OPERA REVIEW AND COMPANY PROFILE: dell’Arte Opera Ensemble’s “Violetta & Her Sisters”:
“Scenes from the Demi-Monde” (August 23, 2016)
Massenet’s Manon (August 24, 2016)
Verdi’s La traviata (August 25, 2016)
“Chansons de Baudelaire” (August 27, 2016)
Autumn ought not arrive without our noting that New York City enjoyed a mini-“Summer of the Courtesan.” For two weeks in August (the 13th through the 28th), one could join in a bittersweet brindisi, tip a glass to free-spirited pleasure, and shed a tear for loveliness cut down too young.
The program was “Violetta & Her Sisters,” and it was the fruit of the most recent year-long labor of love on the part of the dell’Arte Opera Ensemble, a remarkable company that has since the turn of the millennium been working – largely below the level of notice accorded many better-funded and more conspicuously “glamorous” arts initiatives – to identify, train and foster the operatic artists of the future.
Finding the Next Lost Ones
The summer’s eponymous Violetta was, of course, the “lost one” of Giuseppe Verdi’s 1853 La traviata – doomed courtesan Violetta Valéry. And her “sisters” comprised a bevy of other demimondaines and fellow-travelers from other operas, including Massenet’s titular Manon (1882), Musetta and friends from that so-called “other” La bohème (not Puccini’s, but Leoncavallo’s, 1896), and even such lively ladies as Magda from Puccini’s 1917 operetta La rondine.
It was a smart and enlightening collation of material, offering a wealth of reciprocal illuminations and revelations about the amorous ways of Paris as seen by a host of composers and poets, and performed by a unified ensemble of generous, talented and eager singers, all switching up roles and languages and, not incidentally, growing in performance strength, stamina and confidence right before our eyes.
It was also testament to the vision and commitment of dell’Arte’s founders and prime movers – the company’s artistic director and maestro, Chris Fecteau, and his wife, managing director Karen Rich.
In the Beginning
“I created the company [in 2000] because at the time there were so few opportunities for young singers to do quality role study,” says Fecteau. “Now there are more companies and programs that purport to be doing the same thing. But I don’t think many are providing the kind of support, coaching and classes that we are.”
Specifically, many such programs, while well-credentialed, are much more concentrated. “A quick six weeks,” says Fecteau, “and people have to show up basically already having learned the role.” At dell’Arte, on the other hand, singers are cast exclusively in debuts. The dell’Arte emphasis is on learning a role from square one.
“What we try to do is interrupt a singer’s normal, haphazard role study,” Fecteau says. “Singers are not only learning a role – they’re also acquiring role-learning process.” And the arc of that acquisition extends over the better portion of a year, with auditions in January, followed by early February callbacks, final casting in March, and coaching beginning in April. Varied training sessions – musical, dramatic, linguistic, movement-oriented – of increasing frequency, intensity and complexity are added thereafter, until actual staging rehearsals kick in in July. And all the effort is finally crowned by public performances in August.
Most impressively, all this training and experience are provided to the artists gratis – no participation fee or tuition of any kind has ever been charged. In fact, the company now provides honoraria to the performers.
“Last year, we started with stipends for the principals,” says Fecteau, “and this year, we had a small stipend for all singers. I joke that it’s lunch money right now. But we desperately want to increase that.”
Hither and Yon
The precise format and location of dell’Arte’s programs have changed over the company’s 17 seasons to date. The first year saw a single, fully-produced presentation of Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi at Manhattan’s Riverside Church in 2000, with spoken excerpts from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet integrated with the action. Subsequent seasons emphasized “readings” – first of single operas, later of multiple, related works. 2009 marked the company’s transition toward its current, winning strategy of fully-staged, multi-work repertory seasons based on some integrated, panoptic idea – such as a “Beaumarchais Trilogy” (three operas – by Paisiello, Mozart and Hiram Titus – each based on a Beaumarchais “Figaro” play), or this year’s Violetta/courtesan concept.
Let’s Have a Story!
The ensemble’s performances are now given in the Rose Nagelberg Theater at the Performing Arts Center of Baruch College (City University of New York) – a comfortable, versatile and spacious black-box style space located a delightfully secluded full-fathoms-five or so below Lexington Avenue at 25th Street. These performances generally eschew elaborate production values, placing emphasis instead on musical excellence, good acting and directing, and the prime objective of clear and compelling narrative.
“We’re trying to distill everything to the most essential elements of really good storytelling,” says Fecteau. “That’s the bottom line. I always tell my designers, ‘if it’s not serving telling the story, then perhaps it’s not something that belongs in our productions.’”
And it’s amazing how fresh and new-minted the literature can seem when approached this way.
Exploring Half a World
While there was no prescribed order in which to view the various elements of dell’Arte’s 2016 season, the anthology evening “Scenes from the Demimonde” (viewed on August 23) proved a wonderfully evocative predicate for the full-length works seen later. The program offered Act I of Puccini’s only operetta, La rondine, cleverly updated and “semi-staged” by director Brittany Goodwin as a slice of boho-chic 1960s coffeehouse life, and revealing all the glittering intelligence, spontaneity and easygoing eroticism of Puccini’s characters in a way that more elaborate original-period productions often fail to do.
