Hello there, I’m Jake Grusd, stage manager of La Traviata (and last year’s Barber of Seville) and, starting now, blogger. I just thought that through this production process it would be nice to just give an inside look into what’s been going on.
Last night’s rehearsal, actually, is what inspired me to start writing about my experiences and observations. Today I’d like to introduce you to a certain tenor: Thorsteinn H. Arbjornsson, aka, Thor, aka, Alfredo. And he is Icelandic – I bet you’ve never seen that combination before.
Now bear with me for a second for a little music history preface before I delve into this unique tenor.
Last night we staged the first half of Act II, which, of course, opens with Alfredo’s nice recit and aria. Through this shining moment did I see that Thor was not just an ordinary tenor. Verdi’s recitatives are, at least to my ears, a very distinctive indicator of the bridge between the finely chiseled, formulaic placement of notes during the Classical and Bel Canto periods and the freer, silvery lines that swept over the Romantic period. While still retaining that characteristic a piacere quality of Mozart or Rossini, for example, there is much more integration of an overarching melody and smoother line, particularly when it precedes an aria. It is a very unique quality in Italian opera (I hear similar recit. construction in French opera but the overall phrasing is stylistically very different between French and Italian opera). Alfredo’s opening recit. (Lunge da lei per me non v’ha diletto) is inserted right into the middle of an exciting, orchestral melody; there is no simple harpsichord arpeggio to give the singer his note but a developed prelude to the character’s exclamation. And this continues. Verdi’s recitatives require a singer who can understand the sense of large, legato phrases that are intruding music during this era while still polishing his lines with bel canto elegance – this keeps the dialogue-like feeling intact while keeping with the intent of the score.
But can Thor do it? Within the first half hour of rehearsal as we crafted this section of the opera, I just thought, “Damn, he can.” Thor truly comprehends the proper execution of these lines, knowing when to just hold that syllable a LITTLE longer and just SLIGHTLY accent a certain consonant. As the recit continues, the melody in the orchestra drops away; however, it doesn’t revert to earlier composers’ style – the singer takes over in a quasi-melodic recitative fashion, and the orchestra weaves a sustained chord that envelops the phrases of the singer, rather than setting a chord progression. It perfectly exemplifies that bridging of eras I mentioned earlier. As this is a rather unique style in opera, executing a Verdian recitative is a skill that must be practiced diligently so that one can naturally acquire the simple shadings that create a complex phrase – and Thor could do it. There was always a little finesse wrapped around key notes and syllables, and yet he never seemed to be forcing anything or overcompensating. Thor also always remained in control of his phrases. He knew at what tempo he would let his words slip out of his mouth, but he never let them lose their footing and fall off of the beat. Thor sang Verdi’s recitative with elegance, control, and – on top of all that – a legato line that Maria Callas would have been proud of (and that legato continued through the night, but ESPECIALLY during the aria).
The last thing I just want to mention quickly is his sound. I don’t know how to describe it, but his timbre is not one that I can say that I have ever heard before – and I like it. I’m not sure what creates it, but it’s unique, especially in how I hear him handling ascending phrases through his passagio. Normally, I would expect to hear a tenor shifting registers as he approaches a G, Ab, A and then opening wide for the high stuff. Thor’s middle/ high range was notably absent of a shift. Typically you hear that and think, “I’m scared for him to shriek out the high stuff now cause he’ll be trapped in the wrong place.” But nope. He was perfectly fine and easily reached to a beautiful Bb, B, and C. This unusual – but seemingly healthily produced and natural – sound gives certain phrases a shading that my ears have never experienced before. And I like it.