Despite Violetta’s fragile health, Covent Garden Traviatas are made of sturdy stuff. Luchino Visconti’s 1967 production lasted nearly thirty years and Richard Eyre’s successor clocked up its 25th anniversary just before Christmas. It was an instant hit, the BBC hastily clearing its schedules to broadcast the third performance on television. It made a star of Angela Gheorghiu and sopranos have been queueing up to don Bob Crowley’s fabulous frocks ever since. Last night, it was Aleksandra Kurzak’s turn, making her house debut as Violetta to a depleted audience as – for now at least – the show goes on.

Aleksandra Kurzak taking her curtain call
© Mark Pullinger

It’s often said that one needs three sopranos to sing the role of Violetta: a coloratura for the vocal pyrotechnics of Act 1; a lyric soprano for Act 2; and a dramatic soprano for Act 3. Kurzak has all the coloratura agility, having sung bel canto roles such as Adina, Norina and Rosina at Covent Garden for years, so “Sempre libera” was a walk in the park, diamantine top notes – including the interpolated E flat – tossed off with ease and dynamic sensitivity. When she sang Lucia di Lammermoor here in 2016, I wrote that the warmth of her coloratura reminded me of Renata Scotto; I noted exactly the same parallel here. 

But Kurzak’s voice has grown and darkened since she last sang in London and there was an impressive, fuller quality to her chest voice, evident when she immediately put Germont père in his place right away (“I am a lady, Sir, and this is my house.”). In the Violetta–Germont duet, she fully captured the nervous hesitancy in “Non sapete quale affeto” and spun a golden legato in “Dite alla giovine” until bringing an appropriately breathy quality to the word “morrà”. There was robust intensity to steeling herself to write the letter to Alfredo, and her plea for him to love her as she loves him was delivered on her knees. 

Kurzak put herself through the wringer in Act 3, a histrionic letter-reading leading to a terrific “Addio del passato” which ended with a long final A with exactly the “thread of voice” Verdi requests in the score. Her blanched tone as she hands Alfredo the locket containing her portrait was immensely moving. Kurzak’s acting was also very fine; one telling moment came when she clamped her hands to her ears when the sounds of carnival intruded from outside. There was no general rehearsal for this run (hence the lack of press photos) but this was a convincing interpretation. 

Her men were mixed. I liked George Petean very much, younger than most Germonts we see in London and a proper Verdi baritone to boot (hurrah!). “Pura siccome un angelo” was well phrased and “Di Provenza” was solid. His backhanded slap floored Alfredo – to audience gasps – and, after a missed cue, his cabaletta impressed, although I’m not sure about the wisdom of the interpolated top note at the end. Frédéric Antoun has quite a baritonal timbre, not unlike Frank Lopardo who sang the role of Alfredo when Eyre’s production premiered, but his tenor sounded cloudy higher up. “Parigi o cara”, as Violetta and Alfredo make plans to leave Paris, found him at his most sensitive. 

Catherine Carby’s sensible Annina and Filipe Manu’s bright and breezy Gastone were the pick of the minor roles. And credit to Paul Wynne Griffiths, stepping in for Maurizio Benini, for a tidy performance from the pit, often quite swift but supple when required.