In a winning cast, Rebecca Richardson’s fine youthful soprano and bright manner were a delight in the role of the courtesan, Magda. Soprano Emily Hughes was a strong-voiced and earthy foil as her maid, Lisette. Tenor Douglas Sabo worked the droll, mock-romantic lines and vocal caprices of the poet Prunier with waggish swagger. And tenor Sean Christensen was a standout as the amorous adventurer Ruggero, giving a wonderfully warm and caressing rendering of “Parigi è la città dei desideri.”
And since only Act I of La rondine was played, there was poignancy and poetry in watching Magda embark on her incognito romantic foray, knowing that our evening would provide no closure to her story. The interrupted narrative thus remained as open as Puccini’s own apparent attitude toward it (the composer himself never chose which of his own endings was “official”) – indeed, as open as life itself.
The second half of the demimonde program was a truly special treat – both an excerpt of Act I and a full Act IV of Leoncavallo’s unfairly overlooked La bohème, which has always been overshadowed by the more commercially successful Puccini treatment of Henri Murger’s same tales of the Latin Quarter. Nicely handled (again, “semi-staged”) by director Joule Voelz, the troupe of young Parisian free-lovers provided both a festive and freewheeling Christmas Eve dinner scene, and a truly moving finale in that cold artists’ garret. Tenor José Heredia (Marcello), baritones Jay Chacon (Rodolfo) and Nobuki Momma (Schaunard), and sopranos Magda Gartner (Musetta) and Ileana Santamaria (Mimì) all did credit to the lyricism, insouciance and buoyant humanity of Leoncavallo’s impecunious band of hoi polloi.
Paying the Piper
Fecteau and Rich work indefatigably throughout the year to ensure that the next dell’Arte season will happen. Naturally, they each have other gigs, other careers (Fecteau is an accomplished conductor, arranger, and role preparation coach). But, come crunch time, Fecteau and Rich so exhaustively carve up the myriad requisite chores between them that, as summer revs up, “not many people involved realize that we’re a couple,” says Fecteau. “We don’t get to see each other a lot during the summer.”
The dell’Arte Opera Ensemble is seemingly the couple’s professional-life lodestar, their ever-evolving joint magnum opus. It displaces a lot else. It demands sacrifices. Oh, and it needs to be funded.
Fundraising? “The biggest challenge, to be honest,” says Fecteau. “Neither my wife nor I have any background in fundraising,” so they’re on a constantly upward learning curve.
Yet they’re also evidently doing something right. Likely, the sheer high-lumen energy and ferocity of their pursuit is what attracts such donors and supporters as they can boast. And even if the financial challenge is never fully surmounted, it has thus far each year at least been provisionally met.
Call Me Manon
One of the two fully-staged operas of dell’Arte’s summer 2016 season was Massenet’s masterpiece, Manon. Director Victoria Crutchfield took clever and clarifying advantage of the dell’Arte minimalist aesthetic, staging and shaping the narrative principally with a variety of frames – window frames, picture frames – emphasizing the title character’s fascination with the retail splendors on offer in the increasingly rarefied and opulent Parisian haute monde into which she rises – a kind of Belle-Époque Breakfast at Tiffany’s with a tragic ending. (Note, also, that Crutchfield’s handling of the Act III ballet, with the company synchronously and choreographically assembling and disarticulating the limbs, head and torso of a dress mannequin, was lurid, thematically apt, and brilliant.)
Soprano Olivia Betzen, as Manon, was an alert, wide-eyed and impulsive heroine, with bright, knife-edged tones that cut deeply and cleanly into Massenet’s rich romantic melodies. And tenor Sean Christensen, so effective in his aforementioned turn in La Rondine, was superb in his brooding, mature vocal realization of the fatuous young nobleman/lover Des Grieux. Other notable performances were given by baritone Nick Webb as the hero’s father, Le Comte des Grieux; sopranos Kristina Malinauskaite and Perri Sussman and mezzo-soprano Hillary Grobe as a trio of Manon’s histrionic rivals; and tenor Andrew Surrena, who stepped with assurance and fine voice as a replacement into the role of Guillot, with only five days’ notice. (“He was quite legendary,” remarks Fecteau of the accomplishment.)
Traviata in Training
The dell’Arte summer 2016 centerpiece production was La traviata, offered six time between August 13 and 27. As this opera is so frequently produced, it both made good sense and was of good service to the artists to schedule it with the greatest frequency, and to double-cast it, thus giving as many ensemble members as possible an opportunity to get the opera’s roles under their belts.
The Violetta viewed on August 25 was soprano Bonnie Frauenthal, and she proved exemplary in the demanding role – a natural actress with a supple-voiced lyric sound, well-handled coloratura and a warm middle register. Tenor José Heredia as her lover, Alfredo Germont, was appropriately ardent and exhibited a flexible, buoyant and lissome lyric quality. The role of the elder Germont was commandingly and memorably performed by baritone Jeremiah Johnson. The entire production was staged with fluid and lambent clarity by director Kyle Pfortmiller.
