Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata. Orchestra and Chorus of Fondazione Arturo Toscanini, Placido Domingo, Conductor. Director and Set designer: Franco Zeffirelli. TDK DVUS-OPLTR

Recorded last year at the Teatro Giuseppe Verdi in Busseto, this outstanding performance puts as much emphasis on the cinematic aspects of the production as on the music. As a result, the performance is both vocally and visually stunning. The singers,including the chorus, actually act – and convincingly so.

Stefania Bonfadelli as Violetta is outstanding. Whether as flirting hostess/courtesan, the faithful lover or dying consumptive, her voice, looks and demeanor make you believe every word she sings. She is that rare singer who can convince you that she is really succumbing to TB. American tenor Scott Piper as Alfredo, starts a little uncertainly at the beginning – perhaps conductor Domingo who practically owned this role and has some firm ideas how it should be sung, intimidated him a little – but by Act Two Piper is a match for Bonfadelli note for note. Veteran baritone Renato Bruson as Germont, doesn’t need any makeup to look and act the role and his voice has lost none of its compelling force. He is particularly convincing in portraying this most psychologically complex of Verdi’s characters: his rigid concern for his family’s honor; his distaste for Violetta but respect and empathy for her sacrifice; his sense of justice in publicly condemning his own son in the gaming scene).

Instead of the usual nebbishy operatic corps de ballet, the ballet in Act II is a delightful and lively performance by the Spanish dance company La Corrala della Danza with Lucia Real as prima ballerina. Their castanet work is amazing.

The orchestra is not the most polished, but Domingo is sensitive to the singers and gives them every leeway for expressiveness. The stage of the Teatro Giuseppe Verdi is quite small, but Zeffirelli showed his masterly hand by making the ballroom scenes crowded as they should be, but never chaotic. His sets are simple and convincing, as are the costumes.

A surprise greeted us at the end of Scene 1 of Act II, with the cabaletta “Non non udrai rimproveri” for Germont and Alfredo, which is omitted from most productions and follows the famous “Di Provenza il mar il suol.”

The opera comes on two discs, so there is lots of space for extras. A 30 minutes “Making of La Traviata” is actually an intimate look into the working methods of Zeffirelli and his interaction with the cast and conductor. A section on Domingo as conductor gives the impression that he’d be happier on the stage than in the pit. Other extras include a tour of Verdi’s villa Sant’Agata outside Busseto. For Verdi fans, this is a wonderful look at the still unspoiled environment in which the composer worked, including an interview with a descendent of Verdi’s fame manager and his geese, pigs and chickens.

One sour note: the booklet that comes with the DVD is nearly unreadable, being printed in 8 point type, in white, on mottled light gray paper. Also, the picture of Violetta on the front does not do Bonfadelli justice.