The Times, 15.01.08
Richard Morrison
Verdi: La traviata, Royal Opera House, 14 January 2008
La traviata
Until last night sheer bad luck had shielded me from the full-on Anna Netrebko experience. But now that I’ve seen, heard, and inwardly drooled over the sensational 36-year-old Russian soprano at first hand, there’s no going back.

Shaken, stirred, and still quivering at the knees, I’m an altered man.

The odd thing is that Richard Eyre’s 13-year-old Royal Opera staging — hot on period detail, and flaunting surely the largest lampshade in London, but a little tepid in the debauchery department — doesn’t even give Netrebko the chance to display her famed visual divertissements.

When she played Violetta in a modern-dress Salzburg production of Verdi’s opera recently, her little red frock was widely considered the most exciting thing to happen in Austria since the war.

In Covent Garden’s crinolines, by contrast, she has to do it all with charisma and voice. But boy, does she do it! This is a Violetta whose every passing feeling — of hope and hopelessness, regret and resignation, passion and pain — is writ large not just in her face and gesture but in her singing as well.

I expected effortlessly commanding top notes and peachy tone, but not the wonderfully subtle variations in colour and phrasing. And the way she turns her final aria from deathbed murmur to fierce, fatalistic cry of pride and defiance is mesmerising.

If you like your fallen women wan and limpid, look elsewhere. Netrebko’s Violetta — glowing with inner fervour, even at the end — doesn’t have an ounce of self-pity. But she is utterly convincing and utterly natural. She seems to be concocting her thoughts, her words, even the very notes she sings, as she goes.

So does Jonas Kaufmann’s Alfredo, though at a lower voltage level. I was worried initially that he wouldn’t have the firepower to match Netrebko, and he doesn’t. There is power in the voice, but his tone is patchy. Yet he brings a credible dignity to a role too often played as a caricature of heartlessness. You can sense this Alfredo being torn apart by his own misunderstanding of Violetta’s sacrifice.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s Germont is touching, too. The Russian is a stiff actor at the best of times, but that’s no handicap when playing a buttoned-up father who unburdens his true feelings to his son only after his unyielding sense of propriety has inflicted catastrophic damage. Besides, Hvorostovsky sings with such silky finesse that all theatrical shortcomings are easily forgiven.

As for the rest, Bob Crowley’s sets still look handsome, but the party scenes are terribly staid. I’ve seen livelier libraries than this Parisian salon. And there are too many moments when the conductor Maurizio Benini doesn’t keep his band with his singers. All of which is beside the point when you have a prima donna in this spellbinding form.

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