stands or falls on its lead singers and in Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon this 2005 Salzburg Festival performance has a pair whose electric interactions and brilliant singing are irresistible. If Netrebko can't quite provide the vocal bloom of the great Violettas of the past, hers is a lovely voice used with intelligence and dramatic intensity and she has the coloratura chops to deliver her Act I showpieces with flair. Villazon's tenor has ping
on top, terrific color, and an impressive range of rubato, dynamic shadings, and interesting phrasing that makes Alfredo's music sound newly minted. The Germont is Thomas Hampson, no Verdi baritone but an astute singer and actor. Chorus and smaller roles are fine, the orchestra first-rate. Carlo Rizzi has odd notions about the music (usually too fast, sometimes way too slow) but this Traviata
triumphs despite his conducting.
Willy Decker's controversial production features stark sets on a curved white stage, spare furnishings, and an overlay of symbolic devices: the figure of Death stalks Violetta in every act, a huge clock shows her time running out and becomes a focus for stage action, even turning into Act II's card table. The singers run, dance, and spend a lot of time on their knees or backs. Color schemes bathe Violetta's courtesan period in bold red, her idyll with Alfredo in flower prints. And there's more along those lines. Even those who usually prefer more conservative productions should find Willy Decker's staging absolutely riveting. Much of the action goes on inside the characters' heads, making this superficially extrovert opera an interior drama that sheds new light on its possibilities. Love or hate the production, you won't want to miss this Traviata for the leads and for staging that must be taken seriously. A bonus disc includes an interesting rehearsal. --Dan Davis