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.

Saturday, May 17, 2014


Nadia Petrella (photo by John Solis)

We do a lot of sitting on benches in chilly industrial spaces and on hard wooden pews in churches and on uncomfortable metal bridge chairs; the payoff is getting to hear some wonderful voices of young artists on the way up.  These young artists are not jaded and don't fly in from Europe or Russia to do their thing and leave.  They work hard as an ensemble and manifest the freshness and enthusiasm that we so greatly admire.

Last night we were privileged to attend the latest entry by New York Opera Exchange which has had a most successful season.  The production was of Verdi's La Traviata and the thrill came from two cast members who nailed their roles.

Soprano Nadia Petrella turned in a heartfelt performance in the title role.  She has an exciting instrument that seems to do her bidding without effort; the fioritura never seemed to be done for effect but rather seemed to come out of her emotions. Her "Ah, fors'è lui" was so compelling that the audience burst into applause before she could continue with "Sempre libera".  This arresting cabaletta left no doubt about her ambivalence.  Will it be love or frivolous fun?

It was all there--diction, phrasing, accuracy--in sum, a memorable performance.  This is a character who loves life and must go through all the stages of grief--denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.  Ms. Petrella's dramatic gifts revealed them all; impressively her vocal output never wavered.

Baritone Roberto Borgatti was equally impressive as Germont, especially since this was the first time he sang a role he was born to sing.  He has a substantial voice, great technique and dramatic chops to match.  His arias in Act II were so fine!  In "Pura siccome un angelo" he must convince Violetta to give up Alfredo.  In "Di Provenza il mar, il suol" he must console his son and persuade him to return to his family.  He succeeded on both counts.
We particularly enjoyed his interpretation.  He did not come across as a mean man, just one who is protective of his family. He limned the character's growth from disapproval to empathy in a way that made perfect dramatic sense.  We loved the scene in which he shames his son for his ugly behavior toward Violetta.

The role of Alfredo was sung by tenor Lindell O. Carter and, sorry to say, his portrayal missed the mark.  It would not have stood out as disappointing were the other principals not so superb.  We wondered whether he may have been cast at a later time than the others because there was a lack of connection.  In the first act the lack of chemistry between him and Violetta made us wonder why she would prefer him to the Baron.  An enormous suspension of disbelief was necessary to imagine him as an infatuated young man.

His acting was wooden and his intonation was not always accurate.  He gave the impression of insecurity.  In the third act he was much more convincing in his bitterness and anger.  For the most part however, he seemed to be staring off into space, or perhaps watching the conductor for cues, rather than connecting with the other singers.

We go along with the saying that "There are no small roles".  Indeed, soprano Kendra Berentsen turned in a most believable performance as Annina, devoted servant of Violetta.  Tenor Victor Starsky did a fine job as Gastone and mezzo Ann Louise Glasser was just about perfect as Flora.  Her scenes with Violetta were utterly convincing.

Bass-baritone Colin Whiteman made a sympathetic Dr. Grenvil and bass-baritone  Javier Ortiz portrayed the Marchese with style.  Baritone Nicholas Wiggins was commanding as the Baron.  These are all singers we look forward to hearing in upcoming productions.

Alden Gatt was Music Director and Conductor David Leibowitz put the large orchestra through their paces without ever drowning out the singers, even though there was no pit for the orchestra.  The acoustics of the church hall made the force of the brass section rather intense.  We heard a gorgeous oboe solo in the "Addio del passato bei sogni ridenti".

Co-directors Jennifer Bushinger and Justin Werner had a "concept" that almost worked.  The 19th c. Parisian setting envisioned by Verdi was updated to the 1940's and the locale changed to Italy.  Violetta was supposed to be an aristocrat who has become a courtesan to support herself.  Germont père et fils were transmogrified into members of the U.S. military.

What did NOT work were the disjunctions between libretto and titles and the anachronisms.  Let us consider a few.  There were no duels in Italy in the 20th c.  American soldiers did not come from Provence.  When the chorus (a superb chorus we might add) sings the rowdy songs of Carnevale and the titles say that they are celebrating the end of World War II, we feel duped.  Perhaps if you had never seen the opera and didn't know Italian you may not have noticed it.

Sadly, we confess that we are not color-blind.  It would not have disturbed us if Germont and Alfredo were both portrayed by African-American singers.  But it did bother us that father and son were, well, so unalike.  Others may not have noticed. And if there were still Italian aristocrats in the 1940's who retained their titles, we do not think they would be black.

What we DID like about the direction was the opening tableau vivant during the overture in which the major characters enact the same scene we will see at the close of the opera.  And we liked the scenes of Annina helping Violetta dress for the party.  It revealed a great deal about the feelings the two women had for each other that justified the tender nursing care received by Violetta in the final act.  The death scene brought tears to our eyes and that is always a good sign!

Set Design by James McSweeney was minimalistic--a fireplace, a couch and an escritoire.  Costume Design by Taylor Mills was apropos and effective.

There will be one more performance, a matinée on Sunday, very worth your while.  We are already marking our calendars for the next season when NYOE will be presenting Johann Strauss' delightful Die Fledermaus, Donizetti's Lucia i Lammermoor and Bizet's Carmen--happily, all done in the original language.

© meche kroop

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