Long-time opera fanatics feel about Verdi’s “La traviata” the way foodies do about coq au vin—it’s absolutely a classic, it should be fairly simple to do, but you’re disappointed almost every time you try it. Well, the perfect coq au vin may remain elusive, but the Metropolitan Opera has found the recipe for a “Traviata” that is very palatable indeed. The secret ingredient is a soprano named Angela Gheorghiu.
“La traviata” sets a daunting series of challenges for its leading lady. Though the music is rooted in the delicate bel canto style of the early 19th century, the drama requires deep and heartfelt emotional acting. A further hurdle is the requirement that the soprano must plausibly represent a glamorous courtesan who eventually wastes away with consumption. In recent Met seasons, some sopranos have sung well and others have looked the part, but surely no singer since Diana Soviero has encompassed the role so completely as Gheorghiu did on February 7.
Her light lyric soprano is flecked with tiny flaws that make it sound both individual and vulnerable. The basic quality is sweet and slightly veiled, hinting at melancholy. The middle register is neither large nor particularly penetrating, but the timbre is so fascinating that the audience leans forward to catch every note. In the quieter moments of the Act Two duet with Germont, and in the sickbed scene of the final act, Gheorghiu made the 4,000-seat auditorium of the Met feel as intimate as a drawing room. This hushed quality set in relief the gorgeous bloom the voice took on as it ascended. Whether through instinct or calculation, Gheorghiu reserved her very best note for the end of the opera, a glamorous high B-flat that brought the audience to their feet.
Was the singing textbook perfect? Well, no. Gheorghiu approximated a couple of the trickier coloratura passages in Act One, and she could not muster the volume to soar over the ensemble in the gambling scene. A few phrases failed to sound when she turned away from the audience. But I can’t think of another Violetta in the world today who can communicate so eloquently though her singing.
Visually, too, Gheorghiu was the “Lady of the Camellias” of one’s dreams. Petite and slim, with alabaster skin, jet-black hair, and huge liquid eyes, she is by any standard a very attractive woman. On the operatic stage, her beauty takes on an almost supernatural quality. In the first act, this Violetta is manic and eager to please, darting unpredictably about the stage. As the character falls in love, Gheorghiu pared down her movement to evoke a sense of serenity and repose. In the final act, when the character is about to die, Gheorghiu’s body turned precariously fragile, a walking skeleton.
If the quality of Gheorghiu’s performance is unusual in a Met “Traviata,” the exciting presence of tenor Jonas Kaufmann (Alfredo) raised the level to the downright improbable. He is the sort of singer for which the overused word “strapping” should have been invented—tall, broad-shouldered, with cheekbones a male model might envy. Surely this is the first Alfredo I’ve seen who could hold his own as an actor and personality opposite Violetta.
Kaufmann’s sexy package is completed with a big, dark-hued voice used with elegance and intelligent musicality. Unfortunately, the heft of the sound seemed to drag the pitch down from time to time, and an attempt at an unwritten high C resulted in an ungainly shout. Maybe in the future Kaufmann can figure out the top of his voice, or else he may decide to resign himself to lower-lying parts; either way, he’s a star and I want to hear more from him.
There wasn’t anything wrong about Anthony Michaels-Moore’s singing as Germont, but, unfortunately, there wasn’t much right, either. He sings solidly on pitch, and the sound is commandingly large, with a reasonably easy top. And yet, next to the fragile-voiced Gheorghiu, Michaels-Moore sounded positively leaden, without line or nuance. True, the character of Germont is supposed to be a starchy moralist, but Verdi assigns him some of the most melting melodies in the opera, including “Di Provenza il mar il suol.” Michaels-Moore sang every note, but never quite seemed to make music.
The tempo tug-of-war between conductor Marco Armiliato and his leading lady suggested that Gheorghiu’s notoriety as a demanding diva may not be entirely unjustified. But, as one opera bigwig was overheard to say at intermission, “She may be the most difficult singer in the world, but, for a performance like this one, she’s completely worth the trouble.”
James Jorden is the producer of the podcast “Unnatural Acts of Opera” (parterre.com).