MISSION

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.

Monday, August 8, 2022

A FESTIVAL OF SONG


 Nicholas Brownlee, Elena Villalón and Robert Tweten

We spent a delightful Sunday afternoon with Performance Santa Fe which presented the second in a series of three vocal concerts in their Festival of Song series. The Scottish Rite Temple, which has a beautiful small theater, was just the right size for the event and possesses fine acoustics.

What a win-win situation for both Performance Santa Fe and also for Santa Fe Opera! As Nicholas Brownlee, our bass-baritone for the afternoon explained, it's a very special opportunity for an opera singer to shed all the theatrical trappings of the opera house and to achieve an intimate rapport with his audience. From the point of view of the audience, they can experience the same intimacy and also experience a connection with the poet whose words inspired the art song.

We admit to a departure from the latter benefit when we completely ignored the grim text utilized by Brahms for his Fier ernst Gesänge Op.121. Religious liturgy holds no interest for us even when translated into German by Martin Luther, a rather grim fellow himself.  Instead, we focused on the piano part, so persuasively performed by Robert Tweten, and the very textured tones of Mr. Brownlee. We particularly enjoyed the way Brahms colored both parts darkly, achieving an astonishing whole.

In a wisely contrasted set of songs by Charles Ives, Mr. Brownlee was able to reveal much more than his magnificent instrument. "Songs my mother taught me" is surely the same text used by Dvorak in his Gypsy Songs and it rings of bittersweet memories. In "Memories A&B" we loved the schoolboy enthusiasm Mr. Brownlee portrayed in "Very Pleasant" which we have always called by it's opening line, "We're sitting in the opera house". But tops on our list was the cowpoke sonnet known as "Charlie Rutledge" in which Mr. Brownlee chewed up the (absent) scenery.

Mr. Tweten also moved gracefully from the grim to the gay! Moreover, as he accompanied the stunning soprano Elena Villalón in Turina's Tres Arias, Op.26, his hands drew forth all the requisite Iberian colors and rhythms. Our lovely soprano has all the sazon needed to convey the poetry of the texts which we enjoyed reading aloud when we got home. All three texts were lengthy and profound but were explained briefly before the performance, a gracious welcome indeed!

Ms. Villalón has a voice of beauty, especially round at the top of her range. The entire upper register had a silvery sheen. Of equal importance is her gift for storytelling, not unlike that of Mr. Brownlee. We do not take that quality for granted. Nothing is more disappointing than hearing a singer of great vocal beauty but lacking in interpretive skills. 

Angel de Saavedra's "Romance" tells of a mighty warrior who stayed away so long that he lost his love. In despair, he releases his captives and renounces his bounty. How well the music, text, voice, body movement and facial expression joined together!

The text of "El Pescador" (written by Jose Ignacio Javier Oriel Encarnación) reminded us of a few of Schubert's songs but the Spanish language dictates a different kind of voice and piano. In any case a fisherman woos a young lady.  Wooing sounds different in Spanish than it does in German!

"Rima" (author unknown) is a passionate look at thecompelling attraction in a pair of eyes.

The songs of Tom Cipullo are unknown to us, since we do not pursue contemporary American song. Nonetheless, we liked the way Ms. Villalón interpreted them. "Crickets" was a bitter look at our current ecological disaster. "Summer into Autumn Slips" (text by Emily Dickinson) is a metaphor for life's declining years. If we interpreted correctly, Stanley Kunitz' text for "Touch Me" is also about the decline of love and desire.  It makes us wonder why Mr. Cipullo chose three texts about decline!

We are so looking forward to seeing what Ms. Villalón does with the role of Nanetta in Santa Fe Opera's Falstaff.  We have been enjoying Mr. Brownlee's performance on the stage for at least 8 years so we will not be surprised to see him make a fine Kurvenal in SFO's Tristan und Isolde.

© meche kroop

Sunday, August 7, 2022

STARS OF AMERICAN BALLET



                 Daniel Ulbright and Joseph Gatti in "Les Lutins "choreographed by Johan Kobborg


For the past ten years Performance Santa Fe has hosted Daniel Ulbicht's Stars of American Ballet at the charming Lensic Playhouse. This is the first year we have been in town for this highly anticipated and generously applauded event. We have spent two delightful evening enjoying dance programs of great variety that included something for everyone. In our case, nothing can compare with the fluidity and aesthetics of classical ballet; nonetheless we found plenty to enjoy about the less-than-classical choices.

