Where would opera be without starcrossed love affairs and, especially, horrible diseases? There's probably no better example of the weaving together of those two elements than La Traviata, Giuseppe Verdi's iconic piece about a "fallen woman," courtesan Violette Valery, and her tragic love affair with Alfredo, a man whose family connections preclude him from settling down with a woman of notorious reputation. You would think that there could be no better artistic marriage than to see the prince of Italian opera composers' most famous piece performed in the most famous opera house in the world, Italy's own La Scala, but this visually opulent production suffers from overkill and a strangely brittle vocal performance by Angela Gheorghiu as Violetta.
La Traviata travels the well-worn operatic tropes of lovers who are never going to end up happily ever after, as well as a fatally doomed heroine (again by that operatic bugaboo, tuberculosis), and wraps it in some of the most gorgeous and florid music Verdi ever wrote. This is one of the most massively produced Traviatas I've ever witnessed, with the chorus literally filling the huge La Scala stage, and with Lorin Maazel conducting the always excellent La Scala orchestra with his customary aplomb. While this is a stunningly produced version of the warhorse, with sets and costumes that will make your eyes bug out at times, and is quite creatively directed for television, with evidently handheld cameras that traipse between the players, traveling up and downstage at times for a very "up close and personal" look at the production, it is still a maddeningly underwhelming performance.
Violetta is one of the more complex characters in the largely two-dimensional world of classic opera, and she must be equal parts flirt and tragically flawed heroine. Unfortunately Gheorghiu brings little of Violetta's coquettish nature to the mix, and routinely overplays the "Camille" aspects of the character. Add to this some rather unappealing vocal work, especially on Verdi's more melismatic moments, and you have a central performance that tends to drag down everything around it. Gheorghiu, among the most infamously temperamental sopranos working in opera today (and that, my friends, is saying a lot), obviously needs a firm, if nurturing, directorial hand to help mold her performances, and I couldn't help but wonder if she had browbeaten Maazel and director Liliana Cavani into relative submission.
Tenor Ramon Vargas is considerably more appealing and affecting as Alfredo, Violetta's infatuated lover who finds himself in an untenable predicament as his father attempts to break him away from the woman he loves in order to maintain the family's reputation. Vargas handles the bel canto aspects of Verdi's score immaculately, even if his physical deportment is a bit on the stilted side. The choral work is, as you might expect, excellent here, if at times overwhelming in moments where the leads have solos.
The enhanced 1.78:1 AVC transfer looks very nice, with brilliant color, good consistent black levels and crisp detail. This production is visually spectacular, and has been reimagined for television quite well, so there's actually quite a bit to see, something perhaps a bit unusual for broadcast operas.
Unfortunately, the soundtrack is surprisingly sloppy. I actually preferred the PCM 2.0 mix to the HD 7.1, if you can believe it. While fidelity is excellent in both of these, whoever mixed the 7.1 version had better get his head (and/or ears) examined. Gheorghiu and Vargas routinely disappear beneath the orchestra and chorus in this mix, though they are at least a bit more audible in the 2.0 version. The orchestra also seems strangely distant at times. A real disappointment. English subtitles are available.
Not only are no extras offered, there aren't even setup options on the main menu, meaning you'd better have your remote handy if you want to toggle between the audio options or have the subtitles on.
This is a pretty lackluster La Traviata, sadly, despite one of the more impressive physical productions of this piece I've seen. You might want to Rent It, if only to gaze upon the gorgeous sets and costumes. Otherwise, this is eminently skippable.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet