Revivals of the opera come around with extraordinary regularity and recent years have seen some top-notch casting (including Anna Netrebko and Renee Fleming) but Gheorghiu somehow makes the production her own.
Even if you weren’t at that 1994 first night, the video evidence shows that it was a sensational debut and, despite a growing reputation since then for difficult behaviour and cancellations (although she’s hardly alone in that), the soprano still delivers the goods.
There’s a sense of effort at times – in Act 1 she seems to be jerking out the notes in what looks like something other than a character twist – but there’s the exquisite pianissimos and so much physical and vocal radiance that she puts most of her peers in the shade.
The casting is impressive throughout. American tenor James Valenti’s tall, thin Alfredo is pushed on the big notes but is otherwise full of refinement and ease, with a dash of the peerless Carlo Bergonzi about him. He perhaps lacks the Italian’s laser-like brightness but I found myself warming to him throughout the performance.
Zeljko Lucic‘s Germont is more bull-like and stentorian than the recent glamour boys (Hvorostovsky, Hampson and Finley), rock solid and expressive and contrasting affectingly with Gheorghiu’s wounded kitten.
The Royal Opera Chorus is on good form and the end of Act 3 ensemble was almost as good as anything else all evening. Two of the Jette Parker Young Artists, Changhan Lin and Kai Ruutel, make outstanding contributions as the Marquis D’Obigny and Flora.
Yves Abel does little wrong in the pit although he struggles to keep up with Ms Gheorghiu’s capricious tempi at times.
Richard Eyre’s production, while not particularly looking its age, could make way for something more adventurous now but it’s undoubtedly a banker, its safeness no doubt accounting for its wide popularity, so that’s not going to happen any time soon. A visit to one of its numerous outings may never quite thrill dramatically (the second act gaming scene is particularly staid and predictable) but as a showcase for world class talent it does the trick.