The versatile Daniel Ulbricht has assembled a group of talented dancers drawn from a number of American ballet companies and taken them on the road to bring ballet to cities that do not have regular ballet performances.

We scarcely know where to begin in our admiration; so let us start with the selections that  made the biggest impression. It would be a mistake to overlook the finale of the second evening which featured Mr. Ulbricht and Joseph Gatti (well remembered by us for the occasions of winning dance competitions).. Accompanied by Elaine Chelton's piano and the lively violin of Nicholas Danielson (with whom Mr. Ulbricht interacted), the two men presented a competition in which no one ever won. It began with Mr. Ulbricht performing a fleet-footed tarantella; when Mr. Gatti entered the two played a game of "can you top this" with successful rounds of terpsichorean virtuosity. They were joined by Indiana Woodward who was attired like the men in black pants held up by suspenders, white shirts, and black ties.

Next in our affection were a number of classical pas de deux that showed how many different feelings could be evoked by the vocabulary of classical steps. It seems as if the music chosen by the choreographer and the order of the various combinations contributed to the feeling tone.

For example, the brief excerpt from Christopher Wheeldon's "Polyphonia" , performed by Tricia Albertson and Chase Swatosh, filled us with feelings of anxiety. Was it the dissonance and angularity of Ligeti's music? Was it the dark stage with chiaroscuro lighting? No matter what, the work was gripping and the dancing extraordinary with unique touches to the lifts.

Another pas de deux, entitled "De Deux", a world premiere of a work by Christopher Charles McDaniel, utilized a classical composition by the late 18th c, composer/violinist Joseph Bologne Chevalier de Saint-Georges (one of whose operas was produced and reviewed by us several years ago inNew York City). The classicism of the music dictated choreography that hewed closely to classical forms, which delighted us. Dancers Quinn Starner and  Cainan Weber captured the classicism perfectly. The feeling tone was one of pleasant mutual enjoyment.

In Balanchine's "Sonatine", Ravel's music was performed live by Elaine Chelton, and evoked feelings of romantic love. Dressed in a floaty blue costume, Megan Fairchild was gallantly partnered by Gonzalo Garcia. The tenderness of the partnering was given an unusual twist by Balanchine when Ms. Fairchield pulled Mr. Garcia offstage from behind.

For "Rouge Lullaby", choreographer Alec Knight used Bartok's modern music to create a pas de deux with completely different feelings. The skin tight red leotards worn by Quinn Starner and Cainan Weber contributed to the modern effect and the athleticism of the dancers bought it all together to stunning effect--quite different from the effect of their performance in "De Deux".

Glazounov's romantic music inspired choreographer Ariel Rose to create a lovely traditional pas de deux for Tricia Albertson and Chase Swatosh that lifted our spirits with its lighthearted mood. The work received its world premiere and left us wanting more.

Another pas de deux choreographed by Mr. Wheeldon entitled "Bitter Earth" filled us with melancholy. Sometimes a romantic work is joyful and sometimes melancholy--just like life. We found the music odd. The instrumental background suited the work perfectly but the vocalism was distracting and seemed not to fit. 

Balanchine's "Apollo" was the opening selection for the first night.  As revolutionary as Balanchine must have seemed in his day, this particular classic work seemed tired and old fashioned. Perhaps it was the awful sound production of Stravinsky's music but we found it the weakest of the classical selections. We couldn't help wondering whether Balanchine's depictions of the Greek god (Gonzalo Garcia) controlling and manipulating the three muses (Sara Adams, Megan Fairchild, and Hee Seo) was a projection of his own wish to control a bevy of ballerinas.

Regarding the remainder of the presentations, we were most impressed by David Parson's "Balance of Power",  a solo stunningly performed by Zoey Anderson. The music was odd and Ms.Anderson's strange sinuous movements alternated with sharper angular ones. The work seems to owe a debt to World Dance--mainly African and East Indian with jazz inflections.

