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.
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.
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.
“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