With some reservations, I enjoyed the two-disc CD recording of this fulsome performance of Verdi's "La Traviata" released late last year. Under the direction of Carlo Rizzi leading the Wiener Philharmoniker (Vienna Philharmonic), the classic opera represents a prime opportunity to intertwine grand romantic melodrama with many of the composer's most famous arias and duets. Even though there are choruses and set pieces, it is really more a chamber opera, and you need three powerfully sculpted voices to make this a momentous occasion. Removing the visual element, the performance feels variable in spots despite the immense talent involved.
However, now that I can see and appreciate director Willi Decker's spare, modernist staging at the 2005 Salzburg Festival on this 2006 Deluxe Edition DVD package, the opera becomes a more emotionally transcendent experience. He takes the passing of time as his primary leitmotif in the form of a gigantic clock with Death taking an ever-present human form. The costuming is stylishly modern-dress, while the few color-coordinated set pieces would look appropriate in an Upper West Side art gallery. Based on Alexandre Dumas's play, "The Lady of the Camellias", the opera's tragic love story is the same in this adaptation, but the overall attitude reflects a greater sense of liberation with the period melodrama mostly excised. Purists will be offended, especially those married to the Callas or more recent Angela Gheorghiu versions.
As the passionate Violetta Valéry, Russian soprano Anna Netrebko is an inarguably stunning woman made for the camera. Less the courtesan of the classic version and more a hedonistic party girl (like a more melancholy Holly Golightly), parading in her deep red cocktail dress, she convincingly performs the role with alternating waves of gusto and poignancy. Vocally, Netrebko complements her fiery presence with an impressive performance that gives way to equal parts great passion and deep love once she discovers renewed life with her lover Alfredo. Offering shimmering roulades, she nails her much anticipated Act I climax, "E stano...Ah, fors'è lui...Sempre libera", and maximizes her lower register in her burnished handling of the final aria, "Gran dio! Morir si giovane!". Her less-than-perfect Italianate diction is not as problematic here as it is on CD when we are robbed of her beauty.
Given the dominance of Violetta, Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón more than holds his own with Netrebko as the smitten Alfredo. In fact, he is a better actor than she in displaying his character's tentative nature at the beginning, followed in turn by his swooning romanticism, seething anger and broken-hearted resignation. Displaying an exceptionally agile voice and an almost improvisational-sounding style in his phrasing and inflections, he brings his arsenal of skills together most effectively in his Act II opening, "Lunge de lei... De' miei bollenti spiriti...O mio rimorso". In this scene, Alfredo and Violetta prance around in persistent afterglow in their floral bathrobes on a matching floral sofa.
In fact, there is a great deal of physicality in the production to make the sexual tension reverberate, and the party-loving, black-suited chorus is equally as animated. All the while, Netrebko and Villazón generate true chemistry while blending seamlessly in their duets. American baritone Thomas Hampson comes across much better on the DVD than the CD, where he is recognizably the weak link. Looking more engaged onstage, he brings the appropriate emotional fervor to his confrontation scenes with Violetta and sounds effectively resolute in his ending aria in Act II, "Di provenza il mar, il suol". The death scene still seems too elongated for the drama preceding it, and Rizzi does not help with his lugubrious pacing at this juncture.
The entire opera is on the first disc of the 2006 two-DVD set, and it is blessedly captured with clarity both visually and aurally. The second disc contains a number of extras, the most important being a 45-minute behind-the-scenes featurette chronicling the painstaking preparation of the production. Netrebko and an especially precocious Villazón are interviewed throughout. Villazón also does a three-minute introduction of the opera in German, obviously done for its TV airing. There is an automatic slide show of photos from the production set to the "Brindisi", a Netrebko discography, and lastly, a ten-minute highlights segment of Netrebko's rather self-aggrandizing video collection, "The Woman...The Voice".