Tosca

Tosca (1)Pittsburgh Opera inaugurated its 79th season last night with an overall brilliant performance of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca. The opera is a perennial favorite, and deservedly so. Puccini penned possibly the last “grand opera” of the 19th century when he set to music this Italian libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. It was first heard at the Teatro Costanzi, Rome, in January 1900. The work, based on Victorien Sardou’s 1887 French-language play, La Tosca, is a melodrama set in Rome in June 1800, while the Kingdom of Naples’ control of Rome is threatened by Napoleon’s invading forces. The three leading roles are Floria Tosca, a singer; Mario Cavaradossi, her artist lover, and the villainous Baron Scarpia, who has Rome under an iron fist.

Mario’s political intrigues give Scarpia cause to seize him as a prisoner, and use him as a hostage to claim the prize he lusts after – Tosca. The lady is led to believe that giving herself to Scarpia for a night will free Mario after a “mock” execution and secure for the lovers the safe conduct papers they will need to flee Rome. Unaware that she is being double-crossed, the desperate, gentle Tosca is forced to dispatch Scarpia by her own hand. When she realizes Scarpia’s treachery and that all is lost, she leaps to her death to avoid capture for Scarpia’s murder. Some of the action is intensely dramatic, the orchestration is some of Puccini’s finest, and the opera contains some of his best-known arias. The production is staged and designed rather grandly in the traditional fashion, and is mercifully spared from “modern dress” or some of the other abstract conceptions today’s directors and designers seem to think the classics need, when they don’t. Of course, such liberties are frequently taken when expenses are the inspiration, and this production is rich and lavish, colorful and a delight to the eye.

The famous Te Deum in the Church of Sant' Andrea alla Valle at the end of Act 1
The famous Te Deum in the Church of Sant’ Andrea alla Valle at the end of Act 1

There was a great deal to delight the ear as well. Antony Walker and the orchestra gave a performance that would have thrilled Puccini himself. This gifted group can always be counted on for excellence, but last night the score received a powerful interpretation in the many passages which require a gripping instrumental accompaniment and balanced these with those needing a more delicate sound quite exquisitely. The ever-reliable chorus, under the direction of Mark Trawka, was in top form as well. The large group, augmented by a number of children, added greatly to the magnificence of the first act’s conclusion. They were well rehearsed in action as well, and becomingly costumed.

Leah Crocetto makes her role debut as Tosca with Pittsburgh Opera
Leah Crocetto makes her role debut as Tosca with Pittsburgh Opera

The bulk of the vocal demands falls on the shoulders of the title role, and the American soprano Leah Crocetto, singing the part for the first time in her career, delivered a sterling interpretation of the tragic heroine. She was at her very best in the passages requiring dramatic force, and her rendition of the famous second act aria, “Vissi d’arte” (“I lived for art”), brought down the house, as the old saying goes. It’s not likely she’ll be forgetting her first Tosca anytime soon because at the final curtain she received one of the most vociferous ovations heard at the Benedum in quite some time. She does not present the visual illusion of Puccini’s jealous and coquettish opera singer to any great degree, but in action, she proved to be quite agile and effective. A soprano with multiple performances of the role under her belt would be hard pressed to top the vocal rendition Ms. Crocetto delivered, and the audience’s reception of her was quite exciting.

Scarpia (Mark Delavan) attempts to intimidate Mario Cavaradossi (Thiago Arancam)
Scarpia (Mark Delavan) attempts to intimidate Mario Cavaradossi (Thiago Arancam)

Tenor Thiago Arancam, heard in the spring in Turandot, returned in the role of Mario Cavaradossi. This young man has an impressive resume that includes performances stretching from Moscow to San Francisco, and just about every place in between, and in appearance he is ideal in romantic, heroic roles. His vocal method tends at times to require strenuous effort to reach climacteric passages, with the result that his voice has a slightly hollow, reedy sound, with an audible glide between the registers. Since I’ve only heard him on nerve-racking opening nights, it wouldn’t be fair to say he always sings in this manner, and he was very well received by the audience for his delivery of the plaintive third act aria, “E lucevan le stelle” (“And the stars shone”).

Baritone Mark Delavan, heard here on a number of occasions, returned as the treacherous Baron Scarpia. His acting of the part was a subtle and effective portrayal, and vocally he is well suited to the role. He was at his best in the magnificent “Te Deum” which concludes the first act, his powerful voice plainly audible over the surging of the orchestra, massive chorus, church bells and booming cannon. He sang very well in the second act, in which his death at the hands of Tosca was vividly and realistically enacted. At the final curtain he was quite amusing in his reception of the audience’s good-natured mixture of hearty applause and booing.

Guards move in to seize Tosca (Leah Crocetto) for Scarpia's murder
Guards move in to seize Tosca (Leah Crocetto) for Scarpia’s murder

The remaining characters in the cast have comparatively little to do, but the secondary roles were well handled by Resident Artists, past and present. Andy Berry was especially effective as Angelotti, the escaped political prisoner, and Matthew Scollin had fun with the flustered Sacristan. Eric Ferring and Ben Taylor were effective as Scarpia’s henchmen, Spoletta and Sciarrone, and Ashley Fabian sang the brief, off-stage strains of the Shepherd Boy.

The production is well staged and designed, with impressive sets, costuming and lighting effects. The Tosca of 2017 is by all means one of the best presentations of the work Pittsburgh Opera has given, and is one that shouldn’t be missed. For performance dates, a full synopsis, cast biographies and much more, visit Pittsburgh Opera.

The “Artistic Team” for Tosca  –

Conductor, Antony Walker; Stage Director, Garnett Bruce; Set Designer, Ercole Sormani; Lighting Designer, Andrew David Ostrowski; Wig and Makeup Designer, James Geier; Stage Manager, Cindy Knight; Assistant Conductor, Glenn Lewis; Chorus Master, Mark Trawka; Associate Coach/Pianist, James Lesniak; Assistant Stage Director, Frances Rabalais.

David Bachman Photography

Pittsburgh Opera – 79th Season Preview

19510228_10155437700003627_2356889475989053021_nPittsburgh Opera has chosen for its 79th season an interesting combination of works – a 50/50 split between the old, tried and true, and the new, including a second world premiere in as many seasons. The festivities begin with a “Diamond Horseshoe” fund raising ball at the Omni William Penn Hotel, Friday evening, September 22. Opera, as presented on the scale our city’s company achieves, is a very expensive proposition, and ticket sales alone come not even close to covering the tab.

Tosca (1)The two autumn offerings at the Benedum are time honored classics – Puccini’s Tosca and Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (“The Marriage of Figaro”). Tosca is a perennial favorite with lovers of the art form, and an excellent choice for the novice’s first operatic experience. The initial performance, the evening of Saturday, October 7, will officially open the 2017-’18 season, and will be given the usual three repetitions. The action takes place in the course of a single day in the life of Floria Tosca (an opera singer), Mario Cavaradossi, her artist lover, and the evil Baron Scarpia, a ruthless police chief who holds Rome under his thumb in 1800. There are tragic consequences for all concerned in the web of political intrigue and deception, and the opera is certainly one of Puccini’s best, in terms of famous arias – and perhaps his most effective orchestration – bringing the action vividly to life. The opera contains one of the most dramatic scenes ever penned for the lyric stage, and in addition to providing ample opportunity for the soprano, tenor and baritone leads, will display the company’s first class chorus and orchestra to full advantage.

Conductor Antony Walker and Chorus Master Mark Trawka may be counted on to bring out the best in those departments, and an impressive cast will provide the vocal thrills in this production owned by Seattle Opera. Soprano Leah Crocetto returns to Pittsburgh Opera in the title role, singing the part for the first time in her career. Her impressive resume includes appearances at the Metropolitan Opera and with many of the leading opera companies across the country, as well as performances in Canada and abroad. Tenor Thiago Arancam, whose accomplished international career brought him to Pittsburgh last in the spring production of Turandot, returns as Cavaradossi, Tosca’s ill-fated lover and political prisoner of the sinister Scarpia. That coveted baritone role will be sung by Mark Delavan, another fine artist with a large repertory who has won critical acclaim in this country and Europe, last heard here in the title role of Verdi’s Nabucco a couple of years ago. The opera’s minor roles will be the hands of the company’s Resident Artists, both past and present, and promises to be a thrilling inauguration of this season’s offerings.

Marriage of Figaro (2)Next up is the Mozart masterpiece, Le Nozze di Figaro, sung in the original Italian (as will be Tosca), but on the bill as “The Marriage of Figaro.” The tuneful comic opera has been entertaining audiences for over 230 years, and its story of romance and mistaken identity provides for a large array of colorful characters. The first performance will take place Saturday evening, November 4, and the production, owned by Washington National Opera, will be given by a strong cast under the baton of Anthony Walker. A sequel of sorts to The Barber of Seville, Mozart’s work premiered several decades before Rossini set the first “Figaro” story to music.

Bass-baritone Tyler Simpson (Figaro) and baritone Christian Bowers (Count Almaviva), both Americans with critically acclaimed careers, will make their Pittsburgh Opera debuts. In fact, the cast is an impressive array of American-born talent, with soprano Danielle Pastin, well known locally, taking the role of the Countess Almaviva; soprano Joélle Harvey will be Susanna, and mezzo-soprano Corrie Stallings will be Cherubino, the Count’s love-sick page. Resident Artists Leah de Gruyl (Marcellina), Eric Ferring (Don Basilio and Curzio) and Andy Berry (Antonio) will be familiar faces and voices, and Brian Kontes will appear in the role of Dr. Bartolo.

Long Walk (1)Winter, as usual, will bring the Resident Artist productions, and here, too, Americans will be strongly to the fore, both as composers and performers. First up is The Long Walk, a Pittsburgh premiere, with music by Jeremy Howard Beck and a libretto by Stephanie Fleischmann. The opera, which tells the dramatically gripping tale of an Iraqi War veteran’s return to civilian life, will receive its first performance at the CAPA Theater, January 20. First staged in 2012, The Long Walk has been described by reviewers as “a daring operatic depiction of war’s aftermath” that “hits on all that makes us human.” Conducted by Glenn Lewis, the cast will feature Benjamin Taylor, Leah de Gruyl, Eric Ferring, Shannon Jennings, Ashley Fabian and Martin Bakari.

Ashes & Snow (1)Pittsburgh Opera’s second world premiere, Ashes & Snow, will be performed for the first time on February 17, at the company’s George R. White Opera Studio in its Strip District headquarters. With music by Douglas J. Cuomo, and text based on Wilhelm Müller’s poems which Franz Schubert set to music in his well known “Winterreise” (“Winter Journey”) song cycle, the work will showcase tenor Eric Ferring in the tale of a man staring his life in the face in a second-rate motel room in the American west. The composer will conduct an ensemble of electric guitar, trumpet, keyboards and electronic sound effects, performing music described as “21st century art song, infused with acid jazz and punk energy.”

Moby-Dick (1)Spring, back at the Benedum, will bring Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick, another Pittsburgh premiere, and, much like the composer’s Dead Man Walking, a contemporary opera which has defied the odds and received a number of revivals in this country and abroad since its 2010 premiere in Dallas. Based on Herman Melville’s famous novel, the opera will be conducted by Antony Walker, and will be sung by a cast including Roger Honeywell (Captain Ahab), Sean Panikkar (Greenhorn), Musa Ngqungwana (Queequeg), Michael Mayes (Stabuck) and others, with the first performance taking place the evening of March 17.

Elixir of Love (1)Donizetti’s comic opera L’elisir d’Amore (“The Elixir of Love”), will bring the season to a close, beginning April 21. Conductor Christian Capocaccia, so impressive in last season’s La Traviata, returns to the podium, with a cast including Dimitri Pittas (Nemorino), Ekaterina Siurina (Adina), Paolo Pecchioli (Dr. Dulcamara) and Zachary Nelson (Belcore) singing and acting the tale of a traveling “medicine man” claiming to have a love potion.

The season promises a mixed bag of musical delights, some or all of which will appeal to a wide range of musical tastes. For tickets, full production information, complete cast information, links to many of the singers’ websites and much more, visit Pittsburgh Opera.

Intermezzo

intermezzoPittsburgh Festival Opera continues to make good on its promise of producing Richard Strauss rarities, and for the fourth consecutive summer has revived one of the composer’s lesser known works. The company last year set the bar as high as it seemingly could go with its magnificent performances of The Silent Woman, but that was pretty much the same impression the previous summer’s Capriccio performances left, as did Ariadne on Naxos the summer before. Next summer will see what the company can do with Arabella, but last night’s performance of Intermezzo (another Pennsylvania first) was a quite excellent evening of majestic music and comedy.

The story of Intermezzo is based (and only somewhat loosely) on misunderstandings which occurred between the composer and his wife. In the early 1900’s, a letter meant for a conductor was sent by a woman to Strauss in error. His wife opened and read the letter, and it was with the greatest of difficulty that Strauss was able to convince her of his innocence. A separate incident, involving Mrs. Strauss’ head being briefly turned by a man who later tried to get money from her, is incorporated into the mix. Strauss apparently thought that setting these events to music – without telling his wife the plot of his latest opera – was a good idea. The composer describes the work as a “Bürgerliche Komödie mit sinfonischen Zwischenspielen,” and that mouthful translates into a “bourgeois comedy with symphonic interludes.”

Robert (Ryan Milstead) confronts Christine (Meghan DeWald) about the drawing that Baron Lummer (Jason Slayden) made of her.
Robert (Ryan Milstead) confronts Christine (Meghan DeWald) about the drawing that Baron Lummer (Jason Slayden) made of her.

Strauss’ usual librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, wanted nothing to do with the project. Strauss was turned down by a couple of other writers, and one wrote text that wasn’t quite what Strauss had in mind. Hermann Bahr, a distinguished German critic and author, who had written the draft which hadn’t impressed Strauss, suggested that he write the book himself. Strauss becomes “Robert Storch,” a famous conductor in the finished opera, and his wife, Pauline, is represented by “Christine.” The story goes that after the opera premiered in Dresden in 1924, soprano Lotte Lehmann (who had just created the role of Christine) congratulated the startled Pauline Strauss on the “marvelous present” her husband had given her. There are a couple of versions of her response to Lehmann, all containing the word “damn.”

Like a number of his other operas, Strauss’ Intermezzo includes no overture – the singers hit the ground running within seconds of the orchestra’s first tones. The composer’s majestic orchestration, complex, ravishingly beautiful, and virtually continuous, is one of the finest features of this work, and it was played remarkably well and conducted with a thorough sympathy with the music by Brett McMunn. He has demonstrated before that he is quite capable of bringing Strauss’ colorful scores vividly to life, and he proved his abilities again last night. The stamina of the instrumentalists made his vision possible, and all are to be congratulated on a performance that greatly pleased the audience.

Baron Lummer (Jason Slayden) bringing Christine (Meghan DeWald) flowers.
Baron Lummer (Jason Slayden) bringing Christine (Meghan DeWald) flowers.

The lion’s share of the opera falls on the shoulders of the leading soprano role, Christine Storch. The part is astonishingly difficult. Almost continuously she must deliver a huge amount of text at a breakneck speed, with few moments of slowly sustained singing. Demanding half-spoken, half-sung “patter” to use of the uppermost flights of the soprano range in rafter-rattling fortissimo passages, it’s by no means a role for the faint of heart. Only the most highly skilled of singing actresses can hope to make a success of the part, and last night Meghan DeWald did exactly that. In voice, action, appearance and more she was outstanding. This remarkably gifted woman gave a performance encompassing the use of a magnificent voice and charming, comedic acting skills that aren’t likely to be forgotten anytime soon by those on hand last night to see and hear her.

Strauss modestly confines his counterpart, Robert Storch, the conductor, to a comparatively short portion of the first act, bringing him more to the fore in the second, but this does not mean that the role is an easy one. Ryan Milstead sang and acted the role quite well, and the chemistry between he and Ms. DeWald was rather enchanting, and the comic bickering between the two, which could not hide a deep and abiding love between the two characters, was great fun throughout. Maggie Burr, as Anna, the long-suffering maid, was a comic delight who sang the part well and did more acting with her face than many can do with their entire bodies. Jason Slayden, as “Baron Lummer,” the young Lothario type who briefly captures Christine’s half-hearted fancy, certainly looked the part and has a voice which is quite pleasing.

Ryan Milstead as Robert Storch.
Ryan Milstead as Robert Storch.

For the most part, the other roles are sung (or spoken), in the second act, and all were in the hands of artists who made the most of their opportunities – and the audience wish that their parts were larger. Adam Hollick was quite engaging as the lawyer Christine visits in her attempt to start divorce proceedings against the quite innocent Robert, and here again the entertaining results came largely through the chemistry he shared with Ms. DeWald. Others who came and went all too quickly were Elise Mark (the attorney’s wife), Robert Chafin (Stroh), Robert Gerold (A Commercial Counselor), Evan Koons (A Legal Counselor), Adam Cioffari (A Celebrated Singer), Marie Anello (Fanny), Lori Carrau (Marie) and Heather Hale (Resi). A charming young lad named Jake Blackledge spoke a few lines as the Storchs’ son Franzl, and won all when he offered his distraught mother a teddy bear.

The ensemble, including Thomas Cilluffo, Diego Del Valle, Kelsey Fredriksen, Chunghee Lee, Francesca Molinaro, John Teresi and Terriq White, had their work cut out for them, mainly in the shifting of the opera’s numerous scenes. Some of these were quite effective, and thanks to Hank Bullington’s innovative projection and scenic designs, the audience was treated to children (Maggie Belliston, Sasha Cowan, Lila Weber and Simon Weber) tobogganing in snow, and at one point saw a large opera audience staring back at them.

Only one performance remains – Sunday, July 23, at 2:30 p.m. Please see and hear this Strauss rarity that you’re not likely to have a chance at any time soon, locally or otherwise!

For tickets and more, visit Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

The Production Team for Intermezzo –

 Conductor, Brent McMunn; Director, Jonathan Eaton; English Translation, Andrew Porter; Scenic and Projection Design, Hank Bullington; Pianists, Stephen Variames and Soo-Yeon Park; Costume Design, Krista Ivan; Lighting Design, Madeleine Steineck; Hair and Makeup Design, Rikkilee Rose; Assistant Director, Eunbi Cho; Stage Manager, Kathleen Stakenas; Assistant Stage Managers, Lauren Wickett and Katy Click

Photography – Patti Brahim

Xerxes

xerxesPittsburgh Festival Opera gave the first of three performances of Händel’s Xerxes last night, and it was a delightfully rare opportunity to hear this seldom performed “Baroque” music. The work premiered in London in 1738, and flopped after a handful of performances. The famous “Ombra mai fu” opening aria survived to become a standard with concert singers many decades later; is in the repertories of most organists, and has been recorded by tenors, contraltos and counter-tenors from the earliest days of “phonographic” history until the present. But the opera itself virtually disappeared until the 1920’s. Its original production failed because it was not the type of opera early 18th century listeners were accustomed to and enjoyed – the arias were not of the long, three-movement “da capo” variety so popular at the time, and its comic elements were perceived as out of place. Audiences preferred either the comic or tragic, with little tolerance of the middle road, and the admixture of “noble” characters with those of a “common” sort was a distinct deviation from what was acceptable on the stage, to say nothing of life in general in those days.

Händel composed the opera (“Serses” in the original Italian, as that language’s alphabet does not include “x”) to a libretto with a rather complex history. Nicolò Minato wrote the first version, for an opera of the same name by Francesco Cavalli, first heard in Rome in 1654. Silvio Stampiglia adapted Minato’s book for composer Giovanni Bononcini’s 1694 opera. There is some disagreement among music historians regarding who reworked Stampaglia’s version for Händel, but all are loosely based on King Xerxes of ancient Persia and, with slight variations, real people and events in his life.

Andrey Nemzer (Xerxes) with dancers Weylin Gomez and Mils James
Andrey Nemzer (Xerxes) with dancers Weylin Gomez and Mils James

A quick synopsis of the three act opera – Xerxes loves and is determined to marry Romilda, a daughter of Ariodate, one of the king’s generals. But Romilda is also loved by Arsamene, Xerxes’ brother. Atalanta, Romilda’s sister, is in love with Arsamene. Amastre, Xerxes’ abandoned fiancée, disguises herself as a man to seek revenge. Atalanta’s amusing attempts to convince all that Arsamene loves her causes a series of complicated misunderstandings, while the comic servant Elviro pops in and out to liven up the confusion of mistaken identity and love letters helped to fall into the wrong hands. The opera ends with a quick resolution that reunites Xerxes with Amastre, and Arsamene with Romilda. The mighty king is humbly forgiving, Atalanta does not appear to be especially distressed that her sister is the victor in their sibling rivalry, and no one is killed. It takes an exceptional group of singing actors and strong direction to keep up interest in such doings, and Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s production, fortunately, has both.

Bonnie Frauenthal (Atalanta) and Lara Lynn McGill (Romilda)
Bonnie Frauenthal (Atalanta) and Lara Lynn McGill (Romilda)

Written in the age of the castrato, today it is a showpiece for the counter-tenor. Not as strong a work as Händel’s Julius Caesar (which was outstandingly presented by the company last summer) it has been said that the elements of Xerxes that fared so poorly with its first audiences are precisely those which make it so appealing to audiences nearly three centuries later, and that this is true was amply demonstrated last evening. The audience loved it, and the performance ended in an ovation that was quite a roar of approval.

It is doubtful that this would be the case if the production did not have such a strong ensemble of talent, onstage and off. The cast is one of exceptional excellence. The orchestra, augmented by Chatham Baroque’s Andrew Fouts (violin), Patricia Halverson (viola de gamba) and Scott Pauley (theorbo) was conducted by Walter Morales, and the last named gentleman has proven on several occasions that he truly understands and loves the music of this genre. He proved it again last night quite successfully. Metropolitan Opera director Dan Rigazzi returned to work the same wonders he did with Julius Caesar, and the production as a whole is a well-choreographed, colorfully costumed and entertaining evening, despite a slight monotony in some of the music and a comparatively mild plot that doesn’t quite seem to fit a mighty king.

