|Daniel Espinal and Sophia Santiago in La Traviata at Manhattan School of Music
(photo by Anna Yatskevich)
A TRAVIATA TO REMEMBER--Guest review by Ellen Godfrey
Those of us assembled in the Gordon K. and Harriet Greenfield Hall at the Manhattan School of Music Sunday afternoon, were treated to a remarkable semi-staged production of Verdi’s immortal opera La Traviata. In my many decades of attending operas and seeing multiple performances of this beloved masterpiece, I must say that this was one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. By the end of the opera, there was barely a dry eye in the auditorium.
The young talented group of singers were led by Conductor, Collaborative Pianist and Music Director Thomas Muraco, who has accompanied great singers and instrumentalists in the United States and around the world. Since coming to the Manhattan School of Music 25 years ago, he has trained pianists in the art of accompanying and coaching, and trained young singers at the MSM Opera Repertoire Ensemble in numerous staged opera productions. He conducts the singers with firm but gentle hands; he does not use a baton. Instead, his expressive hands work with the singers to encourage them to get as much from their characters and the music as they can. This results in a truly professional performance from not only the singers, but the two pianists as well.
Giuseppe Verdi and his librettist Francesco Maria Piave were looking for an opera for Carnival time in Venice. They decided on a play by Alexandre Dumas fils, who, when he was 23 years old, had fallen in love with a country girl, Marie Duplessis. She had become a successful and well-known courtesan in Paris and enjoyed many parties. Sadly, she died of TB in 1847. A year later, Dumas published a novel about her entitled La Dame aux Camellias, (The woman of the camellias). A play followed four years later. Verdi and Piave had read the novel and play and decided it would be their next opera. The opera La Traviata has become one of the most beloved and most performed operas throughout the world.
The Opera Repertoire Ensemble production was semi-staged; a chair, a sofa, a quilt, and a long table with chairs were the only props needed to convey the story. Director A. Scott Parry did a wonderful job of directing the singers around this small stage. His direction was keen. He moved the singers on the stage very well and even had space for them to dance. He did a brilliant job, especially considering how many young singers were on the stage.
In place of an orchestra, two grand pianos were at the rear of the stage, head to head. The two wonderful pianists were Sungah Baek and Anneliesa Trethewey. They did a fantastic job for almost three hours of taxing music replacing a full orchestra. Their playing was sympathetic, dramatic, and also joyful in the party scenes. Along with Maestro Muraco, they kept the opera moving forward. Clarinetist Alexander Parlee and violinists Jennifer Awn and Christine Wu were fine instrumentalists who also played with great feeling.
The opera opens with a brooding prelude that returns later in the opera. The two pianists played delicately and lovingly, thoroughly embracing the music. Coloratura soprano Sophia Santiago is seen in bed reading, aided by her maid Annina, mezzo-soprano Hyunji Kim who has a rich mezzo sound.
Suddenly the tempo changes as the party guests enter to a typical Verdi "um pah pah" beat. The MSM chorus of 24 men and women came on stage singing and greeting their friends. The chorus was wonderful, perfectly trained big voices. The women were dressed in party clothes and the men in suits and they were all having a good time.
Among Violetta's friends at the party were Gastone de Letoriers sung by charming tenor Travis Benoit; the pure toned baritone Gavon Mitchell in the role of one of Violetta’s lovers, the Baron Douphol; the Marchese d’Obigny was sung by the big voiced bass Michael Leyte-Vidal. Violetta’s friend Flora was the dark voiced mezzo-soprano Gabriella Chea, who returns in the third act. She has a beautiful mezzo quality and a good presence on stage. All of these singers acted very well.
The taxing role Violetta has Ms. Santiago onstage most of the time and her emotions go from happy to sad to grieving throughout the opera. She entered in a stunning red dress and greeted her guests. She has a lovely voice which blooms as she ascends to the upper register; her high notes are right on pitch. In the first act, she joined tenor Daniel Espinal, as Alfredo, in a rousing drinking song. He is secretly in love with Violetta.. After the guests leave to go to another room. Alfredo, in a luxuriously sung aria, tells Violetta that he has been in love with her for a year. I was very impressed with Daniel’s big warm tenor sound. He can sing quietly and also make the voice bigger when needed. He sings easily with a lot of tenderness and is a good actor as well.
Violetta is left alone to contemplate this new lover, wondering if he is the man for her. Ms. Santiago fearlessly tosses off the difficult and long aria and cabaletta (fast moving end of an aria). It is a big challenge for any Violetta, requiring a singing actress, which indeed Ms. Santiago is.
In the second act, Alfredo and Violetta are living in a house outside of Paris. Violetta has gone out and Alfredo sings the great tenor aria “De miei bollenti spiriti". He joyously sings of his happiness with Violetta.
Alfredo’s father, sung by the rich sounding baritone, Geraldo de la Torre, arrives to tell Violetta that she must stop seeing his son, as her behavior would make it impossible for his sister to find a man to marry. Mr. de la Torre is an impressive big voiced baritone with good high notes as well as a well colored middle and low voice. He uses his voice well. Like all of the singers in this performance, he has very good diction. He is totally believable as the father, although he is a much younger man.
Violetta and Germont sing a great duet as Violetta struggles to come to terms with losing Alfredo. She finally agrees to leave him in a quiet aria of resignation. She says they will never see each other again and tells him to let Alfredo know about her sacrifice. Germont leaves and she writes a letter of farewell to Alfredo. When Alfredo returns, Violetta is no longer in the house. Germont returns and in a famous aria "Di Provenza il mar, il suol" tells his son that he will no longer see Violetta. Mr. De la Torre sings it with great empathy and love for his son. Alfredo runs off to Paris,
Act III opens with another rousing party. Violetta comes in and is comforted by Flora. Violetta regrets coming to the party. The wonderful chorus sings with great gusto and joy. When all of the guests go into another room. Alfredo re-enters followed by the crowd of party goers and lets out his anger on Violetta for leaving him. This is very dramatic singing and Mr. Espinal handles it well. Germont enters and berates his son for being so cruel to Violetta. At the end of the scene, Alfredo regrets his outburst.
The final act starts with the quiet somber prelude again played with great feeling by the two pianists. Violetta is dying and Dr. Grenvil, sung by the dark voiced bass Fernando Watts, tells Annina that Violetta does not have much time left. Violetta is alone and re-reads a letter from Germont telling her that he has told Alfredo of her sacrifice and he is on his way to see her. Ms. Santiago sang the great aria “Addio del passato" (farewell to my past) at first quietly, singing a sad farewell to life.
When Alfredo comes running in both he and Violetta express their happiness. There is a lot of excitement in the music and both singers blend well together. Violetta’s mood changes as she knows she is about to die. She is determined not to die so young. Germont arrives begging forgiveness. Suddenly she feels stronger and gets up and suddenly with a cry falls down and dies.
When the opera ended there were great cheers from the audience who appreciated this performance. Congratulations to all of the artists for their wonderful performances.
© meche kroop