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Callas Traviata

Best Recordings of La Traviata

La Traviata was, according to Operabase,  the most performed opera worldwide in the 2015-2016 and 2013-2014 seasons. Why is it so popular? Well, there are many reasons for this.

The characters in La Traviata might seem somewhat antiquated, but are they actually? No, their story and motivations remain entirely human throughout. Everyone in La Traviata has their thoughts and feelings clearly fleshed out for us, and their actions informed by those thoughts and feelings. Verdi and Piave left no stone unturned in this opera. As such it’s one of the most accessible operas for even an operatic neophyte.

But, where La Traviata truly shines is the music. It’s able to shift gears so quickly, yet so seamlessly. In the act 1 duet “Un di Felice” Alfredo waxes poetic about his undying love for Violetta, and then she rebuffs his advances, defiantly telling him that she doesn’t know how to love, only to hear him wax poetic once again. Verdi handles this so unbelievably well that one doesn’t even need to know the libretto to hear this dynamic shift in their conversation. With La Traviata Verdi had put his own stamp on using the orchestra as the primary indicator of the drama. This had, of course, been done prior to La Traviata, but it seemed to become the standard after this opera.

For such a titan of opera I feel compelled to mention a few more recordings than usual. Today I have selected two studio recordings, two live recordings and one honorable mention recording for the conducting of this lush score. I hope you enjoy listening to what I’ve selected.

Studio Recording 1

1963 Decca Recording: Joan Sutherland, Carlo Bergonzi, Robert Merrill w/ Sir John Pritchard Conducting

The singing in this recording is top notch. Joan Sutherland dazzles as Violetta. Her voice is more open in this recording than it seems to be in later recordings. Carlo Bergonzi sounds perfectly at home as Alfredo. His legato is stunning, and he seems to avoid the vocal pitfalls that heavier Verdi roles presented for his voice. Truthfully, I’ve always believed that Bergonzi was at his best in the full lyric repertoire, and recordings like this are why I believe that. Robert Merrill performed the role of Germont more than any other at the Metropolitan Opera, including in his debut in 1945. When one listens to this recording they hear a veteran completely at ease with an extraordinarily demanding role, maintaining a rich tone throughout. John Pritchard does an admirable job conducting this cast.

Joan Sutherland and Robert Merrill singing an excerpt from their Act 2 duet


Studio Recording 2

1979 Decca Recording: Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Matteo Manuguerra w/ Richard Bonynge Conducting

Joan Sutherland once again sings the role of Violetta quite well, if not quite as dazzling as she was in her 1963 recording of this opera. Matteo Manuguerra sings a lovely Germont. He sings the score with authority, providing in the big moments, but also singing with a sort of tenderness that bewitches many baritones who tackle this daunting role. But, the star of this album is Pavarotti. Pav was the quintessential Alfredo. He sings his aria and cabaletta with verve to begin Act 2. He had a thorough comprehension of the dynamics within this score and delivered with each and every phrase. Richard Bonynge brings his expert touch to this score.

Luciano Pavarotti sings Alfredo’s Act 2 aria and cabaletta

Live Recording 1

1992 Gran Teatro La Fenice: Edita Gruberova, Neil Shicoff, Giorgio Zancanaro w/ Carlo Rizzi Conducting

Gruberova reminds me a lot of Sutherland. Her technique was so well developed and one wonders if she knows how difficult Violetta is. Shicoff sings a virile Alfredo. His high notes ring, utterly packed with squillo, and his acting is committed throughout. Giorgio Zancanaro sings with a sonorous tone. He carries himself with a noble stature, and conveys the paternal concern of the elder Germont. The only thing that Rizzi could do to draw my ire in this review is distract from the tremendous singing. Luckily for us, he not only didn’t distract, he brought the score to life.

Giorgio Zancanaro sings Di Provenza


Live Recording 2

1955 La Scala: Maria Callas, Giuseppe di Stefano, Ettore Bastianini w/ Carlo Maria Giulini Conducting

This recording is electric. One could hardly think of three more committed singing actors than Callas, di Stefano, and Bastianini. Giuseppe di Stefano sings with a youthful energy that fits the role of Alfredo perfectly. Bastianini sings the elder Germont extraordinarily well. Callas was pure fire in this recording, singing Violetta with sensitivity and reckless abandon. But, where they shine is how well all play off of each other. At no point are they just going through the motions. The recording quality of this one wasn’t as high a studio recording, and it even felt like all three of the primary singers were having a slightly off night, but no recording on this list captivates me like this one. Carlo Maria Giulini gives a vigorous rendition of this score.

Maria Callas singing the finale of Act 1


Best Conducted Recording

1977 Deutsche Grammophon: Ileana Cotrubas, Placido Domingo, Sherrill Milnes w/ Carlos Kleiber Conducting

The singers in this recording do well, but, the star of this show is Kleiber and the Bayerisches Staatsorchester. Kleiber had an intimate understanding of the orchestra as a a character in this show. His interpretation of this score is stunning from start to finish. Saying this conducting is special from start to finish isn’t even an exaggeration, his command of the prelude consistently makes me cry. Kleiber is in full command of this score, and one can never doubt that when listening to it.

Carlos Kleiber conducts the Prelude


Final Thoughts

A perennial favorite, La Traviata delivers on all fronts. These are some of my favorite recordings of this wonderful opera. I’d like to give a brief honorable mention to Anna Netrebko’s interpretation of Violetta Valery(no particular recording). She really brought that character to life by making committed, informed dramatic choices throughout. I love how her vocal production gets more breathy as the opera goes on, accurately reflecting Violetta’s declining physical health.

I’m offering more recordings than usual this week. But, there’s something magical about this score, something that enables many singers to put forth phenomenal performances. I hope you enjoy these wonderful recordings as much as I do.

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