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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.
Over the last few months I have been thinking a lot about our season, the future of music and what is opera in this day and age. More specifically, what is opera on Long Island, at the Sands Point Preserve.
The Sands Point Preserve is not just another beautiful place, it is an oasis of beauty and elegance. Driving down the long driveway of the overarching trees puts you in the state of mind of a different time. A time when we weren’t always connected to the internet through the jee jaw that also works as our own movie studio, camera, telephone, answering service and library. It is an almost magical event, the fact that ATT doesn’t get good service at the preserve only helps to add to this out of time and space phenomenon.
There are 3 main things that have been occurring to me that separate an evening at the opera from that of any other kind of event.
First there is the sound of the human voice is all it’s beauty and fragility, singing over an orchestra. Un-amplified. This is one of the most important things to me. We are so used to hearing the human voice through headphones, speakers and over PA systems that we fail to realize the stunning power and majesty that our voice, by itself can produce. When I listen Julia singing Sempre Libra or Stefanos’ Di Provenza it is not just a aural experience, you feel the vibration on your skin, on the back of your neck. It is essentially sensual thing. We as humans can recognize what they are doing, even if we cannot ourselves do it, and we feel a reaction inside as we breath with them, as we hear the pain or love in their voice and strive with them for those pearls of sound. There is something to be said about the sound of real instruments playing as well, with our 22 pieces the sound begins to wash over you, it transports you to a different reality where life has an underscore, where the subtlest emotion is heard clear as day. As one of my mentors Janet Bookspan always said “Music is what emotion sounds like.” and I hear the interplay between strings and winds and brass as that own torrent of emotions that our characters on stage must be going through. Sometimes all working together rushing us forward and sometimes fighting with each other for dominance in their internal struggles.
Second we have the emotional excessiveness that is opera. There is no getting around it, when someone is in love in an opera, it is an all encompassing tragic and beautiful love. When Thor, our Alfredo pours out his heart to Violetta, she is almost powerless against this raw, beautiful and exposed emotion. It is actually more exposed and pure than we as mere mortals can really ever allow ourselves to be. To open ourselves to everything that the world has to offer, good and bad, as long as we can face it with this person afar having known. In the second act Germont comes to Violetta and asks her to give up her Alfredo, again for love. For the love of his daughter, and the sister of Alfredo. It tears at her heart, just as it tears at ours.
The third is that a night at the opera is a happening. It is a chance to dress up, to be seen, to see. What I love about act one of Traviata, is that it is actually set in a place and time where people would be dressed up, in a elegant party. So much like an evening at the opera at Sands Point Preserve.