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Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble: Verdi’s La Traviata & Chansons de Baudelaire

Given the rare opportunity to sing major works, young singers and opera professionals sing with ardor, passion and success.

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Bonnie Frauenthal and Jose Heredia in a scene from Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble’s production of “La Traviata” (Photo credit: Mark Brown)

Bonnie Frauenthal and Jose Heredia in a scene from Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble’s production of “La Traviata” (Photo credit: Mark Brown)

[avatar user=”Jean Ballard Terepka” size=”96″ align=”left” ] Jean Ballard Terepka, Music Critic[/avatar]The ambitious project of Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble is to provide young opera professionals – singers, instrumentalists, music and stage directors, costume and set designers – with a chance to refine their craft and develop their artistry by performing full scale productions of major operatic works. Over a period of sixteen seasons, the Ensemble has offered significant successes at two levels. First, Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble alumni have moved on to prestigious opera companies, teaching positions and jobs in a wide variety of opera careers. Second, Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble audiences have the privilege of hearing new, optimistic and first-rate talent present gorgeous music.

Two performances of the Ensemble’s recently concluded August season exemplified both the best of the organization’s intentions and the loveliest of some of its current achievements.

The performance of Verdi’s La Traviata featuring Bonnie Frauenthal as Violetta and Jose Heredia as Alfredo Germont was wonderful in many ways. Frauenthal sang and acted her complex role compellingly: she is a confident singer, capable of both womanly sturdiness and subtle virtuosity, and she inhabited the dense narrative of Violetta’s story credibly and compellingly. Heredia’s youthful and earnest Alfredo was also convincing; his deep love of Violetta and grief at her death were poignantly believable. Interestingly, as an actor, Heredia stuck so literally to the movement of Alfredo’s character in Piave’s libretto that Alfredo’s subservience to his father was maddening: the son’s filial weakness undercut the manliness of his love for Violetta. Both Frauenthal and Heredia sang with integrity; they held nothing back from full commitment to either their roles or their audience.

Jeremiah Johnson’s Giorgio Germont was well-intended: he sang competently, but his acting was wooden. Other more minor roles were exceptionally well sung: Hillary Grobe’s Flora, Jay Chacun’s Baron Douphol and Kofi Hayford’s Doctor Grenvill were all convincing, and Ileana Santamaria’s Annina was elegantly poignant.

Conductor and music director John Spencer conducted the small orchestra with crisp efficiency. The orchestra’s size made for a thin sound in passages where numerous strings would normally add lushness to the crowd-and-party scenes, but Spencer maintained close, effective control of balances of sound between singers and orchestra.

Although budget constraints were evident in the generally – but not universally – successful costuming, the restrained minimalism of the set design by James Fluhr and the direction for the extremely effective and imaginative use of the irregularly shaped elevated stage by Kyle Pfortmiller made for a production that had the feel of a small provincial opera house – an unexpected gem of a little theater – and not a mere practice-place for new professionals.

The performance was met with a standing ovation from the audience: they recognized that they had heard and seen something wonderful.

The Company of Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble’s production of “La Traviata” in the first act party scene (Photo credit: Mark Brown)

The Company of Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble’s production of “La Traviata” in the first act party scene (Photo credit: Mark Brown)

Traviata was part of a theme-season called Violetta and her Sisters, featuring music not merely by Verdi, but also by Massenet, Puccini and Leoncavallo, and concluding with a recital – something like an old-fashioned musicale – of song-settings of poetry by Baudelaire.

The Chansons de Baudelaire made for a rich afternoon. Altogether, there were 13 singers – 11 sopranos and mezzo sopranos, one tenor and one bass – four pianists and one violist; there were 13 songs and two piano solos; the songs were written by 12 composers, one alive … and present for the premiere of her song.

Each singer sang one song; some singers referred to a score while some sang from memory. Each stood up – cold, as it were – to capture and present one particular essence of poetry and music; all the singers sang well and a few sang marvelously.

Perri Sussman presented Fauré’s Chant d’automne in a resonant movement towards passion. Taylor Kirk and Emily Hughes also sang Fauré, both wedding text and music seamlessly. Kristina Malinauskaite’s rendition of Debussy’s Recueillement was rich, delicate and subtle.

Ileana Santamaria’s La vie anterieure by Henri Duparc gracefully turned the difficult music of the piece into a rich and elegant drama about remembered languor and indolence.  Ms. Grobe, with pianist Joseph Martin and violist Rick Quantz, provided a full chamber music experience with Loeffler’s La Cloche fêlée, presenting a wide range of dynamics and complex subtlety within a single song.

Though written by many different composers, all these Baudelaire songs were unified by a feeling of melancholy and introspection. The exception was the single contemporary work, the world premiere of Ellen Mandel’s setting of Baudelaire’s Le Chat. Mandel’s Chat was witty and flirtatious, a piece of music at once attractively accessible and rhythmically demanding. Ms. Frauenthal sang with a sense of unfettered sensuality and delighted fun: her come-hither presentation of the song was deliciously light, even as she exuded a leisurely air of worldly sexual experience and wisdom.

It’s hard to know which of the many singers who were part of this season’s Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble performances will become great artists. All are in some measure gifted and all are well-trained. Some are more accomplished and mature than others. All are still, in some sense, in the process of becoming.

We who get to watch this process are privileged.

Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble: Verdi La Traviata (August 25, 2016) & Les Chansons de Baudelaire (August 27, 2016)

Baruch Performing Arts Center

The Rose Nagelberg Theater, 1 Bernard Baruch Way at 25th Street and Lexington Avenue, in Manhattan

For more information: see

Running time: La Traviata: two hours with one intermission

Les Chansons de Baudelaire: one and a half hours with one intermission

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