There wasn't much in he way of program information but the colorfully clad young dancers of NDI New Mexico approached their dancing with gusto and were a pleasure to watch. An adult dancer, perhaps the director of the program, finished the number with a virtuoso solo.

The audience was equally impressed by the less classical numbers on the program but so much seemed to me recapitulations of mid-20th century Broadway dancing as seen in the movies. These works were high-spirited and energetic, as well as well danced.  They were just not our cup of tea.  That being said, the audience adored them all.

© meche kroop
















Tuesday, June 21, 2022

THE STARS WERE OUT TONIGHT


 Bryan Wagorn, Brittany Renee,  Ben Bliss, and Justin Austin

There are advantages and disadvantages to outdoor opera.  On the positive side, one doesn't have to gasp for air behind a mask. Also, newcomers to opera can get a taste of this matchless art form without selling their children or mortgaging their home. The disadvantage--and it's a big one--is that one misses the frisson created by a live unamplified voice. Listening to an opera singer live is a sensuous experience; the voice is not only heard but felt in various part of the body. Dear listener!  The next time you hear singers live, pay attention to which part of your body vibrates.  But we digress.

Last night in Central Park, The Metropolitan Opera gave New Yorkers a treat in the form of three of their finest singers who presented a generous and varied program that brought thunderous applause from the mob that crowded Rumsey Playfield. Bryan Wagorn, Assistant Conductor at The Met served admirably as accompanist for the great variety of music on the program.

Tenorrific Ben Bliss opened the program with "Questa o quella" from Verdi's Rigoletto.  We have enjoyed Mr. Bliss' singing for years but this is the first time we heard him sing Verdi. Although amplification makes it difficult to take the measure of a voice we can say we enjoyed his performance last night in a number of selections.

His Duke was more charming than menacing--charming enough to bewitch the innocent Gilda. The elaborate decorations of the vocal line were exciting. Even better was the subtlety with which he invested Lensky's aria "Kuda, kuda" from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. We particularly admired the dynamic variety; the pianissimi were exquisite. Whilst thinking of Olga, he spun out the note so beautifully that we were holding our breath. (We ran out of breath before Mr. Bliss did!)

Again in "Dalla sua pace" from Mozart's Don Giovanni, the warmth of his coloring created a character that we cared about and the long drawn out pp. dazzled us as much as the elaborate fioritura. The big surprise of the evening was "No puede ser" from Sorozabal's La Tabernera del Puerto. We are always delighted when an evening includes some zarzuela. A cheating woman brings out anger but this character's anger is mixed with incredulity. Mr. Bliss captured it all and did so with mucho sazon.

Barihunk Justin Austin has been on our radar since his days at Manhattan School of Music when we marked him as a gifted young singer.  His star has risen rapidly and everything he performs is touched with genius. His Dr. Malatesta was expansive and persuasive in "Bella siccome un angelo" from Donizetti's Don Pasquale. He managed to sound sincere as he palms off a young widow as his convent-raised sister but also lets the audience know it's a ruse.  
What a masterpiece of acting! What flexibility in the fioritura!

He exhibited some very fine German in "Lieben, Hassen, Hoffen, Zagen" from Strauss' Ariadne aux Naxos. His English diction in "There was a storm" from Blanchard's Fire Shut Up in My Bones and in "Ballad of the Easy Life" from Weill's Threepenny Opera made every word crystal clear. We never take that for granted.

This was the first time we heard Soprano Brittany Renee and found her to be a formidable artist. Her voice glittered in "Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante" from Bizet's Carmen but we had to avert our eyes since her glamorous appearance was at odds with Micaela's shy character. In "Chi il bel sogno di Doretta" from Puccini's La Rondine she looked more like the character and showed her gifts as a storyteller.

She rose to the challenge of Violetta's Act I aria from Verdi's La Traviata negotiating the two opposing sides of Violetta's character. In the cabaletta "Sempre libera" we heard some impressive fireworks--just right for a party girl in denial. We don't claim to know anything about jazz but Duke Ellington' "In a Sentimental Mood" sounded just fine to us and illustrated her versatility.

