Volume 75, Number 23 | Oct. 26 - Nov. 01, 2005

Opera

“la traviata”
By Giuseppe Verdi
Through November 20
Amato Opera
319 Bowery, btwn. Bond and Bleecker Sts.
(212) 228-8200; amato.org

Photo by David Wentworth

Marry Ellen Schauber, one of the seven Violettas starring in the Amato Opera’s production of “La Traviata.”

La Traviata’ enchants at the Amato, but can the enchantment last?

By Michael Clive

If you missed the Amato Opera’s “Tosca” last month — or even if you didn’t — you still have eight chances over the next three weeks to see the company’s lucid production of Verdi’s “La Traviata,” which met customarily high performance standards at the season premiere October 22. But before you go, it’s best to bone up on the two classic love stories upon which this particular “La Traviata” is based.

You already know the first from its dozens of incarnations, starting with “The Lady of the Camellias,” Alexandre Dumas’ classic novel of doomed love between a worldly Parisian courtesan and an impetuous younger man. On the operatic stage, the lost lady is Verdi’s Violetta Valery, one of the most celebrated of soprano heroines. At the movies, she’s Greta Garbo’s legendary Camille as well as the progenitor of every horse-opera whore with a heart of gold. She even hit Broadway in Terrence McNally’s “The Lisbon Traviata,” in which Maria Callas’ Violetta is the symbolically freighted foil looming behind the action.

The second, more romantic tale, set right in the East Village, is the real-life love triangle that links maestro Tony Amato, his wife Sally, and their shared passion for opera. With fully staged, fully cast productions and reduced orchestrations, their company has thrived for 58 consecutive seasons.

Though Sally died in 2000, she is still a living presence in the tiny, 107-seat Amato Opera house on the Bowery at Second Street, right next to CBGB’s. From this improbable venue, Maestro Amato and his stalwart troupe continue to run their productions on love, musical integrity and dogged work—luring hardcore opera fans from far and near along with the occasional, unsuspecting newcomer.

Now that Manhattan real estate fever has pricey condos springing up along the Bowery, some of the Amato’s longstanding admirers are having the same nightmare as the rock fans next door: what will they do if gentrification forces them out? According to Tony Amato and the company’s executive director, Irene Frydel Kim, the answer is —

But first, back to “La Traviata.” The Amato’s current production is a prime example of what this company does like no other. Uptown at the Met, in Franco Zeffirelli’s sumptuously excessive production, the consumptive Violetta dies in a boudoir the size of Grand Central before an audience of four thousand. On the Amato’s 20-foot stage, where her bedroom is no bigger than yours, she is almost close enough for you to reach out and mop her brow. Care to guess which death scene is more dramatically compelling?

The Amato’s diminutive orchestra pit is exactly that, with barely enough room for a couple of instrumentalists on each of the major woodwind voices — flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon. Such orchestral reductions were an accepted norm back when every one-horse town had an opera house on Main Street; in fact, many of the Amato’s scores originated with small touring companies.

Though reductions diminish the richness and grandeur of full orchestral sound, they can also expose the expressive core of the music, adding intimacy to the dramatic experience. The Amato backs its ensemble with an electronic keyboard/synthesizer usually set for piano, augmented for the first time in this performance with a solo violin in key passages where the original scoring calls for it — for example, the three-hanky moment when the dying Violetta reads a letter of consolation from her lover’s father, crumples it and sobs, “It’s too late.”

It takes a rare singer to knit Violetta’s sophistication, pathos, and allure into a convincingly magnetic stage character. Popular opera lore is unyielding on the subject, demanding an authentic diva of unusual versatility and stamina who can be a coloratura in the first act, a lyric soprano in the second, and a dramatic soprano in the third. Remarkably, the Amato has found no fewer than seven Violettas for this season’s 12-performance run of “La Traviata.”

The first, Mia Riker-Norrie, inspired confidence from the moment she took the stage, and retained full vocal command throughout the performance. Her Violetta was not a woman of mysterious fascination, but an attractive, successful socialite—rosy and voluptuous with abundant blonde hair, like a Renoir model.

Her bright, full, securely produced voice lacked the rapid flexibility that can add an edge of glittery defiance to “Sempre libera,” the show-stopping party-girl manifesto with which Violetta ends Act I. But she sang its exciting, optional high E-flat climax with élan. Her contemplative “Ah, fors’e lui” projected idle musings rather than conflicted introspection, with artfully spontaneous diminuendos and descending phrases that draped themselves with silken fluidity. Later, her instrument—which has both heft and gleam—was especially suited to the darkening drama of Acts II and III.

Riker-Norrie’s interpretation lent credence to Vincent Titone’s Alfredo, whose ardor seemed not just youthful, but cherubically naïve. When formally introduced to Violetta, this Alfredo seemed more like a boy at a grown-up party than an admirer finally meeting his romantic obsession. By the second scene of Act II, his maturation in voice and character was startling.

And now — what about the Amato Opera’s future on the Bowery? Despite street rumors to the contrary, the ageless Tony Amato affirmed the company’s residency in a charming curtain speech. “We’re going to be here for many, many more years,” he said. “In the past two years we’ve added new seats, new stairwells, and our wonderful new stage curtains.”

Irene Frydel Kim clarified the company’s position for The Villager. “Let me tell you,” she said, “we know the rumors are out there. We’ve heard them. Luxury condos are going up everywhere, replacing every garage. The difference is, we’re not pressured, because we own our building. CBGB may be in trouble, but we’re not going anywhere.”

The Amato’s production of “La Traviata” will continue on Fridays at 7:30, Saturdays at 2:30 and 7:30, and Sundays at 2:30 through November 20. Then, timed for the holidays, a centennial production of Franz Lehar’s “The Merry Widow” begins December 3. “It’s musical comedy, and it’s in English,” says Maestro Amato. “So don’t go to Broadway, come here.”

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