Giuseppe Verdi(1813 - 1901)
An opera inthree acts, to a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, after Alexandre Dumas fils'play
La Dame auxcamelias
It is surprisingnow to reflect that, at its premiere at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice in 1853, La traviata was such a dismalfailure. With many operatic successes behind him, Verdi must have been appalledat the chaos of the first performance. True, the opera had been composed inconsiderable haste - certainly not detectable from the melodic and dramaticqualities of its music - but it was perhaps rather the unsuitable cast that ledto disaster. The Violetta was clearly far from a wasting consumptive andGermont pere, a much admired baritone in earlier days, had simplyallowed his career to go on too long; surely not the first and certainly notthe last singer to do that.
Happily the castof this recording differs entirely from those predecessors, for here is a performancein which the three principals are all convincingly at the peak of their vocalpowers. Many of the qualities that made each so successful are captured here,enabling the 'long-distance listener' to hear, over fifty years later, whatmade them remarkable and popular in these roles.
We are fortunatethat, by chance, Eleanor Steber sang this performance, for she replaced acolleague who was indisposed; thus has survived her complete recording of thistaxing part. She was not unfamiliar with Violetta, which she first sang at theMet in 1943, and despite the circumstances of her unexpected appearance, shebrings a freshness that is not evident in all performances of the opera. It issometimes (cynically) said that the role really needs three sopranos for agreat production; a coloratura to cope with the florid brilliance at the closeof the first act, a dramatic soprano for the scenes with Germont pere
and fils in the second and a great lyrical singer to convey the pathosof Act 3. Steber brings something of all these to her performance. Whilst notusually considered a coloratura, she handles the first act scena withaplomb and brings a real sense of excitement and anticipation. Perhaps wiselyshe avoids the high option on the final note, and none the worse for that. Theconfrontations of the second act create the tension that is vital for asuccessful Traviata; no great histrionics but the deeply felt pain ofsacrifice and rejection. Her Scene 2 duet with Alfredo brims with urgentpleading and in Act 3 the reading of the letter and its ensuing aria capturethe despair of her loneliness. This is a very full interpretation and Steber triumphsas this most testing of Verdi's heroines.
Giuseppe DiStefano possessed one of the most exciting and 'natural' tenor voices of thetwentieth century, and it is his forthright ardour that is on show in thisperformance. Impetuosity is also around, for he not only pours out passion, butsometimes neglects the niceties of musical accuracy; a 'live' recording this, andno chance of re-takes. But hear him in his duets with Violetta, admire thenuances which only a native Italian speaker can enliven, and it is easy tounderstand his popularity in this repertoire. This performance was Di Stefano'sfirst at the Met as Alfredo - perhaps nerves affected him - but there cannothave been many tenors there who sang the part with such relish.
In some waysRobert Merrill's performance is the antithesis of Di Stefano's Ever thestylist, restrained with warm, full tone, he brings a great measure of gravitasto Germont pere's deliberations. Technically he is impeccable andhandles the extended duet with Violetta with compassion, admonishes his son atFlora's party as a stern patriarch. The second act aria, which can defeat lessable baritones, surely brings to Alfredo a pang of nostalgia for his southernhome. It is full of regret but without condemnation. Merrill is eminently reliable,in the best sense, for there is never any danger of over-stretch or risk. Heknows what he can do vocally, which is much, and it is always beautifully delivered
Leading thishistoric performance is Giuseppe Antonicelli, who conducts lyrically and withelegance. It would be easy to overdo the sweetness of much of the score, and toallow the drama to lapse at other points; but Antonicelli paces the operasensitively and allows it the space and speed it needs. He, like most otherconductors of his day, sanctioned cuts in the score; one verse only of' Ahfors'e lui', and 'Teneste la promessa', no cabalettas for Alfredo and Germontin Act 2, but that's not unexpected. What we do have is an exciting liveperformance of La traviata, flawed but superb.
 The Prelude to La Traviata
opens in a mood of sadness and includes music that is to appear with particularpoignancy later in the opera.
 The first act opens with a scene ofparticular brilliance, Violetta Valery, a woman of great elegance, but acourtesan, is holding a party at her house. She is seated on a divan talkingwith Dr Grenvil and some friends. Guests arriving include the Marquis d'Obigny andFlora Bervoix, with the Baron Douphol. Some of those present jokingly rebukethe new arrivals for their lateness. Gaston, Vicomte de Letorieres, arrives, accompaniedby his friend Alfredo Germont, a distant admirer of Violetta. She invites thecompany to take their places for supper and Alfredo is asked to propose atoast.  This he does, introducing a Brindisi, a drinking-song, in which all join.
 The sound of dance-music is heard fromanother room and Violetta suggests that her guests dance. They go through, butVioletta falters for a moment, in a sudden attack of faintness. She seesAlfredo, who has stayed behind  He tells her that he has loved her sincehe first saw her, but she warns him not to think of her, since she has onlylight-hearted friendship to offer.  They are briefly interrupted byGaston and Alfredo takes his leave, but is invited to come back the next day. 
The guests return and now that morning is near take leave of their hostess,thanking her for her hospitality.  Violetta is left alone and nowbegins to feel the power of true love, after a life of superficial pleasure. 
She dismisses the thought, for she has always been free to take her pleasurewhere she will. Although the voice of Alfredo is heard from the garden below,she pays no heed to his declaration.
 The second act opens in a country-housenear Paris. The room is on the ground floor, withdoors opening onto the garden. Alfredo, who has been out shooting, considersthe happiness of the last three mo