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Taming the Traviata tiger

Taming the Traviata tiger

Sopranos on the pitfalls of performing an iconic role

Opera Australia supporters have heard many Violettas at the Sydney Opera House and at the Arts Centre, Melbourne. Each has been memorable in her own way. Yet in recent times, few have been as heart-rending as Elvira Fatykhova (pictured right), who transported audiences with her poignant performances at the Sydney Opera House last year, and who makes her Melbourne debut as Violetta this month.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter McCallum had this to say about her opening night performance in Sydney: “With a voice of silken penetrating lightness, she creates a Violetta of paradoxical strength and fragility, like a garment that springs back to shape and lustre after being crushed.”

Fatykhova seems unfazed by these accolades, or by the pressure of knowing that in Traviata, the success of the night largely depends on the performance of the soprano in the title role. Asked about her preparation, in an email that finds her on the other side of the world, she writes back that, “I’ve been singing this role from 2001, so it doesn't take me such a long time to prepare for it vocally and emotionally. Maybe because it is my favourite role and I always dreamed of singing it. I just feel Violetta, she's inside me.”

She points out, nevertheless, that pacing is an art that every Violetta has to master. “The role is technically difficult, and when I first began to sing it, I’d feel tired at the end of every performance. But when you sing a role regularly, you find ways to rest, even during the performance. So I learned how to do it.”

With her pale skin, dark eyes and fragile frame, on stage Fatykhova looks like a young woman dying of an incurable disease.

In the 150 years since the opera's premiere, many great sopranos have taken on the vocal and dramatic challenges of the role, some negotiating its challenges in unusual ways. 

In the late 1800s, the singer credited for making La traviata famous, Marietta Piccolomini, is said to have faked her way through with the help of “smiles, teeth, hair and publicity agents”. A decade later, Adelina Patti cheated by making cuts and transpositions. When she sang Violetta at Covent Garden in 1895, she emblazoned her bosom with over £200,000 worth of diamonds for Flora’s party, and hired costumed policemen to protect the gems.

Rosa Ponselle was said to have been a wonderful early 20th-century Violetta. Her bug bear was the role’s high tessitura, and she famously wrote to Covent Garden to ask it to “have your German director pull the pitch down to 435 – get them to adjust their instruments before beginning your season”.

Many opera lovers consider Maria Callas the most moving of all 20th-century Violettas. For her, the voice was above all a vehicle for drama. “In Traviata, especially in the last act, the colouring of the voice should give the impression of a woman who is profoundly tired,” she has said. “It took me a long time to achieve this quiet, tired quality, and it was dangerous work because [when you sing like that], the voice is a thread that can easily break.”

Dame Joan Sutherland, who considered Traviata one of her favourite roles, was well aware of its pitfalls. “I was neither the first nor the last to underestimate the length and the demands of this role, which requires many different kinds of voice,” she has said.

Renée Fleming first came to La traviata when already deep into her forties. “I really didn’t trust my ability to have anything to say in the super-standard repertoire,” she has said of her reluctance to tackle the role. For her, the difficulty is the Act I aria, ‘Sempre libera’. “It is just not natural for my voice. When I start singing the aria I think, ‘Well let’s see if we get through it tonight.’”

If the past decade has produced a definitive Violetta, some would argue that it is the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, who shot to fame in the role in German director Willy Decker’s “red dress” production for the 2005 Salzburg Festival, restaged by the Met this month. Netrebko’s rich, powerful voice, her faultless technique, her acting skills and her youthful good looks all contributed to her success in the role. As The New York Sun wrote of her Salzburg performance: “Seldom has this character's torment been so well portrayed; Miss Netrebko tore your heart out.” 

To be able to see a performance of this calibre – even on DVD – is thrilling. But in opera, nothing beats live performance. And who would have thought it possible that this month in Melbourne, a compatriot of Netrebko, like her illustrious colleague, is offering it all: breathtaking singing, stirring acting and the perfect look for the role.

To quote Peter McCallum again: “Elvira Fatykhova is a jewel. When…she quietly rose to the final A of ‘Addio del passato’ in Act III – spun out delicately into nothingness, as Verdi directed – she had the same immaculate control of pitch, colour and intensity that she had displayed all evening...Every young singer should hear it, to learn what the right mix of talent, intelligence, hard work and grace can achieve.”

Don’t miss it.