the second and third acts. All in all the Russian soprano portrayed an emotionally uninvolved Violetta with a dull fraseggio, who seemed to give signs of life only in Act III with a relatively more engaging “Addio del passato”, but by then the audience had lost interest.
Among the secondary characters Anastasia Boldyreva as Flora emerged less for her throaty singing than for her long-legged top model physique, and Simona Di Capua portrayed a spunky, impertinent Annina. While Enrico Cossutta was too mature for Gastone, Alessandro Spina and Italo Proferisce on the contrary gave life, respectively, to a youthful Grenvil and Marchese. Francesco Verna (Douphol), Davide Cusimano (Giuseppe), Vito Luciano Roberti (domestico) and Nicolò Ayraldi completed the cast.
Excellent, as usual, was the Chorus, while the Orchestra sounded less inspired than customary, probably because Zubin Mehta was not at his best. La traviata has never been particularly congenial to the huge talent of the Indian-born conductor, who – just as in other previous productions as well as in his Philips recording – after a moving Prelude with pathetically drawn strings, seemed to lose interest, choosing slow, dilated, often lethargic tempos, even if, paradoxically, he found himself spurring the two recalcitrant soloists in “Parigi, o cara”. His colour palette was limited to just a few shades of grey, even when in the Act II party a whip swinging dominatrix Flora should have stimulated his not so “bollenti spiriti”.
The production by Henning Brockhaus with sets by Josef Svoboda is so renowned that even a summary description may be superfluous. After originating in Macerata over twenty years ago, it has been travelling all over the world to huge acclaim. Known as the “Traviata of the mirrors”, it features a giant mirror hanging at a 45 degree angle over the stage, reflecting ornamented, painted stage surfaces and scrims back to the audience. Its biggest merit is to look opulent, spectacular and costly while in truth it is after all simple and relatively inexpensive.
Just like Falstaff a few months ago, this Traviata was also sold-out, something not to be taken for granted in Florence even for popular titles; all performers were warmly received, with Piazzola clearly being the winner, and rightly so.
photo credit: Simone Donati /Terra Project/Contrasto