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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We caught the penultimate performance of Rossini’s La Cenerotola.. Saturday is the final, and it’ll be live on HD. If you already have your live in HD-ticket you’ll have a great time. If you don’t, and it’s still possible to get one, why not? If you want to catch it at the Met, standing room will be your only option as the house is sold out.

The story is of course a familiar one, Cinderella, but with a few twists. No stepmother. In this case it’s a stepfather and while he’s squandered Angelina’s inheritence, and mistreats her, but he’s so buffoonish that you can’t quite get up a full head of steam to hate him. The stepsisters are equally deluded and awful. There’s no fairy godmother, but the Prince’s tutor fills that role.

Now here’s the thing, there are a gazillion versions of the Cinderella – rags to riches story, and very few of them contain actually “magic” as in supernatural beings like fairy godmothers who get the job done by transforming pumpkins into coaches, etc. My FAVORITE version of the tale is the classic Colombian telenovella, Betty La Fea, in which the stepsisters are evil co-workers, and Betty not only gets her prince, but transforms him from a insensitive man-whore, to a responsible husband and father. Her fairy godmother is a publicist who befriends her, helps her pick out clothes, and gets her to depiliate. But I digress…

If you follow the libretto, in Rossini’s version the Prince’s tutor, Alidoro is not a magical being, but he sometimes acts like one. He shows up in scene one disguised as a beggar to better scope out a bride for the Prince. It’s Angelina/Cinderella who treats him with true Christian piety taking seriously that “least among you” stuff. It’s that which makes her worthy to ascend to the ranks of royalty. Alidoro is the one who takes her to the ball.

In the Met’s version, they’ve added a kind of Touched by an Angel gloss to his character. While it was clearly done to entertain, and is not at odds with the libretto, it’s not explicitly supported by it either. Two days later I’m still not sure how I feel about it – creative, or pandering to our expectations? Given the 1930ish costumes, he could have arrived in a Bentley with a bunch of Coco Channel type assistants to dress her up, but what do I know? I’m an idiot, not a dramaturge. Again, in many modern versions of the fairytale, – Pretty Woman, The Devil Wears Prada – mortals have filled the role quite nicely.

This production got a lot of press because the hot tenor, Juan Diego Florez was ailing and the role was taken by Javier Camarena who got raves. We saw it with Florez, who was excellent and has those matinee idol Prince Charming looks as well. In the second act aria, Si, Ritrovarla Io Giuro, he seemed to hit and hold an impossible number of high notes.Opera, is often a competitive sport, so I couldn’t help wondering whether he was trying to banish the memory of his fill-in’s performance.

In addition to that aria, there’s a hell of patter tune in the second act that features the entire ensemble, and a haunting melody sung by the title character in several scenes. Fabio Luisi ably conducts. There’s also tons of physical comedy and the costumes and set design are all a joy.

American soprano Joyce DiDonato was amazing in the title role both dramatically and vocally.

Allesandro Corbelli, Pietro Spagnoli, and Luca Pisaroni all provided excellent support in the roles of Don Magnifico (the stepfather), Dandini (the Prince’s valet) and Alidoro respectively.

Patricia Risley and Rachelle Durkin played the stepsisters. While there is no vocal heavy lifting in their parts, both gave great performances involving a lot of physical comedy. They and were also featured in these roles in the Met’s last go round of this opera in 2009. They worked incredibly well together. For some reason, they don’t have bios included in the Playbill. Isn’t it punishment enough that neither gets to marry the prince?

We’ve seen about 14 operas at the Met this season, and while I’m not sure if I’d say this was our favorite, it’s certainly up there.

This was probably our last Met outing till October, but not our last opera till fall. Next week we’re off to see the New York Opera Exchange’s production of La Traviata. Tickets are still available.

(What does Marion do when she isn’t going to or writing about opera? She writes fiction. You could read some.)

Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte falls squarely and deeply into opera-buffe territory, so “storywise” you can either take it for what it is and have a good time, or just listen to a recording of the sublime music without looking at the supertitles or the action on the stage.

We had a very good time indeed although my understanding (based on the source of all knowledge, Wikipedia) is that the plot was considered so offensive to the ladies that it was often changed.

The basic premise is that all women are fickle and will run off with any man who tries to seduce them. Two young man, Ferrando and Guglielmo dispute this premise, talking of how great their fiancees are. They are challenged by their philosophical older friend, Don Alfonso. A wager is made. The boys tell their fiancees – a couple of sisters named Fiordilgi and Dorabella, that they are going off to war. They come back  – later that same day — in disguise as “Albanians” – each wooing the other’s girl. In addition to Don Alfonso, they are added and abbetted in this ruse by Despina – the saucy maid, who doesn’t exactly know what’s going on, but there’s money in it for her if they go off with the foreigners.

Will the girls crack? Of course they will, it’s a comedy, though Fiordiligi holds out longer and gets to sing a lovely aria about her struggles. Is this terrible in terms of its view of women? Nah. It’s too ridiculous. That the girls don’t recognize their fiancees or their maid who disguises herself as a doctor and a notary is absurd, but no more so than things that happen all the time Shakespeare comedies and in other operas both comedic and dramatic all the time.

It does kind of make you think about the excuses for women’s oppression then and even (in some parts of the world) now. The idea that women have no real moral core and should never be tested, is what keeps them locked away and hidden. Yet, I don’t think the story would work “better” if the girls knew all along – a change which was made at one point in time. That would take away both the opera’s comedy and it’s power.

The singers were all game and seemed to be having a fine time. Guanqun Yu as Fiordiligi was a powerhouse. Maurizio Muraro as the cynical Don Alfonso was a standout. Danielle de Niese mugged a bit – which apparently she does – but charmingly. Matthew Polenzni sang as sweetly as tenors do. James Levine condutcs. The music is by Mozart, the libretto’s in Italian. So if great music and great theater with stage antics and happy endings are your things, you’ve got one performance left – this Thursday night. Tickets including some decent family circle and balcony seats are still available, and if you’ve got nothing to do Thurday afternoon, you could always go for the rush.

In other opera news, I also caught the final performance of Haydn’s Orlando Paladino at the Manhattan School of Music. Every time I hear “Haydn” I want to shout out, “Hidin? Hidin from vat?” which is a line from a play – Arthur Kopit’s Chamber Music, which I was in when I was a kid. It wasn’t my line, but it cracked me up. That’s not relevant to this review. It was just compulsive.

First off, I just want to commend the professionalism of the (graduate) student singers and the musicians. Great work by all. Second, they’ve got a beautiful theater. Acoustics were fantastic. MSM does a couple of operas every year. This was my first despite its being close to where I live. I’d say they need to do a better job on neighborhood outreach but the house was pretty full. Tickets are $30 full freight, $15 for students an seniors. Sunday, I’d say students and seniors comprised at least 70% of the audience.

The production which shortened three acts to two was one of those interesting modern concepts – re imaging castles and woodlands as reality television and a mental hospital. While the concept didn’t totally work – these things rarely do – the pop-art set was something to see, and it mostly worked . It worked better IMHO than the Met’s rat-pack Rigoletto. I didn’t take any photos of the set, and all the ones on the web seem to belong to someone, so you’ll have to look for yourself. There’s a full-length review in the Times, and other places. I plan NOT to miss their future performances, AND I’ll concur with the others that Cameron Johnson, a young baritone, singing the buffoonish Pasquale has a big future ahead. While that future could be operatic, I sense it will be in musical comedy and theater. Given his matinee looks, talent for physical as well as vocal comedy – including a dead on John Travolta dance impression taking us from Tony Manero to Vincent Vega, AND a range that includes a bit of falsetto — the kid is going places.

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