Rendering a service to the public, the Metropolitan Opera has been streaming performances of the past. Most of these performances are from the recent past. But, of course, “recent” means different things to different people. Many of these shows, I saw and reviewed myself!
The current offering, however, comes from a good while back: 1981 (March). It is La traviata, the Verdi masterpiece, or one of them.
In the title role—Violetta, the traviata, the one who has gone astray—is Ileana Cotrubaș, the Romanian soprano born in 1939. She was the Romanian soprano, so to speak, before Angela Gheorghiu (born in 1965). In March 1981, La Cotrubaș was forty-one. She had recorded the role in 1977 under the baton of Carlos Kleiber.
Can she handle the role four years later, in 1981? Certainly. Violetta has a lot of singing to do, and varied singing. People have long said that the role is several roles, in one: requiring coloratura, pathos, and other things. Cotrubaș is smart, smart. And she has, of course, a wonderful voice, plus acting talent.
Watching the broadcast, I had a memory of Beverly Sills, who told me about Violetta—about a moment in Act I, in particular. This is the moment before Violetta enters the stretch of singing that begins, “È strano.” I will paraphrase the late Sills: “When you turn around and face the audience, all alone, with dead silence all around you—that’s when the rubber hits the road. That is the moment of truth. That’s what separates the men from the boys.”
Cotrubaș’s tenor—her Alfredo—is Plácido Domingo, the great Spaniard who has been a baritone for many years now. In fact, he was a baritone before he began his historic tenor career. Then he was a baritone again. In March 1981, he is forty, and sounding like Domingo, to be brief about it. He is all masculinity, his tenor having that “baritonal” trunk. He does that reaching, or straining, that can also be described as ardor.
Domingo is the tenor on the Kleiber recording, partnering Cotrubaș, as he would at the Met four years later. The baritone—singing Germont—is Sherrill Milnes. (Domingo himself would be a Germont in the fullness of time.) But, in the Met broadcast, the baritone is Cornell MacNeil, the distinguished Minnesotan.
Born in 1922, MacNeil began his career at the Met in 1959 (in another Verdi role, Rigoletto). He went on singing for the company until 1987. In this Traviata, he is fifty-eight, and sturdy: an example of professionalism and dignity.
The conductor? James Levine, age thirty-seven. He is 100 percent Levine. Verdi’s prelude, he conducts with due poignancy and tenderness. But it is never overly sentimental, and it never lags. (If it were overly sentimental or lagged, it would sacrifice poignancy and tenderness.) When the party starts—as the curtain rises on Act I—the orchestra is fantastically raucous. And Levine proceeds with that bounce and verve for which he was known.
At virtually every turn, his conducting is tight. I don’t mean constrained or pinched; I mean compact—efficient—with requisite breathability. Really, it is a master class, as with so many of his performances. He conducts the final pages with the fury—the crying against injustice—that I want for Traviata’s ending but seldom get.
It is the Met’s job, I often say, to assemble the best available for the opera at hand, in the time at hand. This Traviata from March 28, 1981, was, and is, awfully satisfying.