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ClassicsOnline Home » VERDI: Traviata (La) (Di Stefano, Stella) (1955)
Having already recorded La Traviata for CETRA (Naxos 8.110300-01), Maria Callas was contractually barred from taking part in this 1955 recording of the opera, which featured, instead, the emerging Italian soprano Antonietta Stella, who went on to become an acclaimed interpreter of Verdi’s and Puccini’s romantic heroines and to record extensively for a variety of labels.When the recording was released in Britain in 1956, The Gramophone reviewer thought “Stella sings with a good deal of fine intention… Di Stefano is much better [than his rivals] …Gobbi is a really impressive vocal actor”. Hugely admired by singers, the conductor Tullio Serafin embodies all the finest qualities of the Italian maestro.
By David Denton
Great Opera Recordings
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
Opera in Three Acts
Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave
after Alexandre Dumas' play, La Dame aux Camélias
Violetta Valéry – Antonietta Stella (soprano)
Alfredo Germont – Giuseppe Di Stefano (tenor)
Giorgio Germont – Tito Gobbi (baritone)
Flora Bervoix – Elvira Galassi (mezzo-soprano)
Annina – Luisa Mandelli (mezzo-soprano)
Gastone – Giuseppe Zampieri (tenor)
Marquis d'Obigny – Nicola Zaccaria (bass)
Baron Douphol – William Dickie (baritone)
Doctor Grenvil – Silvio Maionica (bass)
Giuseppe – Franco Ricciardi (tenor)
Servant of Flora – Vittorio Tatozzi (bass)
Messenger – Carlo Forti(bass)
Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala, Milan
(Norberto Mola, chorus master)
By the 1850s Verdi was moving away from the blood-and-thunder operas of the previous decade, creating works in which he attempted to portray the more intimate character-drama. This change had begun with Luisa Miller (1849) and continued through Rigoletto (1851) and Il Trovatore (1853), and came to maturity with La Traviata (1853). This last was composed between 19 January and 6 March, during which time Verdi is said to have spent only four weeks on the project.
The libretto for the new opera, to a text by Francesco Maria Piave, is after Alexander Dumas's play La Dame aux Camélias. The name of the 'real' Violetta was Marie Duplessis who was just 23 when she died of tuberculosis in 1847 (a year before Dumas's novel, in which his heroine is called Marguérite Gautier, was published). Duplessis had come to Paris at the age of sixteen to work in a milliner's shop. It was her unusual beauty coupled with a sense of adventure that catapulted her into Parisian society, where she became a courtesan, kept in considerable luxury by her rich and aristocratic admirers. It is said she always carried a bouquet of camellias with her when in public. As Dumas says in his novel of his fictional character Marguérite: "I am not rich enough to love you as I would wish, but nor am I poor enough to let myself be loved as you envisage". The play was completed in 1849 and first given at the Théâtre de la Vaudeville in Paris early in 1852.
At the time of the opera's unsuccessful first performance on 6 March 1853 at the Teatro La Fenice, Venice, it should be remembered that the action takes place in Paris and its surrounding region in 1850, thereby placing the work as a contemporary subject played in modern costume. This would have unsettled an audience more accustomed to the action being laid in the past and given in 'period' costume. Moreover, two of the singers in the première were deemed poor, the tenor on the ground that he was hoarse, and the soprano that she was too stout, so that her death scene was considered risible. Verdi himself felt it was the performance that told against the work, not the opera itself. The public, however, soon took the new opera to its heart and the piece has justly retained its popularity. Every soprano wishes to undertake the challenging rôle of Violetta, one of the most demanding and exposed heroine's parts ever written for the human voice.
The story line is simple. A young man falls for an unsuitable woman, who renounces her life as a free woman and they move to the country. His father then appears, demanding that she give up his son for the sake of the family name. She agrees and returns to her former lover in Paris. The young man is distraught, follows her, challenges his rival to a duel and wounds him. Father later reveals to his son the woman's sacrifice, for him to rush to her deathbed as she is racked with tuberculosis.
Musically the opera is a marked advance on anything Verdi had written hitherto. The opening orchestral prelude uses music associated with Violetta's death, the third act one harking back to the second act. There is a finesse, a poignancy, a delicacy in the finely wrought string-writing which still conveys a strong inner emotional quality. The first act opens with a brisk sense of a party atmosphere and ends with the heroine genuinely moved by Alfredo's declaration of love. It is the second act in which the tension of the story expands in a long scene with Giorgio Germont (Alfredo's father) and Violetta. Verdi subtly conveys the older man's initial bluntness against Violetta's more polished and sophisticated manner, but how movingly the composer suggests a change of mood so that Germont comes to feel immense respect for his son's mistress; the gentle manner of Pura siccome un angelo in which Germont père describes his love for his daughter to the immensely moving passage of Dite alla giovine culminating in Violetta's words "Morrò – la mia memoria". This is surely one of Verdi's most beautiful soprano / baritone duets. Then follows father begging son to return to their home in Provence. Verdi's touching but gentle appeal is wonderfully conveyed. Later in this act there is the scene where Alfredo shames Violetta who sings the most telling words: "Alfredo, di questo core non puoi comprendere tutto l'amore". The tragic but touching simplicity of Violetta's death scene with the lover's final reconciliation brings this very strong operatic drama to its close.
In early 1953 EMI had signed a contract with the management of Teatro alla Scala in Milan to make a series of recordings each year that would include the services of the chorus and orchestra. The first opera, Bellini's I Puritani, was recorded in March of that year and the contract continued until 1960. EMI used as their main artists Callas, Di Stefano and Gobbi with Serafin as the main conductor, but also using Gavazzeni, De Sabata, Karajan and Votto during those years. One of the operas planned was La Traviata but a problem arose in that Callas had already recorded the opera for the Italian Company CETRA, who forbade the singer to rerecord the opera until October 1959. EMI's American affiliate Angel Records were pressing very strongly for a new recording of the work, so EMI was forced to choose another singer in the rôle of Violetta. The choice fell on the emerging Italian soprano Antonietta Stella, who was by then under contract to EMI's Italian Company. Callas was understandably most unhappy with the decision and relations between the company and singer were severely strained for a while, the more so as she had enjoyed a recent success as Verdi's heroine at La Scala. Callas's regular recording producer Walter Legge adroitly backed away from involving himself in the Callas-less recording and passed over the project to his assistant Walter Jellinek who was assisted by a member from the Italian Company named Gasolini. As fate would have it Callas never ever recorded Violetta in the studio, despite several later attempts in London and Rome.
This recording of La Traviata was released in the Britain in September 1956 when The Gramophone reviewer thought "Stella sings with a good deal of fine intention…. Di Stefano is much better [than his rivals]…. Gobbi is a really impressive vocal actor".
Antonietta Stella was born in Perugia in 1929, first studying singing in her native city with Aldo Zeetti before moving to the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome. She won the Concorso ENAL in Bologna in 1949 and later made her début in Spoleto as Leonora in La forza del destino, repeating the rôle in Rome the following year to marked acclaim. After guest appearances in Germany (including Sieglinde, and Elisabeth in Tannhäuser), she sang in Naples, Florence, Verona and Perugia. Her La Scala début was as Desdemona in Otello in 1954 and over the ensuing decade she appeared as Donna Anna (Don Giovanni), Amelia (Un ballo in maschera), Aida, Butterfly and Lida (La battaglia di Legnano). Her London début was as Aida in the summer of 1955, with her first New York appearance at the Metropolitan the following year. In four seasons in this latter house she gave over fifty performances of Butterfly, Tosca, Elisabetta di Valois, Violetta, Amelia and Leonora in Forza. She continued to sing throughout Italy until the late 1970s, in addition to appearances in Brussels, Paris and Vienna. In 1974 she created the title rôle of Enzo de Belli's Maria Stuarda in Naples. Since retiring she has taught singing. Stella recorded extensively for a variety of labels and can be heard in Don Carlo under Santini on Naxos 8.111132-34.
Giuseppe di Stefano was born in 1921 near Catania, in Sicily. He studied with Adriano Torchi and Luigi Montesanto in Milan. After three years in the Italian army he escaped to Switzerland in 1943 and was interned. He later appeared in Swiss broadcasts and concerts that aroused considerable interest. His official début was as Des Grieux in Massenet's Manon in 1946 in Florence, repeating the part for his first Scala appearance the following year. His American début was as Gounod's Faust in February 1948 at the Metropolitan, where he would regularly appear until 1952. He returned there in 1955-56 and 1965. He also sang in Mexico City (1948-52), often opposite Maria Callas. He appeared regularly at La Scala between 1952 and 1961, the latter year being the occasion of his début at Covent Garden in London. He also sang in Paris, Vienna, Berlin and Buenos Aires. Originally a lyric tenor, his first rôles included Nemorino, Rodolfo, Alfredo, Fenton and Pinkerton. Di Stefano moved into heavier parts such as Don José, Canio, Turridu, Radames, Alvaro and, most unwisely, Otello. His youthful voice with its smooth and liquid golden tone was considered the finest since Gigli but, regrettably, he later chose parts for which his voice was really unsuited, in addition to his having respiratory problems. He recorded extensively, often with Callas and Gobbi, in a whole series made by the Scala Company.
Tito Gobbi (1913-1984) was born in Brassano del Grappa. Originally he studied law at Padua University but changed to singing, working with Giulio Crimi. His début took place at Gubbio in the bass rôle of the Count in La sonnambula in 1935. As a result of winning first prize in a Vienna singing competition the following year he made his Rome début as Germont at the Teatro Adriano in 1939. His first appearance at La Scala in Milan occurred in April 1942 as Belcore in L'elisir d'amore. Later that year he sang the title rôle in Berg's Wozzeck in Rome under Serafin to great acclaim. An American appearance as Rossini's Figaro in San Francisco in 1948 marked Gobbi's début on that continent. He sang with the visiting La Scala Company at Covent Garden as Belcore and Ford, and later became a regular guest in London, singing Renato, Falstaff, Don Giovanni, Rigoletto, Gianni Schicchi, Rodrigo and Boccanegra. He also appeared at the Metropolitan in New York between the years 1956 and 1976. In addition he sang in a number of films. After retirement from singing he also directed opera in addition to giving memorable master-classes. He was a superb singing actor who created many memorable characterisations both on stage and recordings. He can be heard as Rodrigo in Don Carlo on Naxos 8.111132-34.
Tullio Serafin (1878-1968) was born in Venice and studied at the Conservatorio in Milan before making his début in Ferrara in 1898. After several further engagements and positions throughout Italy he was appointed principal conductor at La Scala in Milan during the years 1909-14 and 1917-18. In 1924 Serafin first appeared at the Metropolitan in New York, where he conducted over 500 performances during the ensuing ten years. The works included the United States premières of Turandot and Simon Boccanegra in addition to the first performances of Deems Taylor's The King's Henchman (1927) and Peter Ibbertson (1931), Gruenberg's The Emperor Jones and Hanson's Merry Mount (1933). He returned to Italy as artistic director of the Teatro Reale in Rome during the years 1934-1943. He returned to the United States in 1952 and again in 1955-58. He first conducted at Covent Garden in 1907, returning in 1931 and again in 1959 for Joan Sutherland's first appearance as Donizetti's Lucia. His repertoire was vast, embracing the full range of the major Italian repertoire but also Wagner, Britten (he gave the Italian première of Peter Grimes in 1947), Richard Strauss, Falla, and Mussorgsky. He retired in 1964. Hugely admired by singers, Serafin was influential in the careers of Ponselle, Callas, Gobbi and Sutherland. He embodied all the finest qualities of the Italian maestro.
[CD 1 / Track 1] The Prelude to La Traviata opens in a mood of sadness and includes music that is to appear with particular poignancy later in the opera.
