Carlos Kleiber's 1977 La Traviata is a rare gestalt among studio opera recordings, and it is one of the conductor's finer achievements. Kleiber knits the score together with unwavering rhythmic and dramatic intensity, never allowing any single moment to eclipse the larger scene or musical structure. The singers are kept on a tight leash -- given enough room to shape phrases and cadences, but not to indulge in sheer vocal display. The orchestra is similarly focused on realizing every detail of rhythm, melody, and articulation with vivid intensity. As a result, favorite arias, duets, and ensembles melt into the surrounding scenes in a way that invites curiosity about the drama at large while propelling it relentlessly forward. The general pace may strike some as a bit fast, but it's never boring, and frequently brilliant.
Ileana Cotrubas, Plácido Domingo, and Sherrill Milnes all sound as if they're fully on board with Kleiber's vision: impassioned, but never indulgent. Cotrubas has all the vocal tools to handle Violetta's demanding music, but also a vivid humanity that brings credibility to the opera's final scenes; the fact that she seems too serious during the carefree opening is a reasonable tradeoff for believable tragedy at the end. Domingo delivers one of his most vocally disciplined performances; that cleanliness of delivery, combined with the natural Latin fervor of his sound, forms just the right cocktail of nobility and impulsivity for the young Germont. Milnes sings with unusual sensitivity, simplicity, and opulence as the elder Germont.
Listeners who like to skip to the highlights when listening to operas may not appreciate this recording as much as those who want the full dramatic experience. Certainly, all of the famous arias and ensembles have been sung as well or better on many other recordings -- often with more grandeur and sense of occasion, making them more compelling as stand-alone excerpts. But Verdi's skill at shaping dramatic scenes, managing tension, and illuminating character through vocal expression has never been more clearly illustrated, and it can be argued that La Traviata has never been more fully realized on record.