La Traviata – Wolf Trap Festival 1976

This production is quite the artifact. It’s from the Wolf Trap festival, which takes place in the rolling hills of Virginia. It was filmed in 1976, so you get these wonderful shots of the audience outside beforehand in which there are children wearing shorts and tube socks, and women in high-waisted bellbottoms. It’s pretty great. Violetta is performed by Beverly Sills and Sills is herself sporting the kind of mildly alarming suntan that you could have back then without anyone worrying about you dying of skin cancer. Indeed, I believe dark tans were actively encouraged?

Anyway. She does not appear particularly consumptive, but she can certainly sing. This is 1976, so her voice doesn’t have quite the same gloss it did when she was younger. (Didn’t she say singing the role of Elizabeth in Roberto Devereux so often probably took ten years off her career, because of all the triple forte coloratura? I can’t remember.) Nevertheless, this is a performance it must have been really fun to see live. La Traviata is not my favorite Verdi opera, either for music or for drama, but Sills gives Violetta plenty of emotional substance without veering into sentimentality. It’s a portrayal that manages to acknowledge all the conventions there are for this type of character and work within them. Conventional doesn’t have to be boring. In “sempre libera” and the foregoing recitative, for example, there is plenty of color to the character’s changes of moods and in the little vocal ornaments. I don’t know if I love it on sound alone, but it’s a performance that has the type of thoughtful vocal acting in it that is all the more effective for being so well considered.

(And don’t you just love those 19th-century stories when a fallen woman is acknowledged to be a good person – but we still have to kill her off or send her to a convent at the end to make sure everyone knows she’s still unacceptable? Standards, you know! Imagine Violetta and Lady Dedlock from Bleak House sharing a bottle of scotch post mortem:

Violetta: [pouting]. And I thought I was getting better from the consumption! Bah! This is très stupid.

Lady Dedlock: [pours her another glass] I completely agree. I was just getting to know my daughter and then I had to wander off into the night and drop dead in an alley. I found the whole thing rather ridiculous.

Violetta: Tout à fait! I am going to have the words with my librettist. Do you have any ice?)

Anyway. Alcohol-soaked interruptions of Bleak House aside, this production of La Traviata is . . . well, it’s a completely straightforward 1970s production of La Traviata. And while Sills is clearly the big draw, the other singers are just fine. I was impressed by Henry Price as Alfredo. He was not a superstar tenor (I had to google who he was) but he’s got a sweet-toned sound that makes sense for the character.

And there was a moment of unintentional regie towards the end. In the final act, when Violetta asks her maid Annina to open the curtains because it’s seven in the morning and she would like some light, Annina draws back the curtains to reveal . . . nothing but darkness.

2 thoughts on “La Traviata – Wolf Trap Festival 1976

  1. Thanks for this review. I look forward to hearing this performance. I saw a few opera performances at Wolf Trap back in the day. They are actually doing Traviata again this summer. Back when the Met still toured, we saw Troyanos in Cavalliera (probably around the time of this recording, come to think of it. (I don know who else was singing. She was the draw, but I am sure they were all good.

    I love the ‘unintentional regie’! Nowadays someone would be both praised for the brilliant insight and reviled for lack of fidelity to the libretto.


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