La Traviata – Teatro alla Scala

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The great Diva Anna Netrebko returns to the role of Traviata for only 3 performances, and yours truly managed to get a ticket!! Yes, I was perched on a tiny seat in row 2 of the first balcony, fighting for space with a snotty German lady on one side, and the biggest-assed Russian lady ever seen in an opera theatre on the other side; I did end up having to stand most of the time because I couldn’t see anything, but boy! What a night!!

The production was the very traditional one that Liliana Cavani put together in the Nineties; it is sumptuous and unassuming at the same time, I’m sure somebody would find it boring, but I loved it. Long gowns, chandeliers, flowers in the ladies’ hair, tailcoats on the men, the works.

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Netrebko was absolutely magnificent. She hasn’t sung Traviata in many years, and her voice has grown bigger and deeper. I have to admit I wasn’t sure she would manage the coloratura at the end of the first act: Sempre libera requires an extremely agile voice and confident high notes. She flew through it like a tornado, her roulades and high notes hurled at the audience with a strength, a confidence, a panache that made the audience fall in love with Violetta more than Alfredo did. Her first act really swept us away, I am positive I didn’t hear her breathe once in the whole act: as my friend Gianluca Florezido says, she must have breathed in the dressing room.

But let’s start from the beginning. The musicians of the celebrated orchestra at La Scala could probably play Traviata while blindfolded and drunk, and with Bugs Bunny conducting, but still, they gave us an amazing performance. The conductor was Nello Santi, who is 85 years old, and he does love his slow tempi. I have to say that I really liked his interpretation: yes, some things were so slow that you were afraid the singers would just die on stage for real, but the orchestra was never heavy. They managed a magic mixture of slow and light, which was really a wonder to hear. And not everything was too slow: the fast parts were, in fact, fast (the toast, Sempre libera, the confrontation in the second act Mi chiamaste, che bramate?, etc.). But there was a lingering, a relishing of the super-slow stuff, that some loggionisti in the audience figured was too much. Lots of screaming back and forth between members of the audience. Two days before the conductor had been heavily booed, “I tempi, Maestro!” screamed somebody; another yelled “Verdi would turn in his grave!” (to which, somebody else correctly responded “How on earth do YOU know?”). So, on Saturday, when I was there, many people made a point of praising Nello Santi out loud. “Thank you for your lesson, Maestro!” (to which a protester snarkily commented “Yeah, right”). Usual La Scala drama, it’s part of the performance.

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Alfredo was a well-known name at La Scala: Francesco Meli. He never changes, he’s a super-typical Italian tenor, for good and for bad. His voice is very natural, well set and enthusiastic, his mezza-voce is tender and heartfelt. He lacks subtlety, and a varied color palette. But his Croce e delizia was really good, his breath perfect. He also showed some acting skills, his fidgeting while searching for the words of the toast, his passionate comforting Violetta during Parigi o cara were charming and emotional. The whole first act was incredibly good, an amazing toast scene, with the wonderful La Scala chorus in perfect condition.

The veteran Leo Nucci was Giorgio Germont. He is 75 years old, and his voice is in amazing good shape, for his age. The color is still beautiful, and his experience with the character results in a very believable Germont. Having said all this, I really think he should retire. Every single note is taken from below, a vice he had also when he was younger, and is getting worse, of course. His voice understandably lost some strength and power. Overall, his performance was enjoyable, but come on. The best thing he did was the horrible cabaletta Ah non udrai rimproveri, the music is ugly, but he had exactly the right approach.

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Netrebko was absolutely heartbreaking in the second act. She uses all the strength of her lower register for emotional effect, without ever forcing, always with a wonderful technique which gives her voice an amazing uniformity. Netrebko’s filato in Dite alla giovane was the last breath of a dying victim, her Morrò, la mia memoria a futile attempt of regain some dignity, and her Amami Alfredo a thundering storm of love and desperation. The big-assed Russian lady and I cried like babies, repressing sobs and cleaning up our make-up plastered all over our faces.

The scene at Flora’s was rich and entertaining, although I have to say that the female chorus was constantly behind in the gypsies’ song (Noi siam le zingarelle). The male chorus was also behind in the bullfighters’ song, but less evidently so. The depth of Violetta’s desperation during the card game increased, with wonderful low notes (Pietà, gran Dio, di me), and the concertato was AMAZING. The chorus did a fantastic job here.

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In the third act Netrebko performed some incredibly realistic cough fits, I was very surprised that they didn’t interfere with her singing performance. She looked and sounded more like a wild caged animal than a dying victim, here: she stormed on the stage grasping at glimpses of life. In this act I felt some strain in Netrebko’s voice: she breathed often and more heavily in Addio del passato, although her performance was absolutely incredible, and brought yet more tears from the audience and yours truly.

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The snotty German lady wanted to leave after the second act: as usual, there was a pause between the countryside scene and the scene at Flora’s ball, she counted the intervals and thought the opera had ended. She saw the look on my face and asked “It is finished, no?” and I screamed “She’s still alive!!”, so she sat down.

I mean you come ON PURPOSE from Düsseldorf, and you don’t even know the plot? Of La Traviata!??? I’m speechless.

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