La Fleming's back in town ! Her presence alone made this La Traviata an absolute must-see for everyone, including people who never go to opera. And of course, she was a star. Read a sensible proper review by Claire Seymour HERE.
But if you want to read off the wall you'll have to do it with me. Not at Covent Garden but in the cinema behind my local supermarket. Cinema opera is "interesting" in the sense that it's nothing like the real thing and yet very different to watching a DVD. The scale, for one thing, so in your face that you can see tears – or perspiration? we're all human – running out the corner of a diva's eye. Then there's the overpowering volume of being in a venue designed for Star Wars effects.
On the other hand it's like a Glyndebourne experience on the cheap as you can bring cola in and munch popcorn through lachrymose moments. My local being where it is offered no pop or popcorn but 32 different wines by the glass, which made me suspicious. How can 100 people drink one glass each without most of it going off ? Perhaps it's better consuming your opera mega screen outdoors with a real picnic and more laidback ambience. But I dunno. I go to opera for the music not the social aspect, so cinema is a compromise. And I can get my groceries and be home in 15 minutes.
Luckily La Traviata (and most Italian opera) is ideally suited for big screen and social pleasure. Everything about this production was entertaining eye candy and fun, like glamour magazines come alive. The last scene, though, was dramatically strongest. She can hear the crowds celebrate Carnival, their shadows thrown up against shutters the full height of the stage: in contrast, Fleming looks small and frail. As she should be, Violetta is broke and dying.
Very strong singing too. La Fleming doesn't disappoint and Joseph Calleja was vocally very convincing. We often forget how physically demanding it is to sing, so watching on big screen lets you see muscles twitch and chests expanding before florid legato. These are arias everyone knows well, so it's good to follow how much technique goes into producing familiar sounds. Singers of the calibre of Fleming and Calleja make it look easy, but it isn't.
But Thomas Hampson, wow! That is what serious vocal authority is, and in Hampson's case warmed by sensitivity and depth of characterization. Papa Germont is not a sympathetic role and could be played veering towards cardboard, but Hampson's Germont was a fully rounded personality with real, complex motivations. No wonder Violetta's friends think she might be better off with father than son. Were Calleja more of an actor, there might have been deeper frisson to their relationship. When Hampson blows up at Alfredo for demeaning women you want to shout "Yes!!!!". Alfredo's a pup, Dad is the Real Thing.
Praise for other roles too, especially Haoyin Xue who has natural presence. Richard Wiegold as Dr Grevil is frequently placed centre stage but the costume really doesn't work : the silly glasses, wig and beard make him look like someone in uncomfortable disguise. He doesn't get to sing much til the end so the part really needs to be fleshed out by good acting and movement. If not, place him on the sidelines, the character's natural territory.
Orchestrally, this was magnificent. I have a lot of respect for Tony Pappano, though in some repertoire he's better than in others. Verdi is one of his fortes, so he let rip with fulsome Romantic surges. Music, after all, is all-important in La Traviata. The plot is so melodramatic it's embarrassing and action is introduced with little sense of build-up. But when you follow the musical line it all makes luscious sense.
After the movie we were all given a satin goodie bag with a bottle of "La Voce", Renee Fleming's own brand perfume. To her credit it was created as a fundraiser for the Met. You bet a classy lady like that doesn't wear celebrity perfumes.
Photo credit : Andrew Eccles/Decca from IMG Artist Management