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Monday, May 20, 2019

Can’t Help Falling

From the Opera Vault Dept.: We’re gearing up for summer opera season, so here’s a re-visit to a time, thirty years ago, when the NYC Opera performed in Saratoga Springs each summer. When the NYC Opera existed at all.

THE NEW YORK CITY OPERA’S opening production of their short Saratoga Performing Arts Center season this year was marred only by two adversities: the weather, about which no one is able to do much, and the perennially unkind acoustics, about which ditto.

Marilyn Mims
Other than that, it was a glorious trip to that fancified Paris of “La Traviata” Wednesday night with a die-hard crowd that sloshed into the amphitheater to share in the magic of Verdi’s masterpiece.

Marilyn Mims and Walter MacNeil sang the roles of Violetta and Alfredo, the lovers whose affair, you get the feeling, is doomed the moment she starts coughing in the first act.

The opera is a soprano’s showcase, both in talent requirement and the skill with which the part is written. Mims did a lovely job transforming herself, during the first act, from a live-for-the-moment character into a woman seriously touched by Alfredo’s attention. She echoes the elements of two of his first act arias and then launches into two difficult arias, back to back: “Ah fors’e lui che l’anima” and “Sempre libera,” all of which was sung with strength, precision and a keen sense of grace.

Alfredo can easily come across as a rather wimpish suitor: he doesn’t do much in this piece except profess lots of love and (it’s almost as a relief) get jealously angry. MacNeil gave it his robust best, achieving a credible handsome-guy portrait. Helped, of course, by a very pleasant voice.

Frank Corsaro’s direction took advantage of the spacious settings to present the action portrait-like, a series of tableaux reminiscent of the fin-de-siecle poster art.

Events are so goody-good through the first act that the entrance of Alfredo’s stormy-browed dad (baritone William Stone) to demand that Violetta abandon his son is an attention-grabber. He’s an old-movie father, driving home his indignation with jabs of his cane, but there’s an undercurrent to the confrontation built into the score, giving it an arresting depth. And Stone, though looking and sounding a bit young for the part, earned his bravos well. In the midst of Violetta’s passionate professions of sincere love, he casually reaches for a coffee cup, a perfect gesture that underscores his calculating nature.

The celebrated aria “Di Provenza,” with which the elder Germont consoles his son later in the act, was certainly sung with terrific feeling, but it wasn’t necessary to goose the volume right in the midst of it, as the amplifier-board boys saw fit to do.

Which brings us back to the abovementioned problems. The weather gave us a steady patter of rain on the roof, nothing really distracting; the temperature fogged the breath of the singers. But that amplification is a shame. I won’t debate its necessity, except to offer the gentle reminder that if an opera needs to be amplified, it’s playing in too large a hall. And the only justification for playing a too-large hall is greed.

Because that sound system will always be more distraction than enhancement. It’s weird to see Violetta singing on one side of the stage and hear the metallic sibilance of a speaker somewhere else.

I’ve long complained about the New York City Opera’s obsession with supertitles: the money would be better spent commissioning English librettos from journeyman lyricists. But I took perverse pleasure in noticing that they aren’t really titles so much as clever weapons: just before the second act ends, Alfredo makes a discovery about Violetta that sets his temper off. The nature of the discovery, no doubt revealed in the Italian, was entirely omitted by the supertitlist.

The NYCO series continues with a 8:15 p.m. performances of “La Traviata” tonight (June 15) and Sunday, and “The Barber of Seville” tomorrow.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 14 June 1989

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