Having such superb singers in three different fachs permitted the programming of a number of duets in various combinations. In "Esulti pur la Barbara" from Donizetti's L'Elisir d'amore, Mr. Bliss got to play the newly confident Nemorino with Ms. Renee as the astonished Adina, acting rather bemused.

Ms. Renee made a fine Pamina in duet with Mr. Austin's Papageno in "Bei Männern" from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte. And our two male singers brought new life to "Au fond du temple saint" from Bizet's Les Pêcheurs de Perles.  Not only was the harmony exquisite but the two men were gazing off into the same space so convincingly that we felt we could see the scene through their eyes.

We aver that Rogers' Carousel is an American opera and Ms. Renee and Mr. Austin's performance nailed "If I Loved You".  We feel the same about Sondheim's oeuvre.  In "Agony" from Into the Woods, Mr. Bliss and Mr. Austin played a game of competitive complaining between two princes.  What a delightful comic turn!  From Bernstein's West Side Story, Ms. Renee and Mr. Bliss gave us a "Tonight" to remember.

As if this banquet of music were not sufficiently satisfying, our artists offered  postprandial friandises.  Mr. Bliss sang a glorious "Maria" (also from West Side Story) that turned a woman's name into a vocalise. Mr. Austin offered a heartfelt "I Dream a World" --text by Langston Hughes set by Damien Sneed. Could Ms. Renee's charming "Will He Like Me?" come from Harnick and Bock's She Loves Me?  Well, we liked her.  A lot.

© meche kroop





Sunday, June 19, 2022

BRAHMS in 3/4 TIME


 Jason Wirth, Georgi Lekov, Peter Ludwig, Alonso Jordan Lopez, Sandra Goodman, and Kinga Cserjési


Who doesn't love songs about love! We hope Johannes Brahms enjoyed writing them a much as we enjoy hearing them.  It' been way too long since we heard a performance of his Liebeslieder-Walzer, Opus 52 and we were delighted to hear of such an evening at the Hungarian House.  Not only did we get to enjoy this glorious cycle but also several other songs from Opus 31, 28, and 62. Moreover, as icing on this delicious cake, we heard some Hungarian Dances, Wo01 for one pianos, four hands.  What a feast!

Jason Wirth, our collaborative pianist for the evening, was joined by Georgi Lekov for some brilliant four-handed playing. The pair dazzled us with some very lively playing that made us want to get up and dance. There were motifs that reminded us of Dvorak's Songs My Mother Taught Me. We loved the way the opening phrase was repeated, lending unity to the work. And we loved the use of minor keys (F minor in "Dance #4 from Book 1" and A minor in "Dance #8 from Book 2", both of them stirring and magnificently performed).

Mr. Wirth evinced his conducting chops in the lengthy sorrowful "Vergangen ist mir Glück und Heil".

The vocal part of the evening involved the tender tenor tones of Alonso Jordan Lopez, the sparkling soprano of Kinga Cserjési, the soothing contralto of Sandra Goodman, and the booming bass-baritone of Peter Ludwig.  Brahms' cycle gives everyone a chance to shine but our favorite parts are written for all four voices sometimes harmonizing, sometimes alternating, and sometimes interwoven.

What we most appreciate about Brahms' writing for the voice is the way he accords as much respect in setting folk songs as he does setting texts of such masterful poets as Georg Friedrich Daumer and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe ("Es rauschet das Wasser", a charming dialogue between a man and a woman, and "Zum Schluss") .

Perhaps each listener has his or her own favorites. We always love hearing duets in which a man tries to persuade a woman as in "Guten Abend, mein tausiger Schatz".  In this case, the woman relents at the end but has her conditions!

We liked the storytelling of Mr. Ludwig as he animated the tale of a hunchback fiddler whose hump was removed by a maiden as payment for his merry fiddling. Ms. Goodman gave "In stiller Nacht" a lovely gentle delivery. Ms. Cserjési  was most affecting in the lament "Wohl schön bewandt war es". 

Perhaps our favorite song is the frisky "Ein kleiner, hübscher Vogel" in which Brahms' rhythm evokes the hopping of a bird. In "Am Donaustrande" we loved the complexity of the writing which reflects the many barriers to love and the way the music resolves along with the resolve of the man whose determination will lead to success.

