“CRITIC’S CHOICE” distinction
The Prima Classic’s CD makes my short list of the best recordings of this popular opera, though it won’t be to everyone’s taste. Conductor Michael Balke is forthright and brisk, but he takes care to lighten the textures and dynamics where he can and shapes the music in convincing arcs, so it isn’t all about speed. “De’ miei bollenti spiriti” is buoyant and flexible; the card scene has a buzzing anticipation.
Marina Rebeka is not only this Traviata’s primma donna but it’s coproducer. Her Violetta is first-rate, lyrical and even, bringing a spoken immediacy to her “dialogue” in Act I, yet agile and fluent in the coloratura. Her mid-range is soft-edged but clear; her top is brilliant. She finds more introspection in the character than most, including a reflective, questioning second verse of “Sempre libera.” (The performance, incidentally, is note-complete—save for Grenvil’s line “È spenta!,” which is missing—including cabalettas, plus traditional high variants and interpolations, among them an impressive but gratuitous B-flat at the end of Act II, Scene 1.) The conductor allows her an overly expansive “Alfredo, Alfredo,” though she fills is out well; a few descending semitones elsewhere are slightly sharp.
The dignified, resonant Germont, George Petean, actually sings, resisting the temptation to declaim; he’s comfortable in the high tessitura, though the tone never quite expands. He’s nicely urgent in Act II, Scene , and projects sturdy authority in the card sccene, effectively using softer colors in both; he decently manages to keep up in his precipitate Act III entrance. Laura Grecka, the Annina, sings Act III clearly and firmly, but she sounds frazzled in the earlier exchange with Alfredo.
Charles Castronovo is the ardent, full-throated Alfredo on both recordings. On Prima, he sounds a bit dark, and he’s trying too hard to inflect. He sings better, with more presence and ring—though he still overworks the high As—on the video from Covent Garden; otherwise, that performance has less to offer. Much of Antonello Manacorda’s conducting is comparatively slack and droopy: the tempos sometimes stick, or lag behind the singers. String attacks are softer-edged, accompaniments less crisp and pointed. In fairness, matters improve in the firm, incisive card scene—though Manacorda slows way down for Violetta’s asides—and in the sensitive Act III.