James Eder (Elviro), background, and Daniel Moody (Arsamene)
James Eder (Elviro), background, and Daniel Moody (Arsamene)

Andrey Nemzer, in the title role, made the most of the demanding music written for the character. Händel screws the tessitura up to a very high register, and pretty much keeps it there throughout. Nemzer was formidable in appearance, and poured out the vocal line with apparent ease, a feat quite impossible for all but the most highly skilled and talented performer of this vocal range. His voice is huge and brilliant, and his singing and acting of the fatiguing role pleased the audience greatly. Fellow counter-tenor Daniel Moody, as Arsamene, made a fine showing with the vastly more varied music Händel wrote for his role. His performance was a highlight of the evening, despite costuming, makeup and hair designs which gave him a slightly disconcerting resemblance to a carnival’s bearded lady.

Lara Lynn McGill sang the demanding role of Romilda quite effectively. As she has proven on a number of occasions in this and other roles, her voice is one of great strength and beauty, and of exquisite color in both sustained fortissimo passages and the most delicate pianissimo tones. She acts with

Emily Harmon (Amastre)
Emily Harmon (Amastre)

subtle nuances that are quite effective, and in appearance presents a vision of blonde beauty that would have quite startled the inhabitants of ancient Persia. Bonnie Frauenthal, as Romilda’s sister Atalanta, sang the role’s music quite impressively, and acted the part with a charming sense of comic innocence. She, too, was an audience favorite.

Emily Harmon, as Amastre, displayed her velvety mezzo-soprano voice to its best advantage in the more sustained passages of the last act. James Eder (Elviro) was a comic delight, and his bass voice is one of ample quality and quantity. Evan Koons (Ariodate) made the most of a role that offers little opportunity until the third and final act, displaying a powerful bass and an engaging flare for comic timing.

Evan Koons (Ariodate)
Evan Koons (Ariodate)

Dancers Weylin Gomez and Mils James underlined much of the action with exotic and picturesque effectiveness. A talented ensemble, consisting of Nicolas Barilar, Richard Block, Diego Del Valle, Rodolfo Giron, Chunghee Lee, Francesca Molinaro, Hannah Shea, Emily Weaver, and Terriq White, much like the majority of the leading singers, enunciated the surprisingly good English translation with much clarity.

Xerxes will be repeated only twice, tomorrow at the 2 p.m. matinee, and July 22 at 7:30, and lovers of beautiful singing of Baroque music are highly encouraged to take advantage of this impressive production.

For tickets, a more detailed synopsis, interesting historical facts and much more, visit Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

The Production Team for Xerxes –

Director, Daniel Ragazzi; Conductor, Walter Morales; Assistant Conductor, Jon Erik Schreiber; Pianists, Steven Liening and Yu-Ju Wu; Choreographer, Greer Reed; Scenic and Projection Design, Hank Bullington; Costume Design, Tony Sirk; Lighting Design, Bob Steineck; Hair and Makeup Design, Rikkilee Rose; Assistant Director, Briana Sosenheimer; Stage Manager, Emma Squire; Assistant Stage Managers, Courtney Chaplin and Lauren Wickett.

Photography: Patti Brahim

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

sweeny_toddStephen Sondheim’s musical adaptation of Sweeney Todd has been entertaining audiences for nearly forty years, and last night’s performance of the work by Pittsburgh Festival Opera did much to explain the show’s enduring popularity. In Sondheim’s creation of the musical, he used a 1973 play by Christopher Bond as his inspiration, but the title character dates as far back as the 1840s, when Victorian era readers of popular fiction, called “penny dreadfuls,” were introduced to him in a serialized weekly magazine story called “The String of Pearls.” A few dramatic adaptations of the “urban legend” span the 1860s to the 1960s, but Sondheim’s musical spin on the macabre tale is the one which will probably still be performed forty years from now.

The award-winning “thriller,” probably the darkest musical ever written, tells the morbid tale of a Victorian era barber who returns to London after years of Sweeney_HeaderAustralian exile, seeking revenge on the corrupt judge who banished him in order to pursue his wife. When it seems revenge might elude him, Sweeney swears vengeance on all, using the tools of his trade to slash the throats of as many people as he can, while his business partner, Mrs. Lovett, a baker, cooks the bodies into meat pies for sale to an unsuspecting public. But that lovely lady has been keeping serious secrets from Sweeney, regarding awful doings during his absence, and she lives to regret it. Many plot twists and characters make for a busy couple of oddly engaging hours of entertainment. Sweeney Todd, considered by many to be Sondheim’s greatest score, is almost operatic in spots, and of great intensity – musically and dramatically. Whether that’s all true is, as always, in the ear of the beholder, but there is no denying that the work is one of the most successful achievements in American musical theater in the last half century – possibly longer.

As presented by Pittsburgh Festival Opera, Sweeney Todd is, for the most part, a successful production of the classic. In the main, the staging is effective, although a few intensely dramatic moments fall a little flat, easily explained by the limited stage trappings of the Falk Auditorium at Winchester Thurston. The costuming and lighting leave little to be desired, and the clever use of projections is almost always successful. One or two shortcuts are taken, but the brief self-flagellation scene, which has occasionally ruffled feathers and been removed from some productions, remains. There is a large amount of talent in the cast, and the behind-the-scenes orchestra, conducted by Douglas Levine, is well up to providing the instrumental support for the singers.

No Caption NecessaryBaritone Andrew Cummings was effective as the brooding, morose, murderous barber, Benjamin Barker (alias Sweeney Todd). He certainly looked the part, acted it well, and sang with a steady voice which gained in mellow quality and quantity as the performance progressed. His enunciation of the text was quite distinct, which came in handy when the surtitles projected above the stage failed. This technical snafu created a problem for some of the other singers, but every word he sang was distinctly discernible, though they seemed to lack any trace of the English accent that most of the others adopted. Anna Singer was quite in her element as Mrs. Lovett, and gave the best performance I’ve heard her offer to date. Her singing and acting of the unique character were highlights of the evening, and she seemed to be thoroughly enjoying herself. In a few lighter-hearted spots, she hopped about most delightfully, resembling Mrs. Garrett from “The Facts of Life” at last driven to depravity by Blair Warner and Tootie.

Adam Hollick (Antony Hope) and April Amante (Johanna Barker)
Adam Hollick (Antony Hope) and April Amante (Johanna Barker)

An outstanding performance was given by Adam Hollick, as Anthony Hope, the young sailor who rescues Sweeney at sea during his escape back to England, and who falls in love with the barber’s beautiful young daughter. He acted the part with enthusiastic vivacity, sang very well, and, while maybe such things shouldn’t matter, his “movie star” good looks certainly didn’t detract from his appeal. John Teresi, a young tenor, was riveting as Tobias Ragg, a character referred to as a “simpleton” in the book; a young man who works first for a con-man, then Mrs. Lovett, but is not so simple that he cannot sense and fear the sinister side of Sweeney. The part is sometimes sung by a boy soprano, and he looked much like one, but the quality of his singing and acting made it clear that he is a very young adult with a promising future.

Adam Cioffari, as the evil Judge Turpin, sang and acted the part quite acceptably, but was a bit too youthful looking to present a thoroughly convincing portrayal of the role. The make-up department could easily make him look at least the same age as Sweeney, if not older. The versatile Robert Frankenberry, as the judge’s equally slimy Beadle Bamford, demonstrated a clear conception of his part, and sang with an occasional over-abundance of tone. This was noticeable a few times with some of the other singers in concerted numbers. In ensembles where a few characters should have sung in equal unison, the results sounded like singing contests.