Without most of the outer trappings traditional to grand opera – elaborate sets, sumptuous costumes – the dell’Arte audience experience is one of unusually concentrated commune with the music, savoring of vocal nuance, and intimate connection with the performance life of artists creating character. It is an experience of extraordinary participatory thrill – witnessing young performers making important discoveries; being present at that oft-concealed radical interface where craft strives toward – and either succeeds or fails at – becoming art.
“Some people are very successful in their outings,” says Fecteau candidly and affectionately of his ensemble members, “while other people – you can tell it’s just beyond where they are. The vibe created by their doing it is a little like walking a tightrope.”
A Wicked Bouquet
A final, ingenious addition to the company’s August 2016 season was a one-time concert of art songs called “Chansons de Baudelaire,” featuring only material based on the poems of Les fleurs du mal (“The Flowers of Evil”) by seminal Belle-Époque poet Charles Baudelaire. These verses – a quintessential gloss on the urbane, voluptuary mores of the world of the courtesans – have exerted a continual fascination over composers right from the time of their publication. The dell’Arte concert gave its ensemble members a chance to explore settings by a broad range of such composers.
Notable selections included “Chant d’automne,” set with deep, liquid arpeggios by Gabriel Fauré and performed with aristocratic poise and a warm, honey-like mezzo-soprano by Perri Sussman; “Recueillement,” pensively set by Claude Debussy and rendered with a sort of time-exempting calm by soprano Kristina Malinauskaite; “L’amour et le crâne,” characterized by dark, mythic sonorities by Vincent d’Indy and sung with strikingly contrasting trumpet tones by tenor Christopher Alison; “La vie anterieure,” which offered a chance for flamboyant pianism in the accompaniment (by assistant director and chorus master David Štech) supporting the warm legato tones of a fine vocal journey by soprano Ileana Santamaria; two clever pieces by composer Charles Loeffler, each deploying a combo of piano and viola in the accompaniment (Rick Quantz, violist): “Harmonie du soir,” sung with sweet purity by mezzo-soprano Natasha Nelson; and “La cloche fêlée,” a remarkable mini-concerto for voice and viola, sung with sophistication and impressive emotional range by mezzo-soprano Hillary Grobe.
And the program also offered one exciting world-premiere Baudelaire setting – “Le chat,” with music by noted New-York-based composer Ellen Mandel (“It was an honor just to be on a program along with Fauré and Debussy,” she later beamed). Performed with exquisite and seductive feline wile by beguiling soprano Bonnie Frauenthal, the piece is by turns playful, sexy, coy and sultry. It might almost plausibly be slipped into a production of Carmen (“It’s definitely a habanera!” remarks maestro Fecteau).
The Forces with Them
Both “Scenes from the Demimonde” and “Chansons du Baudelaire” were piano-accompanied. However, the two full operas – Manon and La traviata – each featured an adroit and polished orchestra of approximately 21 players, conducted consummately by, respectively, maestro Fecteau and John Spencer IV.
“They are among the better young freelancers in town,” says Fecteau of the instrumental forces he assembled for the season. “We are fortunate to have good word of mouth among orchestra musicians.”
And, one might add, such word of mouth almost surely extends to audiences and supporters who have to date had the good fortune to discover dell’Arte and appreciate the company’s work and ambition. While its operations may in some respects remain (as Fecteau himself describes them) “homespun,” its accomplishments are manifest. Among the ensemble’s alumni, Fecteau can count “ten different Met debuts” (including soprano Amanda Pabyan, who sang the Queen of the Night under James Levine; and dell’Arte’s own Traviata director, Kyle Pfortmiller, who debuted in the same opera at the Met in the role of il Marchese d’Obigny). “We’ve got people working literally all over the world,” says Fecteau.
So where are the major sponsorship dollars? The major grants and the game-changing corporate and foundation subsidies?
“What we do is not seen by everyone as glamorous,” Fecteau demurs. “We don’t have big wine receptions and a fancy space. It’s ‘down and dirty.’”
It’s a tellingly humble and disarming moment of self-effacement from an artist self-avowedly committed to rolling up his own sleeves, getting as down and dirty as need be where the future of the art is concerned. Funders, take note: getting down and dirty (and helping cultivate new practitioners of the most complex and demanding of all performing art forms in the bargain) is not only important. It can be greatly rewarding fun.
The Adventure Continues
While he is not prepared to disclose details, maestro Fecteau reveals that the theme for dell’Arte’s 2017 program – on which he is already at work – is likely to be “Untamed” (I’ll leave it at that,” he teases, “and let you speculate all you want”). Any parties interested in walking on the wild side with this vital and persevering vanguard company may contact the dell’Arte Opera Ensemble at firstname.lastname@example.org. Prospective board members are actively sought. Adventure is virtually guaranteed.