|Jonathan Tetelman, Emily Birsan, and Ethan Simpson|
We can think of no opera we like better than La Traviata, nor can we think of a heroine who touches our heart as deeply as Violetta does. Readers, you are about to hear an extravagant encomium. We have seen dozens of performances of Giuseppe Verdi's masterpiece and have never seen one so perfectly cast as the one we saw last night at Merkin Hall.
Who but Daniel Cardona of Martha Cardona Opera takes the time and does the hard work to discover young artists with big impressive voices and fine technique--and to give them a New York stage on which to show their stuff. Production values in this semi-staged production may have been at a minimum but the casting was first rate.
As the tragic heroine Violetta, soprano Emily Birsan used her generous instrument with emotional accuracy by means of vocal coloration and consummate skill in the fioritura, which never seemed gratuitous but always connected with the feelings of Piave's text.
We love Violetta for her dignity and emotional freedom and we love witnessing her characterological growth from the wild spirit of Act I to the desperate frail creature she becomes by the end. We watch and hear her deal with ambivalence in Act I; what independent woman has not felt such ambivalence about accepting love into her life with all its concomitant risks! Ms. Birsan captured it all in a way that no one could fail to grasp.
Just watching her blossom in Act II, only to have her butterfly wings pulled off by the self-righteous father Giorgio Germont, who manipulates her into leaving his love-besotted son by playing the religion card. Stunned by the magnificent performance of baritone Ethan Simpson, we observed this stiff-necked provincial soften when faced with Violetta's dignity and devotion.
In Act III one could observe the outcome of her enormous sacrifice. Love is the best medicine but loss of love is totally toxic. Her frailty and thin thread of hope kept the audience riveted until she collapsed into Alfredo's arms.
And what an Alfredo we had last night! Tenor Jonathan Tetelman is a star on the rise and if you were there last night, you got to say you "heard him when". Finding a tall handsome tenor with terrific tone is almost impossible, but one with superb technique is beyond belief. We heard marvelous phrasing, lovely legato, superb command of dynamics, and a variety of vocal colors. Significantly, he doesn't push his voice but floats the tone confidently.
Alfredo also grows as a character. He begins as a love-sick pup in Act I and blossoms into a loving man in Act II. His apparent rejection by Violetta creates grief and then anger. The sympathy of his father in Act II becomes disdain and shame in Act III when Alfredo behaves badly toward Violetta. Only in Act IV is there resolution, when all three principals can share their grief.
What a pleasure to see three young artists interact so believably! It was impressive to watch the young Mr. Simpson convince us that he was a middle-aged father by the manner in which he moved his body and the authoritative tone in his voice! This is surely a baritone to watch! Both his arias in Act II were outstanding.
Another dramatic "deception" was seeing the beautiful young soprano Maria Brea transform herself into the elderly and exceedingly dowdy Annina. Although she had but a few lines, they were well sung.
As the unpleasant Barone Douphol, we had the excellent baritone Eric Lindsey whom we always enjoy. He and Mr. Tetelman created the requisite tension in Act III without benefit of a gambling table. Tenor Ganson Salmon was effective as Gastone, Alfredo's friend. Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Sanchez made a fine Flora with bass Neil Eddinger as her Marchese.
In a semi-staged production like this, the acting took place in a narrow space in front of the orchestra with only a couple pieces of furniture. It is testament to the vocal and dramatic skills of the principals that we were able to focus on them and to create scenery for them in our mind's eye.
Maestro Gregory Ortega is a conductor of precision; he evoked an excellent performance from the Martha Cardona Opera Orchestra. We could not have asked for better musical values. We might have asked for better titles, but if the only quibble we have is with a recalcitrant projector, that should tell you how much we enjoyed this production.
The highly regarded Jestin Pieper served as backstage conductor (Mr. Tetelman's offstage singing at the end of Act I sounded great as did the Carnival crowd in Act IV) and master of the excellent chorus who portrayed party-goers.
Watch out for these rising stars! May they fill the operatic firmament with their glitter.
(c) meche kroop