Lesley Baird as the Beggar Woman
Lesley Baird as the Beggar Woman

Lesley Baird delivered an intense performance of the “Beggar Woman,” Lucy Barker, Sweeney’s wife, cast aside by the Judge years before, reduced to a crone in rags, unrecognized by her husband. April Amante was young Johanna, her daughter, claimed by the Judge as his ward – and prospective bride, locked up in Bedlam so that Anthony can’t romance her. Both sang their roles with voices of fine quality – and quantity. Thomas Cilluffo, in the small role of Adolfo Pirelli, the faux-“Eyetalian” hair tonic swindler, sang and acted in a manner that made one wish the part were larger.

The ensemble contained a large array of talent – Alex Longnecker, Maggie Burr, Jenne Carey, Lori Carrau, Kasey Cwynar-Foye, Robert Gerold (who displayed his powerful singing and acting abilities as Lockdown in A Gathering of Sons), Angela Joy Lamb, Elise Mark, Jordan Speranzo, Bill Townsend and Michele Renee Williams all rounded out a strong cast.

The audience was moderately large, but should have filled every seat. At the close of the performance, those in attendance expressed enthusiasm, loud and long, and in no uncertain terms.

Sweeney Todd will receive four repetitions throughout this month. For dates, performance times, tickets and much more, please visit Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

The Production Team of Sweeney Todd –

Music and Lyrics, Stephen Sondheim; Book, Hugh Wheeler; Director, Tomé Cousin; Conductor, Douglas Levine; Scenic and Projection Design, Hank Bullington; Costume Design, Rachel Wyatt; Lighting Design, Bob Steineck; Hair and Makeup Design, Jina Pounds; Assistant Director, Ian Silverman; Stage Manager, Kathleen Stakenas; Assistant Stage Managers, Francesca Mamlin and Katy Click

Photography – Patti Brahim

“If I Loved You…” – Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s New Revue

r&hIn keeping with its long, distinguished and successful history of world premieres and making old music new again, Pittsburgh Festival Opera this summer is producing If I Loved You… – a revue featuring the best of Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s prolific output of memorable Broadway blockbusters. Jonathan Eaton and Rob Frankenberry have proven on a number of occasions that they are particularly adept at this type of creative endeavor, and have chosen the Broadway legends’ greatest hits, combining them into a new revue,  which, using the premise of an audition, explores all aspects of romance against a very musical backdrop.

This clever setting treats listeners to much from the best of such classics as “Carousel,” “State Fair,” “Flower Drum Song,” “The King and I,” “The Sound of Music” – in all, thirty-two hits from these works are heard in full or partially, and guest composer Stephen Sondheim’s “Not Getting Married Today,” from “Company,” is included as an additional treat. The new musical revue takes audiences behind the scenes, so to speak, of a typical musical audition, and the joys – and disappointments – that come with this highly competitive trade.

Snuggery Farm
Snuggery Farm

In what Artistic and General Director Jonathan Eaton has called “a constellation of personalities,” the new revue he directs this summer uses a combination of innovations that promises to appeal to a wide variety of musical tastes. “There’s ‘The Bad Boy’ whom everyone loves to hate and ends up loving, like the Billy character from ‘Carousel,’” he added, while other character types include “The Young Woman Who Wants To Be a Broadway Star” and “The Older, Wiser, Comedic Woman.” The revue features many of the company’s best vocalists, and that says a great deal, as Pittsburgh Festival Opera includes quite a few exceptionally talented singing actors on its roster. The abundance and quality of the company’s talent – on the stage and behind the scenes – seems to increase from summer to summer.

Front Row: (l-r): Emily Weaver, Angela Joy Lamb, Marie Anello, and Kelsey Fredrikson Back Row (l-r):  Bill Townsend, Ryan Milstead, Thomas Cillufo, Alex Longnecker
Front Row: (l-r): Emily Weaver, Angela Joy Lamb, Marie Anello, and Kelsey Fredrikson
Back Row (l-r): Bill Townsend, Ryan Milstead, Thomas Cillufo, Alex Longnecker

“Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” “People Will Say We’re In Love,” “June is Bustin’ Out All Over,” “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” and “The Sound of Music” are just a few of the tunes incorporated into the revue. The exceptional cast includes Marie Anello, Thomas Cilluffo, Kelsey Fredriksen, Angela Joy Lamb, Alex Longnecker, Ryan Milstead, Bill Townsend and Emily Weaver. The exceptionally gifted Rob Frankenberry conducts.

There is only one more chance to catch the show at Snuggery Farm in Sewickley – Sunday, July 2, at 7:30. A reasonably priced gourmet barbecue preceding the show starts at 6:00 on the terraces. If I Loved You… will also be performed in the Falk Auditorium at Winchester Thurston, Shadyside, on the Sundays of July 9 and 16, both starting at 6:30.

For tickets, additional production information and more, visit Pittsburgh Festival Opera. Great photos are included on the company’s Facebook page.

If I Loved You… is a summer musical treat that shouldn’t be missed.

A Gathering of Sons – World Premiere

AGOSLast night was an auspicious collection of “firsts” – Pittsburgh Festival Opera presented its first performance of the summer under their re-branded company name, and the opera chosen for the occasion was the world premiere of the much anticipated A Gathering of Sons. It wasn’t the company’s first world premiere; it was the 28th in its forty years’ worth of history, but it was the second of its especially commissioned works in its “Music That Matters” series – operas taking on pertinent issues facing our society as their subject material. Much has been written here over the last months regarding the opera, so that only a brief outline of the plot is necessary, and the difficult task of creating a coherent impression of such a highly complex, intricately crafted musical creation – after a single hearing – will be the intent of this review.

With a libretto by Dr. Tameka Cage Conley and music by composer Dwayne Fulton (who was on hand last night for the premiere), the opera tells as much as possible of the story of “Lockdown” (a white police officer with obvious, deeply disturbing issues), Victor (one of the young black men who is victimized), “City” (Victor’s brother, also a police officer and a new father), the anguish of parents, and, to use the program notes’ description, a “collection of spirits that watch over the world.” Much poetic license must be allowed in employing the last named, for it is difficult and tricky business in opera to rely on abstract ideas voiced by characters such as “The Sky That Can’t Stop Seeing,” “The Speaking Earth,” and a large assortment of others, but the alternative is supplying the “flesh-and-blood” singing actors with sufficient material to convey such concepts, which would require a colossal amount of work, and would result in an opera of an unendurable length. In the main, the “spirits” work, even if their numbers and contributions require intense concentration, but the opera, quite understandably, is by no means light and breezy, and several hearings or a close study of the libretto might be necessary to take it all in.

Glock reprimands Lockdown as the Sons and Great Father look on. (l-r) The Sons, Kevin Maynor (Glock), and Leslie Howard (Great Father)
Glock reprimands Lockdown as the Sons and Great Father look on. (l-r) The Sons, Kevin Maynor (Glock), and Leslie Howard (Great Father)

The very gifted Mr. Robert Frankenberry orchestrated Mr. Fulton’s music, and conducted last night, as he will at the remaining performances, instead of the original plan of the composer doing the conducting. Through clever use of a string quartet, alto saxophone, flute, two keyboards, and drums, he quite appropriately makes the music pulsate unobtrusively, and at the same time creates the proper balance of instrumental color to support and accentuate the action of the singers. The playing of the instrumentalists was a prominent feature of the evening, and Mr. Frankenberry is to be commended on so successfully grasping the type of “sound” the opera needs, committing it to paper, and conveying his ideas and intentions to the players.

The Spirits of the Sky, the Earth, and the Waters mourn the loss of Victor. (l-r) Charlene Canty (The Sky That Can’t Stop Seeing), Demareus Cooper (The Speaking Earth), and Michele Williams (The Waters)
The Spirits of the Sky, the Earth, and the Waters mourn the loss of Victor. (l-r) Charlene Canty (The Sky That Can’t Stop Seeing), Demareus Cooper (The Speaking Earth), and Michele Renee Williams (The Waters)

There was a great deal of vocal talent in the Mt. Ararat Baptist Church last night – the first venue of the opera’s “tour.” The remaining performances will remove the slight sense of nervousness that was apparent in a couple of them. I expected much of Miles Wilson-Toliver (City), the gifted young baritone, and he delivered the riveting performance that was anticipated. He has a strong voice of a distinctly individual timbre, and throughout the evening provided much of the finest singing that was heard. In appearance and stage presence, he is a handsome man and a talented, sympathetic actor. Much the same may be said of Robert Gerold (Lockdown), a fine looking, powerfully voiced young singer whose performance in the second act was a display of incredibly intense acting that was almost agonizing to watch, so thoroughly did he portray the tortured character. The storm raging outside last night added even more drama to this scene, as lightning flashes splashed through the stained glass arches above the performing area.

Victor protects his magic from the rogue cop, Lockdown. (l-r) Terriq White (Victor), Robert Gerold (Lockdown)
Victor protects his magic from the rogue cop, Lockdown. (l-r) Terriq White (Victor), Robert Gerold (Lockdown)

Denise Sheffey-Powell, as Victoria, the widowed mother of Victor and City, gave a performance that was captivating – vocally and dramatically – and she brought out the anguish, strength and dignity of the character in a way as to make her contribution a decided “stand-out.” Adrianna Cleveland, as Violet, City’s pregnant wife, was another “human” character who acted and sang her part with dramatic intensity, her strong soprano all the more astonishing as she did the bulk of her singing flat on her back – by no means an easy thing to do! Terriq White (Victor) acted his role very effectively, and his voice shows great promise for his future. The large cast also includes small, non-singing roles, such as the Medics (Lesley Baird and Sam Lothard), and Jenne Carey had a little singing to do as the Doctor.

The “spirit” roles were many and for the most part handled quite effectively. Prominent among them were Demareus Cooper (The Speaking Earth), whose cavernously low tones and appearance fit the role well; Charlene Canty (The Sky That Can’t Stop Seeing), whose brilliant soprano poured through appropriately blue-painted lips; Michele Renee Williams (The Waters); counter-tenor Rudy Giron (The Blood), and the sonorous bass, Kevin Maynor (Glock). There were many “Sons” to represent those who were fallen before Victor, and a few others in the large, well managed ensemble.

Victor accepts his choice. Terriq White (Victor)
Victor accepts his choice. Terriq White (Victor)

The audience was a gratifying feature of the performance. Racially, sexually – even religiously – it was very diverse. A word to future audiences who might shy away because they don’t particularly care for opera: the influences of jazz, R & B and gospel make this work stand apart from the stereotyped conception of that genre of music. No spinto soprano tosses off trills to vapid text, and no lyric tenor sings the same lines this way and that to display his vocal accomplishments. It’s a unique “musical experience” that provides a much broader appeal to varying tastes. The music is sung in English, and by singers quite capable of enunciating the text so that it can be understood. Since the main points behind A Gathering of Sons are diversity and enlightened acceptance, it can be stated that the mission of all concerned was accomplished, and patronage of the remaining, quite reasonably priced performances is highly encouraged.

For tickets, performance dates, times, venues – the entire libretto – and more, visit Pittsburgh Festival Opera (click on “Performances” if you wish to purchase tickets online).

The “Production Team” for last night’s A Gathering of Sons –

Robert Frankenberry, Conductor and Orchestrator; Mark Clayton Southers, Director; Randy Kovitz, Fight Choreographer; Charles Rowe, Pianist; Hank Bullington, Scenic and Projection Design; Tony Sirk, Costume Design; Bob Steineck, Lighting Design; Jina Pounds, Hair and Makeup Design; Julia Black, Sound Design; Michelle Lee Betts, Stage Manager; Ericka Royster, Assistant Stage Manager.

Pittsburgh Festival Opera photos by Patti Brahim

Everything Old is New Again – Pittsburgh Festival Opera Coming Soon!

616883292_780x439To celebrate its 40th anniversary, the ambitious Opera Theater of Pittsburgh has rebranded as “Pittsburgh Festival Opera,” and will continue to offer musical innovations and rarities that have been steadily growing in quality over the past few summers. This summer’s performances start June 15, and will run through the greater part of July, so the company’s capacity for work hasn’t diminished, and there is every reason to believe that the quality of its work will equal or surpass what it has offered for a number of years.

“While our main productions take place in an extended summer season,” Jonathan Eaton (the company’s Artistic and General Director) stated in a recent press release, “our commitment to the next generation of both artists and audiences is maintained year-round with our education programs. We are thrilled that audiences and critics support us as a cherished addition to the summer cultural calendar. We continue to produce our mix of new operas, rarely-performed works, and reinvented classics with passion and commitment. We realize that it has come to define our company more and more – so we feel it is now time to change our name to Pittsburgh Festival Opera to better reflect our activities.”

gathering_of_sonsThis season promises all of the above, and begins with the second commissioned work in the company’s “Music that Matters” series of new operas taking on contemporary issues. A Gathering of Sons, outlined in detail by our writer Jacob Spears in February, will start this summer’s productions on June 15. This world-premiere is a new “social justice opera,” composed by Dwayne Fulton, set to a libretto by Tameka Cage Conley, and in music with jazz, gospel and modern classical influences, tells the story of a young black man, a white police officer, parents of a newborn child, and “a collection of spirits who watch over the world.” Several performances will be given “on tour” in a few local venues before its first performance at the Falk Auditorium of Winchester Thurston on July 1. For a closer look at A Gathering of Sons take a look at Nicole Tafe’s article here. 

Stephen Sondheim’s and Hugh Wheeler’s Tony Award winning Sweeney sweeny_toddTodd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is this summer’s “musical,” and will receive five performances beginning Friday, July 7, at the Falk Auditorium, running through the month until Saturday, July 22. The popular work is staged by international director Tomé Cousin, conducted by Douglas Levine, and will feature well known local singers, such as Anna Singer (Mrs. Lovett) and Robert Frankenberry (Beadle), with baritone Andrew Cummings in the title role. The production seems sure to provide a little ghoulishly fun musical entertainment.

Since Pittsburgh Opera Festival has for the past couple of summers educated xerxesme to the fact that I genuinely, deeply appreciate the very old operas of Georg Friedrich Händel – something I never knew before – his masterpiece Xerxes on the list this year pleases me greatly. A combination of the comic and romantic, the opera will star Metropolitan Opera counter-tenor Andrey Nemzer as Xerxes, the King Persia. Still more Metropolitan Opera Company influence will be brought to the front in these performances, as the work will be staged by that company’s director, Dan Rigazzi. Three performances will commence on Friday, July 14,  with repetitions on Sunday, July 16, and Saturday, July 22. Walter Morales will conduct the orchestra, augmented by the always magnificent Chatham Baroque ensemble. The cast will also include singers (Lara Lynn McGill, to name but one) who have lent their abundant talent in previous summers.

