Sunday 17 November 2019

Striking new studio recording of Verdi's La Traviata from Latvia, with Marina Rebeka, Charles Castronovo, Michael Balke

Verdi: La traviata - Marina Rebeka, Charles Castronovo - Prima Classic
Verdi La traviata; Marina Rebeka, Charles Castronovo, George Petean, Latvian Festival Orchestra, Michael Balke; PRIMA CLASSIC
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 15 November 2019 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
A striking new recording of Verdi's classic from Latvia, a studio recording with lots to recommended it.

Studio recordings of opera are becoming increasingly rare, so a new one is always notable. This recording of Giuseppe Verdi's La traviata comes from soprano Marina Rebeka's Prima Classic label [see my interview with Marina], recorded in Riga. Michael Balke conducts the Latvian Festival Orchestra and State Choir Latvija, with Marina Rebeka as Violetta, Charles Castronovo as Alfredo, George Petean as Giorgio Germont, Laura Grecka as Annina and Elisabetta Sergeeva as Flora.

The cast is remarkably international, with a Latvian soprano, an American tenor, a Romanian bass and a German conductor. What they have in common is a discography which does not quite reflect their live experience in mainstream 19th century opera, and it seems to be conductor Michael Balke's debut opera recording.  When I spoke to Rebeka last year, she made it clear that her label wasn't about herself, but to give opportunities to fine singers outside the golden circle of those heavily promoted by record companies.

Once past the prelude, the first thing we notice in the first Act is Michael Balke's preference for swift tempos. The party scene is positively exciting, and the singers bring it off. The Brindisi is exciting too, but some might find it a little breathless, though Balke's speeds do not force the singers and there is space for rubato. (And, for what its worth, whilst I wasn't strictly keeping count, there are quite a few of the repeats in place.)
Similarly, in Act Two, some the dialogue goes at a pace which makes it very vivid, and this party scene is similarly zippily exciting. His attention to tempo, rhythm and detail pays off in moments like the tense first meeting of Violetta and Alfredo at Flora's party. In Act Three, Balke gives the music the space it needs without being slow enough for it to die on its feet.

As Violetta, Rebeka seems ideally positioned to sing the role. She has been known for her coloratura roles, moving into more dramatic territory. She makes Violetta quite human, moving between intimate moments and some finely dramatic ones, with a great cutting edge to the voice. We all have our ideal Violetta, and here Rebeka comes close I think. She does not colour the voice as much as Callas (who does?), but she makes the vocal line work towards the character. 'Ah, fors'e lui' is both finely sung, and rather moving, with a terrific 'Sempre libera'. In Act Two, her duet with Petean's Giorgio is moving for the way that both characters are human, both exhibit strength and tenderness. And for those worried about speed, 'Dite alla giovine' is kept gently moving, yet with space.

It has to be admitted that it will not suit those who want Violetta to sound ill from the very beginning, and compared to some modern sopranos, Rebeka has quite a substantial voice, though one which she can use with ease and grace, often fining it down. In Act Three, she does this beautifully, creating a more fragile sound, yet still recognisably, the same character, and 'Addio del passato' develops into something which manages to be both thrilling and moving. Rebeka dies finely, and not without a struggle, combining bel canto detail with a sense of moving drama.

Castronovo makes an appealing Alfredo, with lots of finely shaped lines and a willingness to sing quietly and mezzo-piano. It gives his performance a great deal of charm, with a finely fluent Brindisi and an Act One duet with Rebeka which has lovely tender moments. His opening aria in Act Two is finely ardent, yet again with that willingness to sing quietly too, plus a very musical account of the cabaletta. In Flora's party he is suitably ardent and thoughtless. At the climax, he is passionate and intense, without being over bullying. And in Act Three, his reuniting with Violetta is everything we could want it to be, with a tender 'Parigi, O cara'.

Geroge Petean's Giorgio is not the bellowing monster of some, his 'Pura siccome un angelo' is finely, and lightly sung, whilst he impresses for his willingness to hold back, and to mould phrases in the Act Two duet with Violetta. 'Di Provenza' is similarly finely handled. His handling of the character in the remainder of the opera is similarly finely balanced and characterful.

Laura Grecka makes a nicely dead-pan Annina, the sort of servant whom nothing gets past! Yet finely sympathetic in Act Three. The rest of the cast provide fine support, with Krisjanis Norvelis as sympathetic Grenvil, and Elisabeth Sergeeva as a characterful Flora.

The disc captures the voices well, and that is not always a given especially with a voice as large as Rebeka's. It is a recording of La Traviata which combines musicality and drama. Perhaps it is not quite as loveable as some older recordings, but it is an impressive achievement and recorded in fine modern sound.

Verdi: La Traviata
Violetta - Marina Rebeka
Alfredo - Charles Castronovo
Giorgio - George Petean
Flora - Elisabeth Sergeeva
Gastone - Gideon Poppe
Marchese - Isaac Galan
Barone - Rihards Macanovskis
Grenvil - Kirsjanis Norvelis
Annina - Laura Grecka
Giuseppe - Michails Culpajevs
Commissionario - Luva Martoni
Latvian Festival Orchestra
State Choir Latvija
Michael Balke (conductor)
Recorded at the Great Gild in Riga, Latvia, 24 March 2019 - 3 April 2019
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