VIENNA -- Verdi's La Traviata is a recognized showcase for the role of Violetta, the courtesan with the heart of gold who chooses honor over love only to expire in the arms of her paramour. But Violetta is upstaged in a new Vienna production of the opera by none other than Alfredo, her lover.
It's only partially Irina Lungu's fault – the slender Russian soprano looks and acts the part of the consumptive Violetta.
But voice was seldom more than pretty in a Vienna Festival performance heard Wednesday night. And that is not enough for a role that is among the most demanding in the repertoire with its coloratura flourishes that top out in high C territory, demanding changes of pace and haunting vocal soliloquies.
Violetta needs to be portrayed by a voice as multidimensional as her persona and Lungu's voice just did not have the breadth and suppleness to do so.
Although her tendency to slide into the upper registers diminished after the first act, she continued to struggle with the occasional top note – a distraction from her top-notch dramatic portrayal of a party girl turned faithful soul-mate to Alfredo, her first – and last – love.
Enter the upstager, Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu, reprising his role as Alfredo ahead of his Met debut next year as the young man of good standing who falls for the big city woman of loose morals and finds the love of his life.
His acting encompassed the full scale of passionate to tender, to devastated, to ragingly furious – and so did his voice. His soulful rendition of "Dei Miei Bollenti Spiriti – one of Alfredo's signature arias – vividly evoked a man joyfully contemplating his happiness even while anticipating the tragedy of separation and worse ahead.
Pirgu confided that some tenors have a problem with singing Alfredo in dressing room comments ahead of the performance.
"They don't like the role because they don't like to be second," he said. He was second to none though on Wednesday with depiction that was right on vocally as well as dramatically.
Also in good voice Wednesday: Gabriele Viviani as Giorgio Germont, Alfredo's father; Dshamilja Kaiser as Annina, Violetta's maid; Guenther Haumer as Douphol, Alfredo's rival, as well as Tomas Juhas as Gastone and Krzystof Borysiewicz,, D'Obigny, members of the party bunch, and Guenes Guerle as the doctor.
In the pit, conductor Omer Meir Welber wove a lush musical tapestry from the first soft string strands of the prelude reflecting the fragility of the characters on stage to the return of the love theme just before Violetta's death and all the orchestral shadings in-between.
Also kudos to director Deborah Warner and Jeremy Herbert, responsible for the staging. Their tableaus – including a backdrop forest reflecting the changing seasons – complemented a generally enjoyable evening without threatening to upstage what opera is ultimately about: