With each passing year, Pittsburgh Opera’s Resident Artist Program productions seem to maintain or excel the high standards of those of the past. At first glance, this season’s offerings give every reason to look forward to them with keen anticipation. First up this winter is George Frideric Händel’s Richard the Lionheart, an ultra-rarity nearly three centuries old. It took a very long time for the work to receive American attention, with the United States premiere taking place as recently as 2015, when Opera Theatre of Saint Louis performed it during their summer season. Pittsburgh Opera’s production will mark only the second time the opera has been heard on this side of the Atlantic. As the company’s brief synopsis of the opera states: “King Richard I of England travels to Cyprus to retrieve his shipwrecked fiancée Costanza. But Isacio, the Governor of Cyprus, wants her for himself. Betrayal, greed, love and war - all the ingredients for a thrilling opera.” Adding to the interest of the production is the fact that a woman – Leah de Gruyl, the talented, promising mezzo-soprano, is assuming the title role. Ms. de Gruyl is a familiar face and voice to Pittsburgh Opera patrons; so far this season she has appeared in both La Traviata and Salome, and made her debut with the company in Little Women last year. But in Richard the Lionheart her much larger part will offer greater opportunity for the display of her talents. [caption id="attachment_4122" align="aligncenter" width="679"] Leah de Gruyl as Flora Bervoix in La Traviata[/caption] A recent graduate of the Masters and Artist Diploma programs at the University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music, Ms. de Gruyl’s appearances there included solo work in Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” and Symphony No. 3, Verdi’s “Requiem,” and Adams’ “El Niño,” as well as the title role in La tragèdie de Carmen (Peter Brook’s adaption of the Bizet classic), Mother Marie in Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, The Third Lady in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, Aloés in Chabrier’s L’Étoile, Mother Goose in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, and Eboli in the C.C.M. Philharmonic’s concert presentation of the five-act French version of Verdi’s Don Carlos. With the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, she has sung as soloist in Dvorák’s “Requiem,” and with the Asheville Symphony Orchestra in Haydn’s “Lord Nelson Mass.” In June 2015, she made her Carnegie Hall debut as soloist in Maurice Duruflé’s “Requiem.” She sang the title role in Carmen in the touring reduction with Cincinnati Opera as well as the full-length version with the Rome Festival Opera. [caption id="attachment_4123" align="aligncenter" width="679"] Leah de Gruyl (left) makes her Pittsburgh Opera debut singing the role of Aunt Cecilia March in Little Women (with Laurel Semerdjian)[/caption] She was at Sarasota Opera as a Studio Artist during the winter of 2015, covering the role of Eboli in Don Carlos. As an Emerging Artist at Virginia Opera, she sang the role of Juno in Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, and covered the role of Mary in Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman in the spring of 2016. This past summer she appeared as Madame Flora (Baba) in Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium, with PORTopera (Portland, ME). “I first knew that I wanted to pursue a singing career when I was about 16 or 17,” was her answer to one of my favorite questions for vocalists. “I had always sung rock with my dad, but I had been taking voice lessons from my piano teacher for a couple of years by that point, and was learning how to sing with a totally ‘new’ voice.” Chatham Baroque will be on hand with their marvelous period instruments and talented musicians for the performances of Richard the Lionheart, which open Saturday night, January 21, at the CAPA Theater. Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama has collaborated with Pittsburgh Opera to create custom sets for the performances. [caption id="attachment_4124" align="aligncenter" width="679"] Leah de Gruyl performs as the Page of Herodias in Salome (with Jonathan Boyd)[/caption] “This is my first Händel opera,” Ms. de Gruyl said of the production, “and one challenge was applying my voice to the very quick fioritura passages in a few of the arias. I have never sung anything this fast! I'm used to lyricism, so learning the style and the proper articulation has been very beneficial and enjoyable. Michael Beattie, our conductor, has taught me so much in the past couple of weeks, and I learn something new in every rehearsal. The other obvious challenge is playing a man. This role was written for a castrato, which means lower mezzo-sopranos now sing it. I have to be mindful that I'm embodying a ‘kingly’ posture during the staging process, and I think it becomes more accessible to me with each rehearsal. Crystal Manich, our director, is brilliant, and gives me a lot of suggestions for how to make it happen that work very well. Her concept is beautiful, the music is stunning, and it is very well cast. My colleagues all bring something special to the table.” For tickets, cast information, a full synopsis, and much more, please visit Pittsburgh Opera. The company’s Resident Artist Program has been providing excellent productions, and Richard the Lionheart promises to be a very rare treat – figuratively and literally. Photography: David Bachman
Comtra Theatre opened their 34th anniversary of community theatre productions with Stephen Sondheim and James Lupine’s Into The Woods January 6th. Into The Woods was first produced on Broadway in 1987 and won several awards including the Tony for book and score. Most people will be familiar with the story; a mash up of characters and plots from fairy tales that include Rapunzel, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk. The characters and story come together around the Baker and his wife’s deal with the Witch in their quest to start a family. The central theme of Into The Woods can be summed up simply. Be careful what you wish for and the consequences of wish fulfillment. Unfortunately, living life happily ever after doesn’t always work out as you had hoped. The show brings a strong dose of responsibility and morality as the character’s come to terms with the aftermath of the wishes they have been granted and painfully unravel with disastrous results. We remember these stories as nursery rhymes and the rhyming convention is used not only in the musical numbers but also in spoken songs. In many cases the songs serve as asides that convey the characters thought processes. The speech patterns are deliberately not natural, which forces you to pay close attention to get the plot nuances. The Comtra Theatre is a beautiful intimate “in the round performance” space seating an audience on the order of one hundred fifty. Its performance area is roughly eighteen by twenty feet and this show has a big cast. It is a tall order to make the staging work effectively. Director Johnny Gallagher does a nice job in making it all fit and flow in the intimate space. The limited stage space also forces elimination of all scenic elements. A few boxes, a pushcart and a ladder and some props are all that’s needed to make the show work well. Milky White, the cow, is a key element of the production. Putting a human in a cow costume just never really works. Gallagher instead cast a young boy, Jake Scheib, as the cow. He is dressed in khakis and a long sleeve white dress shirt, and he was instantly ‘the cow’ to me. Jake did a great job conveying the cow’s emotions as he is traded around. I never was distracted by a tacky cow costume. Another great solution was LaMar Lesters’ Wolf; Gallagher solved the costume issue with a wolf hand puppet rather than a full costume (pictured above). I loved Lester’s facial expressions and gestures as he stalks Red Riding Hood. Nicole Tomino as Little Red Riding Hood conveyed the effect combination of innocence and sensuality to both the Wolf and Jack. The Baker and his wife do the heavy lifting of moving the story along. Olivia and Jeffery have nice married couple chemistry (pictured below). Just in case you get lost in the woods, Tracy Rudzinski as the Narrator gets you back on track and keeps the ladder moving to the right place at the right time. This is no small task as she is dodging a dozen or so characters on a small stage. The two dashing, spoiled and yet debonair Princes are superb in the show’s second best known song “Agony”. Clarence Seybert and Joe Moeller nail it in this fun number. This is really an ensemble show, and this cast of actors works well together. Singing voices are fist rate, including the scary Lani Cataldi as the Witch and Shelly Schuster as Cinderella. Gallagher’s direction and staging is perfect for the intimate space of the Comtra, yet physical comedy is not skimped on; it’s subtle, not over the top and deliciously funny at times. Now I have one wish for this production that we saw on opening night. The “orchestra” is composed of two keyboards by which two musicians can recreate the fully orchestrated score. This provides for a much richer audience experience that just accompaniment by a piano only, EXCEPT when the music by necessity is amplified and the singers are not and the balance is way off. It was virtually impossible to discern dialog over underscoring or vocals in songs, particularly if the actors were facing the opposite side of the stage. No need to mic the actors, just lower the music volume. It was a shame to miss those great voices. That’s a minor adjustment, and hopefully the sound balance improves to match the performances. Special thanks to the Comtra Theatre for our courtesy tickets. Into the Woods runs at the Comtra Cultural Center weekends through January 21st. For tickets and more information, click here.
Photos courtesy of Jennifer Scheib
2016, it has been said, has been a pretty garbage year. The division between Americans is greater than ever in living memory, the incoming president’s speeches resemble a series of Cards Against Humanity jokes strung together, intolerance is at the forefront of global conversation, and each week a living legend lives no longer. Here we are, nearing the end (beginning?) or our long, international nightmare; and now, like a ‘too-soon’ joke at a funeral, the Christmas season is upon us. Put simply, this is a uniquely difficult time to put on a holiday show,particularly if you have something potentially impactful to say. As luck has it, it just so happens that Charles Dickens, who himself forced one class to engage with another, already wrote a pretty perfect Christmas-themed response to societal division, and he did so with wit and a warm heart. Enter the Steel City Shakespeare Center’s production of A Christmas Carol. This show is breezy, lighthearted, and – this is essential – for everyone: “Since producing A Christmas Carol the first time last year, the world seems to have become a more complicated place,” writes Jeffrey Chips, founder of SCSC and director of the production. “As we gather to experience this stripped-down retelling of a story we truly love to tell, let us remember…that we are more alike than different.” This director’s note written in the show’s playbill is the production’s exclusive moment of sobriety. SCSC’s Carol is the kind of show that, in the most honest sense, is just happy to be there. A narrated visual retelling of Dickens’ book, the production uses 4 lightly costumed performers (Jessica Schiermeister, Michael Mykita, Tonya Lynn and Jeffrey Chips), each of whom bounce between roles and narration duties. Originally performed at the historic Heathside Cottage, the actors would gently lead the audience from room to room as each new ghost was introduced, as if it were the world’s friendliest haunted house. What the show lacks in production values it compensates for with raw spirit, and the play has a pleasant sandbox quality to it. Actors makes use of a variety of toys and simple props breathe life into the production – a toy train whistle is memorably used to introduce the first ghost. Audience participation is encouraged, but not required, and the performers are careful not to impede the flow of the play to keep the show succinct and with energy. Chips and the cast clearly want their show to be fun, friendly and engaging, and there’s something to be said for the ‘we’re going to have fun doing this and you should too’ mentality of storytelling. As such, SCSC’s production will best serve families and larger groups of audience members. If there is an Achilles Heel to the show, it’s that a present, actively engaged audience is paramount to its success. This is not a show that exists easily in a vacuum, and a limited turnout can kneecap the experience. SCSC’s A Christmas Carol is a playful production of an old classic, and its earnest ‘come one, come all!’ vibe makes it feel like community theater comfort food. It was Dickens’ goal in writing A Christmas Carol to connect a desperate lower class with its more affluent brethren, and to instill empathy in a society that lacked it. SCSC’s production, then, is like a friendly neighbor offering kind words during a difficult time. The scale is different, but the sentiment is all the same. Special thanks to the Steel City Shakespeare Center for complimentary press tickets. Unfortunately A Christmas Carol has already closed but stay tuned for more from Jeffrey Chips and the gang. For more information, click here. Photos courtesy of Steel City Shakespeare Center.