Richard Strauss’ Intermezzo will be the fourth in the company’s series of rarely-performed works by that German master, and will be directed by Jonathan Eaton, with Brent McMunn conducting. It’s a semi-autobiographicalintermezzo treatment of a troubled marriage; Paul Thomason wrote an interesting history of the real life events which led up to Strauss’ composition of the work, which premiered in Dresden in 1924. It was slow to reach the United States, the first professionally staged performance done by Santa Fe Opera (also in an English translation, as will be Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s) in 1984. It was performed in a concert version at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1986, but was never done in a fully staged version in that city until New York City Opera produced it in 1999. Pittsburgh Opera Festival’s revival of the rarity will mark its premiere in Pennsylvania. It will receive only two performances, at the Falk Auditorium – Friday evening, July 21, and Sunday afternoon, July 23. Eaton and McMunn accomplished wonders with last summer’s The Silent Woman, so there’s every reason to expect the same results this year.

Hansel and Gretel will be this summer’s “family friendly” kiddie opera. Engelbert Humperdinck’s masterpiece (and, yes, there was a famous German hansel_and_gretelcomposer of that name long before the pop singer of the 1960’s), will be heavily cut to 40 minutes of the opera’s best moments, so as not to tax the attention span of its little patrons. In the early decades of the last century, the full, magnificently orchestrated version of the opera was a popular Saturday matinee at the Metropolitan, frequently with the famous Pittsburgh-born contralto Louise Homer in the role of the Witch. The opera will be performed in the more intimate Hilda Willis Room at Winchester Thurston, on Saturday mornings at 11:00, July 1, 8 and 15, with more than reasonable admission prices.

This summer’s Recital Series, Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s tradition of one-night concerts and special musical events, looks particularly appealing, and will include the “Three (Counter) Tenors,” with Metropolitan Opera star Andrey Nemzer, on Friday, June 30, followed by an opening night party. Daphne Alderson will provide the next entertainment, with “Leonard Cohen: A Hallelujah at Love Café,” on Thursday evening, July 13. Next up is “Mozart by Moonlight: a Garden of Operatic Delights,” with two full acts from Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” performed in a moonlit garden, at the Falk Auditorium on Wednesday, July 19. Concluding the series will be “Songs of Richard Strauss,” featuring singers from the Young Professional Artists company on Saturday, July 22. All of the events, with the exception of “Mozart by Moonlight,” will take place at the First Unitarian Church, Shadyside.

Other features of this summer’s doings will be a “Discover Strauss Series,” and “If I Loved You,” a new “dramatic revue of star-spangled songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein” performed around the July 4 holiday weekend at Snuggery Farm in Sewickley Heights, and at the Falk Auditorium July 9 and 16. There will also be cabarets, opening night parties and other attractions, as usual.

For full details of Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s busy summer, tickets, more detailed information on special events and much more, please visit their new and colorful website. This ambitious, capable company is quite a summer musical treat, so drink up as much of it as you can! You won’t be disappointed.

We would love to hear from our readers and follow along with your theater adventures so keep in touch with us on our FacebookTwitter, or Instagram using the hashtag #SummerwithPITR.

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Undercroft Opera Presents Puccini’s “La Rondine.”

RondineUndercroft Opera is performing a Giacomo Puccini “rarity” this weekend at Carlow University’s Antonian Theatre – La Rondine (“The Swallow”), which hasn’t been heard locally since early 1982, when Pittsburgh Opera presented it here for the first time and the newspaper critics went to work panning it as weak operetta with few moments of importance. The work has never been considered one of the composer’s greatest efforts, in part because it is too often unfavorably compared to his Tosca, Madama Butterfly, La Bohème, and so on. But historical fact makes it clear that he had no intention of making it one of his “grand operas” when he was originally approached to work on a piece more in keeping with the popular “Viennese” style of operetta. It has merits that would be considered praiseworthy if they had flowed from the pen of a lesser known composer, and after the opera premiered at Monte Carlo in March 1917, while war raged in surrounding European countries, the composer made a couple of revisions to his score in an attempt to broaden its appeal. But to this day, there is no official “final” version, since Puccini died in 1924 before he could decide on which revision was the last word.

It didn’t reach the Metropolitan Opera in New York until 1928, partly due to the complications of the war, but has never played a particularly large part in that theater’s doings, and revivals there and elsewhere worldwide have been sporadic for the last century. Its comparative unpopularity is something along the lines of berating a Leonardo da Vinci painting that doesn’t measure up to the “Mona Lisa,” for while La Rondine may not be Puccini’s most shining achievement, it has musical beauties in the score that are worth more hearings than they receive. But, in fairness, to say that La Rondine is an underrated masterpiece of the composer wouldn’t be entirely true, either.

Puccini composed the music to an Italian libretto Giuseppe Adami adapted from a German version by Alfred Maria Willner and Heinz Reichert. Originally set in mid-19th century Paris, the slight plot revolves around a “kept” woman in search of true love, her circle of acquaintances; her finding true love, and her desertion of it to save the young man and his family’s reputation (even though he doesn’t want to be saved). Of course, there are small side antics and bits of action that make the story more colorful, but not so many as to make great demands on audience appreciation or tax the concentration of the listener. Despite the large cast, most of the vocal demands are made on a few characters, mainly Magda, the leading soprano role. She is the metaphorical “Swallow,” on the wing in search of happiness. Undercroft’s trimmed production moves the action of the first two acts to Prohibition-era New York, while the third takes place on the French Riviera.

There was a great deal of vocal talent on the stage last night. The young singers, colorfully costumed, performed their roles amidst minimalistic but adequately effective staging, and had a reliable and engaging conductor, Brian Gilling, to help them along when needed. While Undercroft’s orchestra produced a more consistent tone than on the one occasion I heard it play last spring, there were still a few rough spots, but Mr. Gilling smoothed them over to the best of his ability, and the players showed a decided improvement in unity and precision. A native of Boston, Mr. Gilling holds bachelors and masters degrees from Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Music, and hopefully will conduct again in this city in the near future. It’s easy to spot a conductor who is a thorough musician, and Mr. Gilling is just such a leader.

Because the opera tries the strength of only a few of the singers, the cast is able to remain largely intact for performances on three consecutive evenings and an afternoon. The program notes and Undercroft’s website don’t specify as much, but I suspect that the leads heard last night will perform again on Saturday evening, while Carolyn Forte (Magda), Emily Swora (Lisette), Jesse Lowry (Ruggero) and Sarah Marie Nadler (Yvette) will be heard Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

The large ensemble last night (and for the remaining performances) was for the most part handled quite successfully by Joseph Andreola (Rambaldo, Magda’s “keeper”), George Milosh (Prunier, the poet), Caryn Crozier (Bianca), Stephen Kuhn (Périchaud), Naomi Berkey (Lolette), Amanda Lewis (Georgette), Takako Petek (Gabriella) and Namy Joseph Farah (the Butler), while two members did “double duty” – Paul Yeater (Gobin and Adolfo) and Benjamin Zaksek (Crebillon and Rabonnier). They were an entertaining group, and added to the enjoyment of the performance.

Last night’s Magda, Emily Hopkins, brought to the role a strong, brilliant voice, particularly impressive in its upper register, and a smooth sense of legato that allowed her to soar to the higher flights with ease. She was becoming in appearance and made the most of the part’s slight acting opportunities. Shin-Yeong Noh was a delightful Lisette, the maid with singing aspirations. It challenged the imagination to hear such a beautiful voice sing of her failure as a singer! Everything said of Ms. Hopkins may be said in equal degree of Ms. Noh, and her role allowed for comic episodes which she handled quite amusingly. Claudia Brown, as Yvette, made the most that could be made of her role, and sang very effectively.

