We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Friday, July 11, 2014


Paul Han and Cecilia Violetta Lopez (photo by Jen Joyce Davis)
It's been over a decade since we heard a thrilling La Traviata.  It was at The Metropolitan Opera and Rolando Villazon made his debut as Alfredo with Renée Fleming as Violetta.  Since then we have gritted our teeth and held our nose through productions that violated the spirit of the work.  Last night at The Kaye Playhouse of Hunter College, Martina Arroyo's Prelude to Performance presented Verdi's masterpiece in a manner that restored our deep love for this work.

Credit can be given to the three principals and to Laura Alley, the astute director.  To begin with the singing, Cecilia Lopez dazzled as the "fallen woman".  Her warm ample soprano has a superb squillo in the upper register and an overall evenness throughout.  Interesting overtones caused the very molecules in the auditorium to dance.  In "Ah, fors'è luiSempre libera", she employed different vocal colors to limn her conflicted feelings.

Tenor Paul Han made an excellent Alfredo and sang with maximum musicianship and fine phrasing.  His "De' miei bollenti spiriti " was extraordinary. We suspect he was suffering from a respiratory disorder, having heard him singing in French not too long ago at the Gerda Lissner Awards Recital when his sound was not as covered.

In terms of dramatic impact, the two leads had excellent chemistry and were completely convincing--she as a woman facing death and trying to stare it down by wild living, he as a young man from Provence besotted by this glamorous creature of the night.  His emotional range included rapt devotion, childish rage when he believed himself to be betrayed and later, abject remorse.  Ms. Lopez also created a dramatic arc--the Act I "party girl", the tender lover in Act II, the stoic but suffering woman of Act III and the desperate dying woman in Act IV.

The third main character is Germont Père who has come to rescue his son from this threatening alliance.  The magic in Verdi's music and Francesco Maria Piave's libretto is that each of these characters is multidimensional.  Violetta may be a member of the demi-monde but she has a nobility of character and a readiness to give up everything for love.  Alfredo is loving and devoted but capable of having a childish tantrum.

Papa Germont comes on as a narrow-minded bigot but he is also a concerned father who wants the best for his son and daughter.  Each character undergoes growth.  Robert Kerr, the baritone singing the role of Germont evinced a full rich voice and did justice to his character and his emotional shifts.  His Act II arias bore intense charges.  His shame for his son in Act III was palpable.  When he embraced Violetta as his daughter in Act IV, we could literally feel his remorse.

To speak of Laura Alley's direction also requires a host of superlatives.  She wisely kept the action exactly where and when it belongs; it is a story very much of its time.  Instead of imposing a ridiculous "concept" on the work, she used her creativity to bring in small bits of stage business that deepened our understanding of the characters.

For example, at the end of Act I when Alfredo leaves with the idea of returning the next day, he actually returns at that moment and Violetta rushes into his embrace, which tells us exactly how passionate they are for one another and how impulsive.  This sets us up for Act II.

When Alfredo crumples and discards Flora's invitation, his father picks it up so we don't have to wonder how he can find his son in Act III.  Alfredo comes to Flora's party with a new woman on his arm.  This shows just how hurt and betrayed he feels.  And in Act IV, Violetta kneels on a prayer bench when she questions her god about her fate.  These are just a few of the refined directorial touches that we appreciated.

Baritone Samuel McDonald created a very believable Baron Douphol who is annoyed with the young whippersnapper who is poaching his mistress.  As the threat level increases, so does his rage, building up to the point that he challenges Alfredo to a duel.  And Mr. McDonald accomplished all this while using his generous baritone in some fine singing.

Mezzo Marisan Corsino sang the role of Violetta's friend Flora and soprano Elizabeth Kelsay sang Annina, Violetta's faithful servant.  Bass Eric Delagrange made a fine concerned but helpless Dr. Grenvil who had the air of having seen many young people die of tuberculosis.  Baritone John Callison portrayed the Marchese d'Obigny, Flora's "patron".  The interaction between him and Flora in the palm-reading sequence succeeded as comic relief.  Tenor Tyrone Chambers II sang the role of Gastone.

Conductor Daniel Lipton did his best with the reduced orchestration but we noticed a lack of balance with the brass overwhelming the strings in places, especially in the overture.

Costumes by Charles Caine were gorgeous and totally appropriate.  Violetta had completely different looks in each act.  There was no stinting in that department!

Set and Lighting Designer Joshua Rose designed sets that were appropriate without being overly fussy. 

All said, it was a thrilling theatrical experience and an opportunity to hear some promising voices that we are sure to hear more of in the future.  As you probably already know, Ms. Arroyo's program bridges the gap between academic training and a major professional career.  The fortunate singers who get accepted receive, without fee, six weeks of intense training by the best talents in the field.  Support for Prelude to Performance is always welcome.  It is extremely gratifying to witness the successful results of one's philanthropy.

There will be one more performance of La Traviata Saturday night with the same glorious cast.  And tonight sees the opening of Il Barbiere di Siviglia.  Tragedy last night; comedy tonight!  Need we say more?

© meche kroop

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