It was a lovely evening and we greatly enjoyed the tenorial contributions of Mr. Lopez whose voice is truly a standout in everything he sings. We are always amazed when a singer can get the emotional content across whilst using a music stand.

© meche kroop















A mir in 

Friday, June 10, 2022

SPIRITUAL OR SECULAR


 Sichel Claverie, Victor Sicard, Jehú Otero, and Samantha Louis-Jean

It is no small matter to come to enjoy that which one previously avoided. Like kale. Baroque music has generally sounded to us like a sewing machine going on and on, lacking in climax and resolution. Thus we were thrilled to be so royally entertained by Opera Lafayette's program last night--Concert Spiritual aux Caraïbes. We found this "Religious Music in the French Caribbean 1760-1790" to be absorbing, entertaining, and thoroughly delightful.

We are not sure how "spiritual" can be defined. The program began and ended with the 1716 Messe en cantiques by Domenico Zippoli,  performed by soprano Samantha Louis-Jean, mezzo-soprano Sichel Claverie, tenor Jehú Otero, baritone Victor Sicard, and bass Jonathan Woody, accompanied by a pair of violins, cello,  and theorbo. We found the weaving of vocal lines and instrumental lines to be exquisite and replete with pleasing harmonies Listening and not reading the program produced feelings of absorption, peace, and aspiration, similar to what we felt during Faure's Requiem and Verdi's Requiem. If religious observance produces such elevated feelings in its believers, we are all for it. Yet, it puzzles us.

Bookended by this Messe was a succession of works by various 18th c. composers both known to us (Pergolesi) and unknown. There were two that we wanted to hear more of: Johann Paul Aegidius Martini, whose opera Le marriage yielded some most enjoyable excerpts, and Duni, whose opera La fée Urgèle seemed to be a comedy about a statue much loved by women that comes to life. This was given a semi staged performance by the four glorious voices of Ms. Claverie, Mr. Sicard (heard two days ago as a farmer in Grétry's Silvain), Ms. Louis-Jean (as his about-to-be-married daughter in the same opera), and Mr. Otero (as her intended, also in Silvain). In this charming scene he portrayed the statue which came to life.
 
The program was conceived and conducted by Maestro Pedro Memelsdorff whose conducting style was marked by precision and lively gestures, qualities we truly admire and take pleasure in watching. As constructed, the program worked extremely well. There were no pauses for applause and one work led seamlessly to another. This was a wise decision since applause would have interrupted the mood.

All the works were written in the 18th c. but seemed to our ears to owe more to the Baroque period that the Classical. We love the sound of instruments used in "Early Music", particularly the theorbo, the playing of which is fascinating to observe. There were major contributions from the harp, performed by Sandrine Chatron and some dazzling work by Concert Master Théotime Langlois de Swarte. The sweetest sounds came from Charles Brink's baroque flute. The entire orchestra responded to Mo. Memelsdorff's lively conducting. We loved the surprising percussion effects, mainly chimes and snare drum.

It mattered not a bit to us that movements from different works were interspersed. Obviously, the intention was to produce seamless enjoyment and total auditory immersion.  This goal was achieved.  We left with joy and gratitude in our heart, and perhaps that is what is meant by spiritual!

Let us also praise the scholarship of the essays in the program book which we read after the performance. It is interesting to note that the unfortunate and impoverished island known today as Haiti was once the French colony Saint-
Domingue where African slaves were exploited by French planters. Apparently these planters loved culture and theater going was a popular pastime.  This was interesting reading but, unlike one's understanding of Silvain two nights earlier,  not necessary to appreciate the music.


We are already anticipating next year's visit by Opera Lafayette, exploring "The 
Era of Madame de Pompadour" which will include ballet as well as opera and chamber music.



© meche kroop

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

AGRARIAN REFORM


 Maestro Ryan Brown conducting Grétry's Silvain

We have missed Opera Lafayette's annual visit to New York and were delighted to welcome them back. It's always an event to see operas from a neglected period of operatic history that we may never have an opportunity to see again. This year's visit was the first of a three-season exploration of French music of the 18th c.  Each season's festival explores music centering around a famous woman in French history.  This year's festival centers around Marie-Antoinette, and so we are given an opera that she enjoyed during France's period of admiration for the pastorale.

