Scott LaMarca, Aurora Bella Geis, Joe Gansert. John Tedeschi, Shaina Martinez, Michael Celentano, and Ema Mitrovic
There are rare occasions when the confluence of story, music, libretto, and performances conspires to produce a state of total immersion. One loses awareness of the identity of the artists and gets immersed in the lives of the characters. Such is the power of great theater and opera is, fundamentally, theater.
This situation occurred last night in a large bare room of a decrepit building in the Bronx, with the barest of scenic elements, when The Lighthouse Opera Company presented Verdi's masterpiece La Traviata. So mesmerized were we that tears starting rolling down our face and we had to choke down sobs until the final tragic chord. That is Art (capital intentional).
An 1848 novel by Alexandre Dumas Fils was transformed into a play entitled La Dame aux camélias. Seen and admired by Verdi, Francesco Maria Piave was engaged to adapted it as a libretto. The story is a moving one about an unfortunate young woman whose past precludes the possibility of the life she might have enjoyed with the man who loves her. 19th c. morality has tarred her with a fateful brush. The story is replete with psychological resonance that Verdi's music plumbs with astonishing depth.
Since the performances were so outstanding and we have no criticism to offer, let us then look at the artistry serving this psychological depth that made the production such a compelling one. This intensity cannot be achieved without a deep understanding of the characters and their individual struggles.
For example, in Act I, our heroine Violetta (Shaina Martinez) appears to be a fun-loving member of the demi-monde, a party girl if you will, a "kept woman" whose patron is the wealthy Baron Douphol (baritone Jay Stephenson). Deep within her psyche and just waiting to be tapped is the desire to be really cared for. It is threatening to her to even admit this to herself; clearly she does not feel she deserves such love. But it arrives anyway in the person of Alfredo Germont (Michael Celentano), the scion of a conservative Provincial family, introduced to her by his friend Gastone (tenor Scott LaMarca) at a party. In a clever touch by Director John Tedeschi, Gastone peeks through a curtain to watch their interaction.
The highlight of the act is Violetta's barely accompanied "É strano!...Ah fors'è lui" in which she exposes her inner desires. Her ambivalence is expressed in "Sempre libera". Ms. Martinez' artistry clearly showed that Violetta is afraid to give herself to the importuning of Alfredo and needs to defend a fragile core. Her independence is a pose. Of course, Verdi's music is there to illustrate the conflict but one needs a very special soprano to capture it as accurately as Ms. Martinez does. Every bit of legato phrasing limns her desire and the fiery cabaletta was informed by all the the histrionics of desperation. Violetta is dancing on the edge of a volcano, semi aware that her tuberculosis will eventually take her young life.
There is more depth to come in Act II. Violetta has abandoned herself to the simple life away from the distractions of Paris. Verdi's music tells us how happy she is living with Alfredo. But much pain is coming. Germont Père (baritone Joe Gansert) has discovered his son's "scandalous" behavior and is concerned about the threat to his daughter's conventional betrothal. There is a shattering scene between him and Violetta as her dignity converts his scorn into compassion.
"Pura siccome un angelo" gets to Violetta. Until Ms. Martinez' performance of the role, we never understood why Violetta would accede to his demand that she give up Alfredo. Now we understand. She never had a protective father and she identifies with Alfredo's sister. She needs fatherly approval just as much as she needs Alfredo's love. This insight struck us like a bolt of lightning! It's all there in "Dite alla giovine", just waiting for the right soprano to bring it out. Ms. Martinez sing it with an affecting pianissimo that demonstrates her defeat.
A moving scene between father and son shows us a great deal about the value placed on family loyalty. Giorgio actually lays a guilt trip on his son in "Di Provenza il mar il suol". He appears to be comforting his broken hearted son but we can see that family loyalty is more important than his son's happiness. Very 19th c.! Mr. Gansert showed Giorgio to be a master manipulator, working on his son as he did on Violetta--all in the service of respectability.
And what about the conflicting feelings of Alfredo? In order to overcome his grief, he must cover it up with anger and spitefulness. He insults poor Violetta at Flora's party and horrifies his father who never anticipated such behavior, so inconsistent with his own values. Perhaps he doesn't want his son consorting with a fallen woman but he will not stand for uncivil behavior.
Violetta's tuberculosis, which had improved whilst living peacefully in the country with Alfredo, has taken a turn for the (much) worse in the final act. She is barely holding onto life waiting for the Germonts to come and see her. She tries to rally but cannot. One gets the impression that Giorgio's presence means as much to her as Alfredo's, lending credence to our understanding of Act II. In a tearful farewell she unselfishly wishes Alfredo to find a worthy young woman and to give this young woman her very own portrait. Surely Dumas shows us that there can be a nobility in society's outcasts.
At this point, given the artistry of the cast, we have dissolved into a pool of tears. We had forgotten the singers and remembered only the characters. This is only possible when a singer's technique is so flawless that it doesn't call attention to itself.
Yes, we could mention the gorgeous timbre of Ms. Martinez voice (although the program describes her as a lyric soprano, we heard a lot of spinto quality in its ampleness and resonance). We could describe the effective phrasing and the breathtaking messa di voce. We could tell you that we have never heard Mr. Celentano sing better or how Mr. Gansert's sturdy baritone added luster and believability to his characterization of Giorgio.
And let us not forget the fine performance of mezzo-soprano Ema Mitrovic in her sympathetic portrayal of Flora and the arrogant but somewhat indifferent characterization of the Baron by Mr. Stephenson.
John Tedeschi's direction was effective with several interesting novel touches such as Violetta shredding her camellias in the final act and the aforementioned bit with Gastone gleefully spying on the friend he has "set up". In the second act, he has our heroine mouthing the words along with Alfredo's singing, demonstrating their complete emotional resonance. Our only quibble is the setting of the opera in the Bronx during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. It did justify the use of masks by some of the performers but the masks are clearly 21st c. ones. More significantly the libretto mentions Paris and carriages and other 19th c. accoutrements. It felt disjunctive.The costumes seemed to belong more to the flapper era of the 1920's.
Such quibbles seem unimportant in light of the psychological insights brought to us by Ms. Martinez whose towering vocal skills were matched by depth of understanding. Her cast mates were all caught up in this immersion that made Violetta and her sad story so very real to us.
Maestro Stephen Francis Vasta had two dozen musicians at his command and made some fine music. No complaints on that score (pun intended).
The experience was intense and has stayed with us. This wasn't like going to the Met and boasting about hearing (insert name of famous singer) and singling out a particular high note of given soprano or the tenor's voice cracking or any other small detail. This was living breathing Art.
© meche kroop