That eternal symbol of grand opera in all its silliness—an overweight, middle-aged singer in a horned helmet bellowing out high Cs to an equally unattractive partner—will probably never die, but the Metropolitan Opera has been doing its best lately to dispel the myth. Two of Verdi’s most popular operas, Rigoletto and La Traviata, recently returned to the repertory, each featuring a love couple that could easily compete with Tom and Katie or Brad and Angelina. It’s too late to catch Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón in Rigoletto, but there’s still time to take in Angela Gheorghiu and Jonas Kaufmann as the fated lovers in La Traviata. They both look fabulous, and connoisseurs of singing might approve as well.
Gheorghiu first won international fame as Violetta back in 1992, when she sang, recorded, and filmed the part at Covent Garden. It’s taken all this time for her interpretation to reach the Met—a tale too involved to retell here, but suffice to say that it has to do with the sort of spiteful diva-management disagreements that all too often deprive the fans of their red meat. The Met’s current 1998 Traviata production, in fact, was originally intended to star Gheorghiu and her husband, Roberto Alagna, until the tenor’s suggestion that his brother redesign part of the production was declined and a new cast had to be found. All that is forgiven and forgotten, and Gheorghiu has finally come to claim her role—although without Alagna, with whom she now sings less frequently. But that is another story.
Perhaps the wait was worth it. The glitzy Franco Zeffirelli production is now merely tasteless rather than downright vulgar—the famous dancing cows at Flora’s party have long since been put out to pasture, along with much other decorative nonsense. Several Violettas have competed with the scenery over the past few seasons, but Gheorghiu is the first I’ve seen who can actually upstage her surroundings and get somewhere near the heart of this classic courtesan. She looks stunning, in the mold of Garbo and Callas: a dark-haired, impeccably gowned lady of the camellias with a sad cameo face, dangerous fragility, and an air that commands attention without hogging the scene. It’s a vocally complete portrait as well, with the feverish coloratura of the first act all precisely in place, the heartbreak of the duet with Germont limned with lyrical understatement, and the pathos of the death scene reaching up to touch tragedy. Her carefully made vocal points would probably be even more affecting in a smaller house, but an important singer has at last had a Met triumph.
Jonas Kaufmann not only has the look and easy stage bearing of a rock star, but he also has a flexibility seldom heard in German tenors—he sings Parsifal and Florestan with distinction, as well as lyrical roles like Alfredo. If his voice lacks the ringing lift up top that one ideally likes in a Verdi tenor, the overall tone is smoothly burnished, beautifully focused on the notes, and always disarmingly musical. Anthony Michaels-Moore’s rather gruffly sung Germont, complete with an interpolated high B-flat at the end of his aria, is adequate, and conductor Marco Armiliato gives everyone onstage helpful and idiomatic support. All that is very nice, but what makes this Traviata special is the grade-A glamour generated by its two attractive stars.