Reviewed by Robert Gulack
I know some folks who have just been to one hell of a party. They’re drunken carousers with their clothing in serious disarray, guests of a woman named Violetta who definitely gets around. They fill the stage with naughty horseplay in the Bronx Opera’s current production of Verdi’s LA TRAVIATA. I should also mention they are an integral part of a youthful, direct, and heartfelt revival — all qualities that couldn’t be more on point for Verdi’s youthful, direct, and heartfelt masterpiece. Finally, you should know that the audience for this production also feels as if they have been to one hell of a party.
The Bronx Opera starts with one simple and glaring advantage over their glittering competition (I won’t name the bunch — but they have a big building at Lincoln Center where they do quite a lot of opera). The Bronx Opera, you see, does their work in the language that is actually spoken by the people in the audience: English. They don’t ask you to read supertitles, subtitles, or any other kind of titles. They just sing to you in words you can understand. It’s as simple as that. (By that way, the French hear Russian, Italian, and Czech opera in French — the Russians hear everything in Russian — and the Italians hear everything in Italian. It’s only the English-speaking countries that make a fetish out of not singing in a language the audience knows, a practice that can only be likened to showing a movie solely in frequencies of light that are not visible to human eyes.)
How wonderfully revelatory it is to hear Violetta musing before us as to what it might be like if she could finally arrange “to love and be loved.” How dramatic to see her lover explode in rage, hurling money at her in contempt, and announcing in simple English that, yes, he owes her a lot, but he is calling us all to witness that he has “paid her in full.” How moving when Violetta, who is, in fact, in the final, mortal stages of illness, tells us that she can feel her weakness leaving her body.
As it was presented May 9 and 10 at the Lehman College’s intimate and charming Lovinger Theatre, TRAVIATA’s moving story, of an experienced woman (“traviata” means a wayward, or fallen, woman) who finally learns the meaning of love only to lose her love, felt very real and immediate. (This production will also be presented May 17 and 18 at Hofstra University’s John Cranford Adams Playhouse in Hempstead, Long Island.) It was great to see worldly Violetta actually pour herself something to drink at Act I’s wine fest, and then go on to swig her fill straight from the bottle.
It must be admitted, however, as performed here, the idea of singing in English had two significant drawbacks. First, it was often impossible actually to make out the words the performers were singing. When you, in fact, speak the language of a production, and find the words you do make sense of to be entertaining and moving, it is especially frustrating when you can’t hear them all. The second drawback has to do with the nature of the translation being used. (The program fails to make clear who translated Piave’s Italian-language libretto — a very significant oversight. Italian lyrics do not spontaneously translate themselves into English ones.) While I applaud the idea of singing in English, and the many moments when the simple and direct English translation used here proved effective, the lyrics in this adaptation often fail to match the melodies, forcing the singers to perform melismas on single syllables (“dau-au-au-aughter”). Then, too, there were many moments when it would have been more satisfying to hear simple, natural, and pointed rhyming being employed.
Halley Gilbert sang the leading role of Violetta May 9 and will be singing it again at Hofstra May 18. She has won the first prize in both the Opera Idol and Jenny Lind Competitions, has a lovely voice, and was better at communicating English diction than many in the cast. Early in the May 9 presentation, her voice sounded forced and uncertain on a few of the highest notes, but, as the evening went on, that imperfection vanished. Her performance became more and more moving, her voice ringing out without strain. As she lost her love and then her life, she achieved that most difficult of combinations where, simultaneously, you realize you are hearing impossibly beautiful music, while at the same time it seems that something heartbreaking is actually happening in front of you.
Steven Wallace sang Violetta’s lover, Alfredo, May 9 and will also be singing it again May 18. He is a winning and powerful tenor, and his acting, good throughout, was exceptionally striking in the third act, where he must play an immature man who loses his temper in an arrogant and prideful manner, only to realize a moment later that he has made an awful mistake. (It is Alfredo who actually turns out to be “the wayward one”.)
One of the high points of the evening was when Violetta and Alfredo are briefly reunited in the final act. Gilbert and Wallace sounded wonderful together.
Joseph Flaxman sang Germont, Alfredo’s father, May 9 and will sing it May 18. He has a big, warm baritone, and earned a strong and continuing response from the audience.
Among the supporting characters, Erik Bagger deserves special mention for his playful and charming portrayal of Alfredo’s friend Gaston, and John Tyndall was also a standout as an intense and insecure Baron Douphol. Both will be reprising their roles May 18.
All of the Bronx Opera’s productions are presented with full chorus and orchestra, and both the chorus and orchestra sounded great; though, as mentioned above, you couldn’t alway hear the words the chorus was singing, and there were minor and infrequent issues with intonation in the woodwind and brass, and with ensemble with regard to the strings. Together, Rod Gomez’s playful staging, and Eric Kramer’s sprightly conducting made for an effective evening. The sets (by Meganne George) and costumes (by Victoria Depew) were simple, yet handsomely conveyed the opera’s varying moods.
The Bronx Opera is especially to be commended not only for showing how effective English-speaking opera can be, but for its adventuresome repertoire. Their practice in most seasons is to combine a well-known opera with a new or little-performed one. They have been following this tradition for close to half a century. This season, LA TRAVIATA is clearly the warhorse. Kirke Mechem’s jaunty operatic adaptation of Sheridan’s THE RIVALS (2011) was heard back in January. Previous rarities have included American or New York premieres of operas by Smetana, Rossini, and Vaughan Williams.
You can follow the Bronx Opera online at http://www.bronxopera.org. You buy purchase tickets for the May 17 and 18 performances at Hofstra by cutting and pasting this URL http://purchase.tickets.com/buy/TicketPurchase?orgid=416&schedule=list.
ROBERT GULACK is the author of numerous plays seen in NYC, including CHURCHILL IN ATHENS, SIX HUSBANDS OF ELIZABETH THE QUEEN, and the award-winning ONE THOUSAND AND ONE.
Photo Credit: A.G. Liebowitz/WrightGroupNY