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.

Friday, August 26, 2016

VIOLETTA AND HER SISTERS--by Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble

Sean Christensen as Des Grieux and Nick Webb as his father in Massenet's Manon
(photo by Mark Baker)

Bonnie Frauenthal as Violetta embraced by Jose Heredia as Alfredo in Verdi's La Traviata (photo by Mark Baker)
Scene from Leoncavallo's La Bohème (photo by Mark Baker)

Scene from Puccini's La Rondine (photo by Mark Baker)

Every August we hurry back from Santa Fe to enjoy Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble's season, which always offers fresh delights. The theme of this year's season was "Violetta and her Sisters", comprising a selection of operas, the heroines of which were members of the demimonde. A very fine program note by Director Victoria Crutchfield provided new insights into the subculture of these women. It is happily left to the audience to ponder whether such women exist in 21st c. America.

Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble serves young artists by bridging the gap between academic training and a successful career; participants receive coaching, master classes, and performance opportunities. They serve the opera loving public by providing low cost high quality performances. One gets to see the stars of tomorrow at the early stages of their careers.

Verdi's La Traviata was given a highly moving production, thanks to some wonderful performances. As Violetta, soprano Bonnie Frauenthal sang and acted as beautifully as one might wish; right from the "Sempre libera" of Act I, we knew she was right for the part.

As her young respectable lover, tenor Jose Heredia pulled his performance from a very deep place.  He seemed to live the role, rather than act it; his pure voice has a lovely tonal quality. We particularly enjoyed his "De', miei bollenti spiriti".

Mezzo-soprano Hillary Grobe was an impressive Flora and soprano Ileana Santamaria made a fine Annina.  Violetta's patron Barone Douphol was portrayed by the versatile baritone Nobuki Momma with Boris Teodoro as the Marchese d'Obigny and Kofi Hayford as the good Dottor Grenvil.

Christopher Lilley sang the role of Gastone who sets the plot moving by introducing Alfredo to Violetta. Jeremiah Johnson brought very little to the role of Giorgio Germont, Alfredo's father, delivering an unattractive sound and no variation of color.

Famous baritone Kyle Pfortmiller directed; we especially enjoyed his staging of the party scenes. John Spencer IV conducted the Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble Festival Orchestra in a fine reduction suitable for the score of musicians. We appreciated Mary Ellen Stebbins lighting design in the final act when imaginary drapes are opened and dawn lights up the set.

Violetta happens to be one of our favorite characters in opera and Manon is one of our least favorite. Violetta has character and dignity. Manon is just a selfish manipulative tramp who destroys those around her.  In this production, directed by Victoria Crutchfield, we see her as the materialistic slut she really is.

Even in Act I, as portrayed by soprano Olivia Betzen, she does not seem to be all that innocent. Apparently her family is shipping her off to a convent for some very good reasons.

Her admiration of the three  glamorous "kept women" and her flirtation with the arrogant Guillot Montfortaine (superbly portrayed by Andrew Surrena) plus her stealing of the coach give us ample indication of her lack of character. One can dislike the character and admire the performance, which we did, especially her "Adieu, notre petite table". 

As the foolish Des Grieux, Sean Christensen handed in a stellar performance. The tessitura is high but he rose to the challenge, singing with pure tone, lovely phrasing, and impeccable French diction. The sincerity of his acting had us feeling very sorry for the character.

Baritone Nick Webb was superb as his severe father who was just as critical of his involvement with the church as he was of his son's involvement with Manon.

We did not care for the Lescaut of baritone Stan Lacy whose harsh voice lacked variety of color. The versatile Mr. Momma made a slimy Brétigny who joined forces with Lescaut to pry the all-too-willing Manon from the arms of Des Grieux.

We very much enjoyed the performances of the three "actresses"--Kristina Malinauskaite as Poussette, Perri Sussman as Javotte, and Hillary Grobe as Rosette.

Chris Fecteau himself wielded the baton, guiding the Festival Orchestra through Massenet's gorgeous melodic score. Anyone possessing a pair of ears could not help but leave humming the several tunes that wove the score together.

A third evening paired Act I from Puccini's reasonably well known La Rondine with Act I and Act IV  of Leoncavallo's forgotten La Bohème.  Director Brittany Goodwin staged the Puccini work in the 1960's, which worked surprisingly well.

Soprano Rebecca Richardson sang the role of Magda, a woman supported in high style by the grumpy but generous Rambaldo (Mr. Momma again!) but eager for a new experience with the young Ruggero (Mr. Christensen again). We enjoyed her recapitulation of the aria "Chi il bel sogno di Doretta", introduced by the poet Prunier (Douglas Sabo).

Emily Hughes shone in the role of Lisette, Magda's personal maid, who amusingly helps herself to Magda's attire. Her scene with the contemptuous Prunier criticizing her taste was amusing.

Magda's three friends, in full hippie regalia, were pure delight. Yvette was sung by Zoe Hart, Bianca by Taylor Kirk, and Suzy by Sophia Mortensen.

The surprise of the season was Leoncavallo's version of the same Henri Murger stories we know from the Puccini work. Leoncavallo wrote his own libretto whereas Puccini employed the services of Illica and Giacosa. Although the music is wonderful, the libretto may have been responsible for the failure of the Leoncavallo work to survive.

The characters are pretty much the same, although Marcello has been assigned the lead role in the tenor fach. In Act II, Marcello gets a wonderful aria "Io non ho che una povera stanzetta" which was recorded by Enrico Caruso but not heard on this particular night.

Jose Heredia made a fine Marcello with the lovely Magda Gartner as his girlfriend Musetta. Jay Chacon sang the baritone role of Rodolfo with soprano Ileana Santamaria singing beautifully as Mimi. Mr. Momma portrayed Schaunard who, in this version, has a clingy girlfriend Eufemia (mezzo-soprano Nicholle Bittlingmeyer) whom he treats dismissively. Colline was sung by Bert Boone.

Direction was by Joule Voelz. This is the first season for the Opera Leaders Mentorship Program in which young stage directors, designers, conductors and pianists get expert guidance on the job.

All participants in the program leave with something of value. The singers have at least one new role "under their belt" and many of them have several. This surely enhances their employability.

And members of the audience appear to be enjoying themselves enormously as evidenced by the standing ovations.  These were evenings well spent!

(c) meche kroop

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