[1/2] The first act opens with a scene of particular brilliance. Violetta Valéry, a woman of great elegance, but a courtesan, is holding a party at her house. She is seated on a divan talking with Dr Grenvil and some friends. Guests arriving include the Marquis d'Obigny and Flora Bervoix, with the Baron Douphol. Some of those present jokingly rebuke the new arrivals for their lateness. Gaston, Vicomte de Letorières, arrives, accompanied by his friend Alfredo Germont, a distant admirer of Violetta. She invites the company to take their places for supper and Alfredo is asked to propose a toast.
[1/3] This he does, introducing a Brindisi, a drinking-song, in which all join.
[1/4] The sound of dance-music is heard from another room and Violetta suggests that her guests dance. They go through, but Violetta falters for a moment, in a sudden attack of faintness. She sees Alfredo, who has stayed behind.
[1/5] He tells her that he has loved her since he first saw her, but she warns him not to think of her, since she has only light-hearted friendship to offer.
[1/6] They are briefly interrupted by Gaston and Alfredo takes his leave, but is invited to come back the next day.
[1/7] The guests return and now that morning is near take leave of their hostess, thanking her for her hospitality.
[1/8] Violetta is left alone and now begins to feel the power of true love, after a life of superficial pleasure.
[1/9] Perhaps she will find this with Alfredo.
[1/10] She dismisses the thought as madness,
[1/11] for she has always been free to take her pleasure where she will. Although the voice of Alfredo is heard from the garden below, she pays no heed to his declaration.
[1/12] The second act opens in a country-house near Paris. The room is on the ground floor, with doors opening onto the garden. Alfredo, who has been out shooting, considers the happiness of the last three months together with Violetta.
[1/13] Her smile calms his ardent spirit and he vows to be faithful to her.
[1/14] Annina, Violetta's maid comes in, returning from Paris, and in reply to Alfredo's questions explains that her mistress has had to sell all her property in town to pay for the house. He is horrified and filled with remorse for his thoughtlessness and rushes out, resolved to prevent the sale.
[1/15] Violetta, returning, enters with some papers in her hands. She asks Annina where Alfredo has gone and is told that he has gone to the city, but will be back in the evening. A manservant enters with a letter for her, an invitation from her friend Flora Bervoix to a ball that evening, but she no longer has any interest in such things. Now a visitor is shown in, Giorgio Germont, Alfredo's father, who suspects that his son has been wasting his money on his mistress. She explains to him the true state of affairs, showing him the bill of sale for her Paris property.
[1/16] Germont, however, insists that she must part from Alfredo, since the relationship between her and Alfredo stands in the way of a good marriage for his daughter. Violetta supposes a short separation is called for but is appalled at the possibility of the parting on which Germont insists.
[1/17] She explains to him the strength of her love and how she would rather die than part from Alfredo. He is calling for a great sacrifice and one that at first she is reluctant to make.
[1/18] Germont tells her that love can fade and that Alfredo may change his mind as her beauty fades, and this is a more convincing argument.
[1/19] Eventually she gives way, asking only that Alfredo's sister be told of the sacrifice she is making, one that will surely bring her death.
[1/20] She must write to renounce Alfredo. He tries to comfort her, as she bids farewell for ever to her true love.
[1/21] For Violetta nothing now remains, although Germont praises her generosity, which surely will be rewarded. She bids Germont farewell and he leaves through the door leading to the garden.
[1/22] Now alone, Violetta sits down to write a note, which Annina is to deliver, making an assignation with Baron Douphol. She then writes a note for Alfredo, searching for words to express her feelings.
[1/23] He comes in and she hides the letter, telling him again of her love and begging him never to stop loving her, as she runs into the garden.
[1/24] Alfredo, alone, sits down and opens a book. Just as he is wondering whether he will see his father, a servant announces Violetta's departure for Paris. He is given a letter and now learns of Violetta's decision to leave him. He is heart-broken and his father, who has reappeared, tries to comfort him.
[1/25] Germont urges him to return home and tries to offer him what consolation he can, but in vain. Alfredo is even more agitated when he catches sight of Flora's invitation to Violetta and he rushes away to find her.
