Today at Historic New England’s dramatic Eustis Mansion in Milton, MassOpera finishes its sold-out, 18-performance run of La Traviata. Known as MetroWest Opera before 2018, this innovative performing organization presented a tightly wound, in-your-face interpretation that successfully sustained the narrative drama of Verdi’s original, while showcasing each character in an intimate, immaculate setting (described in detail by Director Katy Early HERE).
In this era of widescreen simulcasts from the Met, its continuing Live in HD movie cinema series, and a slow return of fully-staged live events (calendar HERE), audiences yearn for the human connection that opera is so successful at providing. For these Traviatas, an audience of 30 listeners joined conductor Daniel P. Ryan, who led a jaunty, rough live string quartet version of Verdi’s score in Acts I and II, an immersive outdoor costume party-cum-cabaret led by Assistant Conductor Timothy Steele at the piano (with the fantastically Klezmer-ish clarinetist Yasmin Valenzuela-Blanchard and set drummer Dan Pelletier) for Act III. The final act was the most aggressively cut, with a spooktacular solo violin haunting the mansion in memory of Verdi’s richer orchestration. This part of the presentation was the most creatively arranged music I’ve ever heard, as Violetta’s decline through COVID-like symptoms was shatteringly heightened by the lack of a huge visible support system. Solo violinist Anna Harris, simply costumed in black, mirrored the singers through sound and movement, vanishing up the stairs with Violetta intoning her final phrases.
A triumph of economy and theatrical flair, each performance featured a selection of eight singers (from a total company of 27) and nine musicians in the echoing grand entrance hall and stairs, a small peacock-infested drawing room, and on a festive stone patio. These locations invited listeners to enter the world of one of six possible Violetta Valérys (Alisa Cassola, Sarah Joyce Cooper, Carina DiGianfilippo, Mary Johnston Letelier, Tamara Ryan, and Shaina Martinez). I had the pleasure of seeing Martinez at a later evening performance on Thursday, October 21st: she was radiant and magnetic in her convincing portrayal of Verdi’s complex heroine. Dressed in pinks and ghostly white satins by Costume Designer Jen Greeke, Martinez floated through the cavernous spaces of the Eustis Mansion, glowing with an unearthly pallor under diffuse stage lights placed to subtly evoke the full moon outside (Lighting Designer Erik Fox).
The standout voice last Thursday evening, Omar Najmi, an intense Alfredo who stole every scene, equally matched Violetta’s surprisingly deeper, warmer coloratura. His heroic “Libiamo, ne’ lieti calici” set a high standard, echoing powerfully through the upper floors of the central mansion. Najmi is also a successful operatic composer, and he has presented new works with the support of Live Arts Boston grants. The central pair’s magnetic chemistry dominated the main entrance hall both vocally and physically: their peripatetic blocking required them to pace, sing facing away from the audience, ascend and descend the elaborate wooden staircase, and even lie prone, one foot from the masked audience. Other performances featured tenors David Rivera Bozón and Carl Rosenthal as Alfredo, with effervescent party-host Floras drawn from a soprano roster including Vanessa Naghdi, Jessica Tainor Tasucu, and the always entertaining Melynda Davis, who lit up Act I and III by continually welcoming and corralling her guests into motion.
The most unusual aspect of the casting brought Alfredo’s father Germont, one of Verdi’s great paternal roles, to life through a more flexible approach: baritone Ron Williams portrayed traditional, paternal concern, whereas mezzos Emily Geller and Martha Warren reimagined the role as mothers, resulting in some new duet work when convincing Violetta) or scolding Alfredo. Warren acted with aplomb, softening some of Germont’s harsh demands with a thoughtful, balanced quality in “Pura siccome un angelo.” This framed Verdi’s Act II as a window into a private drawing room conversation, maintaining the dignity of all of the characters.
A supporting vocal quartet ably took on Baron Douphol, Violetta’s assistant Anina, house servants, and party guests. At my performance, baritone Gray Leiper made a charmingly dangerous Baron-tone Douphol in the Act III costume party; the enthusiastic mezzo soprano Rachel Adams and new local tenor Ai Ra seemed to inhibit omnipresent clones of themselves, and the spectacularly charismatic soprano Abby Mae Rodgers (who also acted as the cover for Flora) provided a lightness and clarity that buoyed even the most complex scenes.
Professional bios of all performers may be found HERE. The performances were sung in Italian and supported by a handout containing detailed summaries of the action in each act. The libretto for this unique 90-minute condensed version is HERE. MassOpera’s website is HERE.