Of the popular middle trilogy that Verdi composed (Rigoletto and Trovatore make it up), 'La Traviata' is probably the most popular. The sensitive, heart-rending story of the lovely Violetta racked to the end by the cruel malady of tuberculosis has indeed stolen the hearts of millions. As it is staged once again at the Manoel Theatre, it would be pertinent to survey the recordings that remain amongst the most treasured items in any opera connoisseur's collection.
We begin with probably the most famous of all Violetta's, the inimitable, unsurpassable Maria Meneghini Callas. Her intimate and selfless portrayal of this role remains forever etched in the annals of greatness, for those who saw her live (lucky ones!) or for those who were and are less fortunate, a series of sets makes way to compensate beautifully. EMI has two recordings of Callas in the title role. A live recording with Giulini conducting La Scala forces is indeed quite excellent with Giuseppe di Stefano and Ettore Bastianini on superb form (66450). Another recording emanates from Lisbon in 1958 with Franco Ghione conducting and Alfredo Kraus in the tenor role (56330). Although not as involving as the Giulini set, this is Callas as inspired as humanely possible, especially in the final torturous scene. One must make allowances for the sound which is occasionally sub focused but the experience of these recordings is truly unique in Verdian literature.
Remaining with EMI, one can also survey two excellent recordings from two sturdy sopranos. First is Victoria de los Angeles charismatic portrayal under the occasionally mechanic Gabriele Santini. Flanked by the jovial Carlo del Monte and Mario Sereni, this 'Traviata' is infinitely better than the disappointing 'Butterfly' from the same source. It is now available on a Double Forte issue having been previously available at budget price on CFP. One of the better recordings, which strangely remains at full price, is Riccardo Muti's white-hot version featuring Renata Scotto and Alfredo Kraus again. This is typically Latin touched Verdi and the Philharmonia play like angels throughout in a superb Kingsway Hall recording. I still have my qualms over the price tag of this one but it is indeed a version to have. Beverly Sills' recording is only available in a highlights version on EMI Encore.
However the label that must take pride of place for 'Traviata' must be Decca. Renata Tebaldi is enshrined in a legendary set featuring Aldo Protti and conducted by Molinari Pradelli whilst the other great Violetta is definitely Joan Sutherland. There are two recordings, one with Carlo Bergonzi and Robert Merrill with the Maggio Musicale Orchestra under Sir John Pritchard and the other more famous one with Pavarotti and her husband Richard Bonynge conducting. Most lovers would opt for the latter recording but I find the sense of frission and excitement in the earlier set hard to surpass.
Philips has also recorded the role with Kiri te Kanawa and Zubin Mehta (438238) but I don't feel that this set reaches certain standards. I much prefer their recent excursion with the sensational Alagna/Lopardo/Solti set that has the latter in almost sensational form throughout. A much underrated set is the one with Pilar Lorengar and Lorin Maazel, this is a 'Traviata' to thrill and disturb, intriguing fare indeed. From the Deutsche Gramophone stable, one cannot be without Carlos Kleiber's unique vision of the 'Violetta' tragedy (415132). Ileana Cotrubas is absolutely stunning in the title role whilst Domingo and Milnes are also top-notch in every department. Kleiber's conducting is white hot on all counts and this particular set remains one of the most desirable, not least its digital provenance makes for a tip over its earlier analogue rivals. An older recording with Antonino Votto and Renata Scotto featuring Bastianini is another snip on DG Double.
This survey cannot have hoped to be exhaustive but the collector has ample material from which to choose for a decent Traviata. I would definitely want the early 1955 Callas with Giulini and the Kleiber version. Analogue aficionados would be well served by Tebaldi or Scotto and Sutherland is not to be discounted. The new Gheorghiu set is also pretty good (Decca 448119). What is certain is that Violetta will continue to melt our hearts not only on stage but also on any recorded medium!
Copyright © 2002, Gerald Fenech.