Bloomberg News, 16 January 2008
Warwick Thompson
Verdi: La traviata, Royal Opera House, 14 January 2008
Sell the Ferrari for Tickets to 'Traviata'
The Royal Opera audience had the expectant look of chicks with their beaks open. Outside, ticket touts were demanding extortionate amounts. Elderly patrons on crutches rushed past as the final bell rang.

Such was the pulling power of glamorous soprano Anna Netrebko, who made her debut as Violetta in Verdi's ''La Traviata'' (1853) at Covent Garden in London. It didn't lessen the excitement that the cast included tenor Jonas Kaufmann and baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, two more top stars.

Fortunately, it was worth all the brouhaha.

Looking porcelain-fragile in a tight bodice and creamy crinoline folds, Netrebko sat still and pensive as the overture played. As Act 1 unfolded, it became clear that stillness and quiet intensity were to mark her performance.

When she wanted to signal her despair at the repeat of ``Sempre libera'' (Always free), she reined in her dark rich voice to a pianissimo and drew us in to the character's inner turmoil. Acquiescing later to demands to sacrifice her lover, she sang in a whisper blanched of all emotion.

Yet she also could stoke her dramatic fire when she wanted, and her fiery cry of ``morir si giovine'' (``to die so young'') in her death scene was heartbreaking.

She also took a great risk in singing several passages to the back of the stage. The effect was remarkable, as if Violetta were searching for some private clue to her destiny.

Violetta on the Floor

Her acting was full of such detailed touches. After her lover Alfredo had callously thrown his gambling chips at her in another scene, she scrabbled around on the floor to pick them up and then cried as she held them against her face. It was a powerful way of suggesting that she accepted, in despair, his valuation of her as a prostitute.

This was far from a one-trick show, however, and the three principals all kept raising the bar.

The slim, dark-haired tenor Jonas Kaufmann was superb as Alfredo, and brought as much vocal variety to his singing as Netrebko. His exquisite phrasing suggested heartfelt longing in ``Un di, felice'' (One day, happy) of Act 1, and boyish vigor in ``O mio rimorso'' (O, my remorse) of Act 2.

His high C at the end of that number wasn't as secure as I've heard him sing it elsewhere. By the end of the opera Kaufmann's usual smoothness had returned, and his acting was as affecting as Netrebko's.

Luxury Tones

With his rich, liquid tones, Dmitri Hvorostovsky was equally good as Alfredo's father. When he tried to tempt his son to return to Provence in ``Di Provenza al mar'' you could almost hear the blue sea and cloudless skies in his voice.

Richard Eyre's 1994 production, with period costumes and exaggerated Second Empire sets, looked as pretty as ever, though it fell into its usual longueur in the gambling scene.

Still, Maurizio Benini's stylish conducting kept the tension high. He also stuck to Netrebko like glue, even when she sped up, slowed down or turned out of his sight.

Fight -- you'll have to -- to get tickets, which have now officially sold out for this cast. Returns occasionally appear (contact the box office) and day seats are available.

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