Sometimes the first bar of music will tell you what kind of evening is in prospect.
And so it was here with Antonio Pappano, in his first Traviata for the Royal Opera, infusing the prelude with a sepia glow in remembrance of times past - better times for Violetta whose childhood photographs speak of an innocence long lost but never forgotten. It’s one of the more telling touches of Richard Eyre’s well-established staging that these photographs serve as an early premonition of the picture that Violetta will give Alfredo in her dying moments.
But if truth be told, Eyre’s production has become celebrated primarily on account of the singers who have graced it and in particular the Violettas who have run their “lap of honour” in the much-derided final image. The latest and most mature to do so is the American superstar Renee Fleming and what she has that singers like Gheorghiu and Netrebko before her did not is a wealth of experience and stylistic know how. Alright, so the words are too often sacrificed to the sound and the sound, borne as it is on extraordinary and effortless breath control, is, one could argue, so glamorous as to seem self-regarding. But what a sound it is and how – in true bel canto fashion – it shapes and defines the emotion. The little hairpin dynamics, the wistful portamenti, the way in her climactic act one aria she takes time to savour the “mysterious”, “exalted” tone of the music culminating in a real (and properly ecstatic) trill. Her chest register has more attitude now, too, and there is rage in her demise, the words “It’s too late” rasping with defiance.
Experience and authority fleshed out act two more than one can say with even the young head on old shoulders of Joseph Calleja displaying fabulous maturity. What a distinctive quality this warm and engaging voice has, the flutter of rapid vibrato lending a wonderfully inviting quality to his ample middle range. Then the gaunt and commanding father figure of Thomas Hampson (Giorgio Germont) whose confrontation with Violetta achieved an agonising intensity. Fleming’s numbing pianopianissimo as she agreed to leave Alfredo for the sake of his sister was quite simply great dramatic singing – and how it heightened the impact of the great release “Amami, Alfredo” minutes later.
None of this would have been possible without Pappano’s extraordinary instincts: the sheer range of colour he coaxed from his orchestra in the accompagnamenti, from airy light to robustly sprung, was in itself a source of great insight. The fifth star is his, because this is quality as befits a major international house.