We idiots stopped by the Church of the Covenant over on East 42nd street to see the New York Opera Exchange production of La Traviata. What drew us there? The chance to expand our operatic horizons beyond the Met, cheap tickets – general admission $30 (less for students and seniors), the opportunity to participate in this “start-up” company’s mission to create “performance opportunities for emerging artists on the cusp of professional breakthrough.” There’s more to the mission statement but the rest reads like buzzwords for grant applications though that doesn’t make them untrue or not sincerely felt. (I know this as an occasional grant writer.)

Let’s start with the hall. The opera was not actually performed in the main chapel, but in a “fellowship hall.” Acoustics were good. But it did present challenges. The stage is a raised platform but only a few feet up. The orchestra area was cordoned off, and while the sitting musicians didn’t block the view, the conductor smack in the middle did to a greater or lesser extent depending on where you were sitting.

The stage was small, but movement was well-choreagraphed to work with that.

As for the performances, Nadia Petrella sang Violetta the night we saw it. Her coloratura was lovely. Dramatically, I thought she was at her best singing Sempre Libera, and it was here that the character’s conflict with herself over her feelings was clearest. She may not have been helped by the “concept” imposed on this production. More to come on that.

There were a number of cast substitutions that night. While the program lists the different casts and all the covers, there were no notes stuffed in with the updates. Instead, we got a very quick muffled announcement right before it started. I didn’t catch it all except the big one – Germont was sung by Roberto Borgatti. Per the program, he’s done recitals before but this was his operatic debut. Don’t know if he got to sing the role before the performance we saw, but for a debut that was amazing. There were couple of times when he looked like he might he might have been struggling, but except for a tiny cough, he sounded great.

My only real quibble is with the choice of setting for the story. They’ve set it Rome at the end of World War II. Violetta is an upper-class aristocrat now reduced to being a courtesan and trying to keep up appearances. Alfredo, an American GI. After seeing the stunning graphic, I thought it would be a hoot – a kind of neo-realist thing, like a post WWII, Italian film.

When I read the act by act description in the program I had my doubts. The better-half didn’t mind it so much. He pointed out it was “unobtrusive.” Alfredo and Germont wear army uniforms. Other people wear evening clothes. They didn’t muck around much with the translation. But it bugged me. As presented it didn’t make lot of sense. (Granted, this in an opera where a dying girl sings – a lot.)

Violetta Valery was based on a specific real person, who most definitely was not an aristocrat, though she may have seemed like one. She was a wealthy woman alone in the world who earned everything she had – on her back. When Germont comes to ask her to give up he’s son, he’s bowled over by her manners – the fact that she has any. Alfredo loves her despite her “past.” What made the story popular from the beginning was the redemption factor — the idea that this hardened tart was willing to sacrifice all she had for Alfredo – and even for his sister whom she didn’t know, the idea that “love” could somehow save her or that the lack of it would hasten her death. The tragedy of the opera is that they are kept apart, and kept apart because of class — her lack. Even Germont learns a lesson and is left to live with a burden of guilt and regret.

Of course a decadent aristocrat, maybe even one who’d been in bed (literally) with fascists to keep what she had, could also be redeemed by love, but it feels like a much different story, and if you set it in the 1940s, it seems doubtful that Alfredo’s romance with such a person would ruin his sister’s marriage prospects.

I was thinking of the film, A Foreign Affair, in which GI’s in occupied Germany get in over their heads with Germans who may or may not have been Nazis. I was expecting maybe more of that — Italians on the make, naive Americans who don’t know what they’re getting into. Violetta could have been an impoverished Sophia Loren-type trying to work in film while being supported by a Baron who maybe made a shady deal or two to hold onto his fortune during the war. There could have been more solid reasons implied for why the relationship would have been scandalous and ruined Alfredo’s family — maybe a threat to his military career or a future in politics.

I guess what I’m saying is, having come up with the idea, they could have gone a little further with it, and really had fun. This was half-measures. However, it was still La Traviata, and still pretty great. I will be checking out more of New York Opera Exchange next season. (As of this posting, you can RUN to the last performance today at 3:00, which could be sold-out for all I know and there’s no phone number on the website, but if it doesn’t work out, you could always get the 7 from nearby Grand Central and visit the Long Island City Arts Open five minutes away. Or you could stay home and read this novella.)

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