The scholarship involved in this festival seems thorough with examination of history, politics, social movements, and culture of that epoch. Probably, those who were able to attend the pre-performance lecture or to read the program book's 100 pages, had a very different experience than we did.

We are the type of person who learns by reading. For us, opera is entertainment. We entered the lovely theater of the Museo del Barrio completely unprepared and naive. It is our opinion that a work of art should stand on its own merits and not require explanation. It was only upon returning home and reading some of those 100 pages that we realized what director Tania Hernández Velasco was going for and what point she was trying to make.  We will discuss that after we discuss the music, which is why we go to the opera instead of reading a book.

The young Belgian composer André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry who had studied in Rome, composed Silvain in 1770 and it premiered at the Comédie-Italienne. It was the first opera performed in New Orleans in 1796. The music is lush and Maestro Ryan Brown (who is also Artistic Director of Lafayette Opera) elicited every nuance from the score. The cast was uniformly excellent with three notable sopranos lighting up the stage. Camille Ortiz, looking way to young to be the mother of a marriageable daughter, used excellent acting skills to overcome her youthful appearance. One of the highlights of the performance was her scena in which she expresses self doubts and ultimately courageous resolve. 

Paulina, the daughter about to get married was convincingly portrayed by Samantha Louis-Jean and the role of the enchanting little sister was excellently performed by Teresa Castillo. That the three women with the same vocal range were able to achieve musical harmony as well as familial harmony was impressive. 

The male singers were no less excellent. Tenor Jehú Otero has a lovely warm tone and was convincing as the prospective husband of Paulina and baritone Victor Sicard did well with the role of the paterfamilias who was threatened by a new landowner with the loss of his hunting privileges. In the role of the father from whom he is estranged we heard bass Nathan Berg who employed his resonant instrument in the final scene to restore order and harmony to a distressed family. His trio with his two newly discovered granddaughters was emotionally touching. 

But perhaps the most compelling moment of the opera was the intricately composed septet  pitting the family against a trio of thugs threatening with pitchforks (a pitched battle?). Here Mo. Brown distinguished himself by making each line distinct with all woven expertly together.

Musically, it was a most worthwhile 90 minutes in spite of a rather prosaic libretto by Jean-François Marmontel. The spoken dialogue was delivered in English and Spanish which puzzled us, since we were ignorant that the directorial decision had been made to change the century and the location! We were also puzzled by the colorful costumes (Patricia Michaels) which didn't look at all the way we imagined pre-Revolution France to look like.

Apparently we weren't the only puzzled audience members. The lively post performance conversations in the Ladies Room speculated without resolution. It was only after reading a lot of information in the program book that we found the solution to the puzzle. The director was drawing a parallel between the pre-revolutionary feudal agrarian system in France with the situation in 19th c. Colorado in the United States where the director's family had lost land. We consider ourselves newly educated since we never knew that French aristocrats owned land in the American Southwest. We do know that the Mexican people threw out the French in the 1860's.  (Think Cinco de Mayo and the battle of Puebla.)

We have been reviewing Santa Fe Opera for many years and have been aware of the strong Hispanic presence from Santa Fe north to Taos (where, incidentally, or maybe not, is located the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation at which Opera Lafayette was in residence to create this festival)! Perhaps the Hispanic natives of that region also had problems with land use. Perhaps there were similar issues with aristocratic sons falling in love with Hispanic peasant women and getting disowned by their fathers, which was the backstory of SilvainWell, there is reconciliation at the end with acknowledgement that rustic virtue is more important than noble birth. A happy ending.

Even with this new understanding of the resonance between the need for land reform in pre-revolutionary France and the American Southwest, we still would have preferred seeing the piece the way it was written. To us it appeared that the work was forced into a Procrustean Bed.

A further quibble would be the overuse of video projections. They seemed fine during the overture, to set the stage as a rural environment, but later they became annoying as they distracted from the music. At one point we saw confusing loops of strings and fingers, only to learn it was a woman's hands doing embroidery. Like food fads (kiwis, sun-dried tomatoes, and avocado toast) we hope this trend will pass.

© meche kroop

Sunday, June 5, 2022

THE FALLEN WOMAN


 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