Evening Standard, 15.01.08
Fiona Maddocks
Verdi: La traviata, Royal Opera House, 14 January 2008
Be seduced by a superstar
As a shower of golden glitter tumbled down on the chorus of partying champagne drinkers in the opening scene of La Traviata, it was clear there was one place to be last night.

The start of Covent Garden's 2008 season, a revival of Richard Eyre's much-loved staging of Verdi's masterpiece, was a triumph of operatic spectacle with three outstanding singers leading a top cast.

Anna Netrebko, now acclaimed as the global - or, why be cautious, intergalactic - operatic superstar of the 21st century, gave an electrifying performance as the consumptive heroine Violetta. This is the first time this audacious diva has performed the role in London, having already captivated audiences in Salzburg, Vienna and San Francisco.

Last seen here at the Proms, when she seduced some 6,000 people in the Albert Hall and a few million more watching at home, Netrebko radiates wild passion. She's funny and outrageous, with cover-girl glamour and a keen taste for the high-life. But none of this should detract from her seriously stupendous voice, or her hard-won professionalism.

At 36, she is in her prime. The Callas comparison, wearisome and inevitable, hardly does justice to Netrebko's colour, richness and effortless virtuosity. She made brilliant sense of Verdi's hedonistic fallen woman. Every word, every phrase, was imbued with meaning. This role is so demanding it can ruin voices. Netrebko held nothing back.

But loud is easy. As for pianissimos, she has a whole palette of hushed tones, all achieved with perfect control, the audience reduced to mesmerised silence to hear her.

Kaufmann, an outstanding Don José in Carmen last year, offers a subtle, introverted Alfredo, smouldering rather than explosive. His intelligent, minutely shaded reading was searingly comprehensible from the front of the stalls but whether it reached further back is less certain. Let's hope so.

In the anguished role of Germont, the smug father whose hypocrisy destroys his son's happiness, Hvorostovsky sang with characteristic glowing timbre, though he looks so wooden. Since his music, with its sobbing waltz melody refrain, is one long outpouring of grief, this physical coolness may be intentional.

The only Italian present was the conductor, Maurizio Benini, who directed a well-shaped account, after a nervous, hasty start. The ROH orchestra sounded refreshed, but slightly restrained. Richard Eyre's production, sumptuous in Bob Crowley's lavish period designs, launched the international career of the young Gheorghiu back in 1994.

Netrebko moves us to a new sublime level of emotional involvement. Tears even before the end of Act I? The auditorium was awash.


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