[2/1] The scene is set in the richly furnished house of Flora Bervoix. Flora herself, the Marquis, Dr Grenvil and other guests are present. She has invited Violetta and Alfredo, but the Marquis tells the company that they have now separated and she has gone to seek the protection of Baron Douphol.
[2/2] The evening's entertainment begins with a group of masqueraders disguised as gypsy dancers, boasting of their prowess at fortune-telling. One of them reads Flora's palm and pretends to see there infidelity.
[2/3] The gypsies are followed by a group of masqueraders disguised as Spanish matadors and picadors, victorious in the arena and in love, led by Gaston.
[2/4] Alfredo enters alone, to the surprise of the company, but they soon turn their attention to gambling. At this point Violetta appears, on the arm of the Baron. She is alarmed to see Alfredo there but goes to sit with Flora. Alfredo remains at the gaming-table where he is winning. Douphol, in jealousy, challenges Alfredo in a contest, which, at Violetta's urging, takes place at the table. Alfredo continues his winning streak against the rich Douphol, who had hoped to beggar him. Supper is announced and the guests move out, leaving Alfredo and Douphol to follow them.
[2/5] Violetta returns in agitation, rejoined by Alfredo. She asks him to leave and, having promised Germont that she will not reveal the true reason for her desertion of her lover, she is obliged to admit to a feigned love for Douphol.
[2/6] Alfredo throws open the door and calls the others in. Reproaching her, he throws his winnings at her feet, to the general disapproval.
[2/7] At this juncture old Germont appears and reproaches Alfredo for his behaviour. The young man is sorry for what he has done, while the others try to comfort Violetta,
[2/8] who declares her love for Alfredo a greater love than he can ever understand. Germont leads his son away, while Douphol offers his rival a final challenge.
[2/9] The last act is set in the poor quarter of Paris where Violetta now lives. She is asleep and seated near her, dozing, is Annina. There are various medicine bottles on the side-table. The music of the Prelude recalls the opening of the opera, a contrast to the artificial gaiety of Violetta's old life.
[2/10] Waking, she calls to Annina, asking for water. It is dawn and now Dr Grenvil arrives, making his daily visit to a patient who is now very near to death. Violetta asks Annina how much money is left and tells her to give it to the poor and then see if there are any letters for her.
[2/11] Alone, she takes out a letter she has had from Germont, telling her that Douphol has been wounded in his duel with Alfredo but is recovering, while Alfredo has left the country. Now, however, having learned from Germont of Violetta's sacrifice, he is coming back again to beg her forgiveness.
[2/12] She looks at her changed features in the glass and realises that in spite of Dr Grenvil's assurance she is near to death.
[2/13] The sound of carnival is heard from the street outside, in ironic contrast to the scene in Violetta's room.
[2/14] Annina announces a visitor, Alfredo, who embraces Violetta passionately. Each now seeks the pardon of the other.
[2/15] Alfredo suggests that they should make a new life for themselves away from Paris. Violetta will soon be better and they will live together in happiness.
[2/16] Annina tries to help her mistress dress, but Violetta falls back, weakened by her illness and unable to stir. She realises that death is approaching,
[2/17] as Alfredo, distraught, begs her to calm herself. If Alfredo's return cannot make her better, nothing will. They both lament her cruel early death that is so near.
[2/18] Annina, who has been to fetch the doctor, returns with him and with Germont, who now understands his own responsibility for Violetta's approaching death.
[2/19] She gives Alfredo a medallion with her likeness as she once was
[2/20] and tells him to give it to his wife, when he marries, assuring them of her prayers. To the gentle sound of music associated with her earlier days of happiness, Violetta feels sudden relief from pain and weakness, and with a look of radiant happiness on her face falls dead in her lover's arms.
The present transfer was made from the best portions of two first edition British LP pressings. The original master tape contained some overload distortion during loud passages, as well as occasional thumps, clicks and other noises which are present on all copies and are not due to wear on the sources used for this transfer.
Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata
Recorded 15-21 September 1955 in the Teatro alla Scala, Milan
First issued on Columbia 33CX 1370 and 1371
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VERDI: Traviata (La) (Di Stefano, Stella) (1955)