Renée Fleming has matured into one of the finest sopranos around at the moment, a true star with a sparkling personality and a velvet-toned voice that is capable of wringing the finest emotions out of works by Strauss and Tchaikovsky that from a lesser singer could sound rather cold and clinical. I wouldn't have thought her voice would be so well suited to Violetta Valéry in La Traviata, and it does take some getting used to, but I think she at least brings a distinct quality to the role with an emotional heart that isn't always necessarily there when a leading diva uses it primarily as a display for her vocal talents. It's served well also by Antonio Pappano's conducting of the Royal Opera House Orchestra in a traditional, but effective production by Richard Eyre.
There's only one way to really measure the true performance of La Traviata however, and that is by the qualities of the soprano. Renée Fleming does seem a little faltering in the first act, the warm enveloping richness of her tone perhaps not quite bringing out the clarity of the Italian diction. The production also seems a little disjointed in Act 1, setting up the great arias well (and is there any opera that has quite so many memorable, technically and dramatically impressive arias?), but not really sure what to do with the performers in between. Fleming's 'È strano ...ah forsè'lui' however is excellent, the soprano most definitely singing it her own way, putting a different complexion and personal interpretation on the opera.
If Act I doesn't flow as well as one might hope, Act II however is superb in every respect - singing, dramatic representation, the precision and timing of the orchestration all played to perfection in both scenes. Fleming's duet with Hampson's Germont Sr., 'Ah! Dite alla giovine', is technically stunning, but at the same time full of heartfelt emotion. I've rarely seen it done so well and it's capable of leaving you dead in your tracks. Much as I sometimes find Act III a little gruelling in this opera, here it also comes across with great emotional force, again primarily down to Fleming's superb acting talent, but also to how well she blends with Joseph Calleja. Calleja is a tenor very much in the classic mould of a Pavarotti or Domingo, and as such is perfectly suited to a role such as Alfredo. There is some maturing to be done in his voice, and he certainly doesn't have the personality or range of the greats, but his voice has a beautiful tone and blends well with Fleming here.
It's hard then to find fault with the production or the performances, but there are so many versions of La Traviata out there that a new version really needs something special to entice you into reconsidering it anew (such as in the Willy Decker fascinating production with Anna Netrebko - La Traviata). This is a straightforward, traditional, period staging - it doesn't add anything new, it doesn't make the viewer reconsider the whole tone of the piece or allow them to plunge into its emotional heart - but it has Renée Fleming, and it's worthwhile for that alone. Other than for Fleming however, one can't help but feel that this would indeed be just another La Traviata.
The quality of the Blu-ray release is good, but not great. The lighting is rather soft, so it doesn't have the clarity you might expect, but it does seem to capture a sense of the ambience of Covent Garden. The audio likewise doesn't really have a full depth of tone. The violins dominate, but feel slightly detached from the rest of the orchestration in the 5.1 mix, only occasionally achieving the thunderous tone that is often demanded. The PCM stereo mix however is excellent and may be the better option. The extras on the disc consists of a worthwhile 21-minute interview of Fleming by Pappano, where the soprano acknowledges the personal challenges the role represents, and describes her technical approach.