William Andrews, in the role of Ruggero, sang with a pure tenor voice well suited to Puccini’s music, and showed to much better advantage than he did last summer in Strauss’ The Silent Woman. One or two spots were a trifle high for him to reach with ease, but overall his interpretation was effectively sung and well acted. He was at his best, vocally and histrionically, in the heart-broken bewilderment of Ruggero in the final act.

A crucial Thursday hockey night in Pittsburgh may have had an effect on the opera’s attendance, which wasn’t very large. The opera is well presented, allows highly gifted young singers performance experience, and is well worth the reasonably priced admission. Patronage of the remaining performances is highly recommended. For tickets, please visit Undercroft Opera.

The Production Staff for La Rondine

Brian Gilling, Conductor; Seamus Ricci, Stage Director; Colin Farley, Chorus Master; Hyery Hwang, Vocal Coach; Karen Jeng Lin, Rehearsal Accompanist; Grace Lazos, Assistant Director and English surtitles; Shane Gillen, Assistant Conductor; Krista Ivan, Costumes; Michelle Engleman, Stage Manager; Garth Schafer, Lighting Design/Light Board Operator; Alexis Retcofsky, Light Board Operator; Neil Sederburg, Technical Director; Mary Beth Sederburg, Producer.

Resonance Works Presents Verdi’s “Falstaff.”

falstaff_headerResonance Works, collaborating with the University of Pittsburgh Department of Theater Arts, gave the first of two performances of Giuseppe Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff, last night, at the Charity Randall Theater in Oakland. The ambitious project offers an opportunity to hear the famous composer’s only successful comedy, which premiered at La Scala, Milan, in 1893, when Verdi was nearly 80 years old. He penned the sparkling and engaging music to a libretto that Arrigo Boïto adapted from Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” with a little of “Henry IV” added to the book as well. The story, set in Windsor, England, during the reign of Henry IV, tells the farcical tale of an aging and portly knight, Sir John Falstaff, and his thwarted attempts to relieve two married women of their husbands’ money, their revenge, mistaken identities, young love, and a mirthful ending.

Immensely popular in Italy and elsewhere shortly after the time of its premiere, the opera lost its audience appeal in a surprisingly short period of time, and fell into extended stretches of neglect. As the 20th century progressed, largely due to the efforts of the famed and influential conductor, Arturo Toscanini, Falstaff received numerous revivals, and today holds a respectable standing in the standard operatic repertory, but it never was, and probably never will be, as well known or popular as many of the composer’s more dramatic works. Various musical historians have pondered over the reasons for all this, while others have proclaimed the work as Verdi’s best. It probably isn’t his best, but it’s certainly one of his most entertaining operas, bubbling over with broad comedy set to delightfully orchestrated music that offers a number of opportunities for the display of beautiful voices.

The contemporary staging and “modern day” costumes hardly take anything away from this production, since the color and atmosphere of Verdi’s music is so naturally Italian, so masterfully “grand opera” in style and flavor, that it suggests early 15th century England about as much as his Un Ballo in Maschera (“A Masked Ball”) fits its Colonial New England setting. It is also quite a feat that the staging and direction so successfully brings a rather large opera to a comparatively small stage, especially when the ensembles and boisterous action are considered. Happily, the text is sung in Italian (with English surtitles projected above the stage).

Benjamin Bloomfield (Falstaff)
Benjamin Bloomfield (Falstaff)

Unlike the better known Verdi operas in several ways, the most surprising departure comes at the very start; there’s no “overture.” The orchestra sounds several vivacious bars and it’s off to the races. And what an orchestra it was that played last night. Reduced to a little over twenty pieces, the instrumental accompaniment was more than sufficient for the size of the theater, and consisted of highly skilled instrumentalists who did themselves and Conductor Maria Sensi Sellner ample justice. From the first note to the last, they played a major role in the success of the evening. They received a generous ovation from the distressingly slim audience, and deserved it.

Vocally, the cast is one of uniform excellence. There were familiar faces on the stage, as well as a few who sang in Pittsburgh for the first time. Naturally heading the list of newcomers was Benjamin Bloomfield in the title role. He possesses a baritone voice capable of great power, but finesse and subtle nuances are at his command as well. He’s rather young to give a visual impression of the aging schemer, but his acting of the part was finely honed, funny, and in the character’s other unsavory traits, his make-up, costuming and demeanor more than negated his youth.

Brooke Larimer (Mistress Quickly), Kara Cornell (Meg Page), Natalie Polito (Nanetta), and Amelia D’Arcy (Alice Ford)
Brooke Larimer (Mistress Quickly), Kara Cornell (Meg Page), Natalie Polito (Nanetta), and Amelia D’Arcy (Alice Ford)

Joshua Jeremiah, as Ford, is a Grammy nominated baritone also making his Pittsburgh debut in these performances. His voice is one of great strength and resonance, he possesses acting skills (both comedic and dramatic) to a great degree, and his appearance is commanding and quite agreeable to the eye. As his daughter, Nanetta, soprano Natalie Polito was the third newcomer, and proved a fine addition to the cast. Her voice is captivating, as is her stage presence and acting, and she sang “Sul fil d’un soffio etesio,” (“Now lightly borne from near and far”), probably the best known aria from the opera, charmingly, if somewhat cautiously.

Amelia D’Arcy, as Alice Ford, gave a sterling performance. Her ringing soprano, lively acting, and facial expressions were positively delightful. Mezzo-soprano Kara Cornell, as Meg Page, seemed to “live” her role, as she always does, and was another highlight of the evening. As Mistress Quickly, mezzo-soprano Brooke Larimer displayed a richly hued voice and nicely timed comedic ability. With Mr. Bloomfield, she shared the well known “Reverenza” scene, in which Quickly lures the old knight with feigned respect further into her friends’ web of revenge and comeuppance he so richly deserves.

A pleasant surprise was the young tenor, Benjamin Robinson, in the role of Bardolfo. He has gained materially since I last heard him a couple of summers ago. His voice has grown in strength and quality, he displays more confidence, and his facial byplay and acrobatic acting of the part were fun additions to an impressive vocal performance. His antics with Matthew Scollin, the reliable, versatile and powerfully voiced bass-baritone, as Pistola, were among the most entertaining highlights of the evening.Falstaff3

Tenors Christopher Lucier, as Fenton, the young man Nanetta loves, and Joseph Gaines, as Caius, the man her father wants her to love, were talented additions to the large cast, and the ensemble sang the small choruses quite effectively.

The only thing missing from the performance were bodies in seats. The theater was maybe half filled. Now, more than ever, the arts need and deserve financial support. And this operatic endeavor on the part of Resonance Works most decidedly deserves capacity patronage. Only one more performance will be given, tomorrow afternoon at 3. Take Mom, a friend, anybody  – to a musical treat that they’re not likely to forget any time soon. Visit Resonance Works for tickets, a complete synopsis, cast biographies and more.

The Production Team for Falstaff

Conductor/Producer, Maria Sensi Sellner; Stage Director, Stephanie Havey; Production Manager, Brennan Sellner; Stage Manager, Tina Shackleford; Scenic Designer, Gianni Downs; Lighting Designer, Kate Devlin Matz; Costume Designer, Karen Gilmer; Assistant Conductor, Jeffrey Klefstad; Chorus Master, Joel Goodloe; Rehearsal Accompanist, Uliana Kozhevnikova; Orchestra Manager, Ryan Leonard; Assistant Stage Managers, Rachel Sinagra and Cassandra Canavan;  Scenic Charge Artist & Assistant Scenic Designer, Megan Bresser.

Photography – Alisa Innocenti