To open its 78th season, Pittsburgh Opera will present the first of four performances of Verdi’s tuneful warhorse, La Traviata, on October 8, at 8:00 p.m. at the Benedum. The work is well known locally, having opened the 2004 and 2011 seasons, and having been on the roster of the company’s offerings approximately every fifth season for quite a number of years. Touring companies brought it here many times long before Pittsburgh Opera came into being. It’s an excellent first opera for those who might wish to explore and expand their musical horizons, and it may be for this reason that the work has been done here so often – it draws audiences. This doesn’t make Pittsburgh unique – Verdi’s tale of the ill-fated “courtesan,” Violetta Valéry, is today very close to the top of the list of most frequently staged operas the world over. When it was first performed in 1853 at La Fenice in Venice, the audience jeered, mainly because it considered the soprano too old (at 38) and too substantial in size to portray the fading heroine. “La Traviata last night a failure,” Verdi wrote a friend. “Was the fault mine or the singers’? Time will tell.” And time has told quite well indeed. Ironically, around 1900, quite a few music critics began to grumble that the opera was past its expiration date, and would soon be on its way to the history books. It’s obvious that they were incorrect in their presumptions.
The tale is one of a “fallen woman” who finds true love, and as the company’s synopsis states, is similar to other Verdi operas, in that “La Traviata explores grand themes through intimate family drama.” Alfredo falls in love with the sickly Violetta, much to his father’s chagrin. The father, without his son’s knowledge, “coerces Violetta into breaking up with Alfredo because their relationship threatens his daughter’s engagement and his family’s reputation.” Violetta, heart-broken, reluctantly agrees that the father’s reasoning is valid, but refuses to betray his involvement to Alfredo. This causes Alfredo to suspect she loves another and he denounces her infidelity. Much unhappiness follows for both, until the father’s remorse causes him to try to reconcile the pair. But poor Violetta, who has battled “consumption” throughout the story, is by this time beyond the help of doctors.
It is by all means a “soprano” opera, with most of the best music and more memorable arias falling to the title role, but the rousing “Brindisi” (or “drinking song”) is an ensemble number familiar to most, so often have snatches of it appeared in movies, commercials, etc. Christian Capocaccia will conduct the performances in place of Antony Walker, who will be elsewhere engaged in Italy at the time. Danielle Pastin, familiar to Pittsburgh Opera audiences, will sing the role of Violetta, and it will be interesting to see and hear what she will do with the opera’s florid arias. Cody Austin, in the tenor role of Alfredo Germont, and baritone Sebastian Catana as his father, Giorgio Germont, will make their Pittsburgh Opera debuts in the production. Mark Trawka, as always, will bring out the finest the chorus has to give, and the company’s Resident Artist Program will offer opportunities to Leah de Gruyl, Brian Vu, Claudia Rosenthal, Eric Ferring and Andy Berry in supporting roles, along with former Resident Artist Matt Scollin.
After the opening night, La Traviata will be repeated at the Benedum on Tuesday, October 11, at 7:00 p.m., Friday, October 14, at 7:30 p.m., and at the Sunday matinee, October 16, at 2:00 p.m.
It’s a giant leap from Verdi’s melodious favorite to Richard Strauss’ powerfully dramatic Salome, but that’s just what Pittsburgh Opera will take when the latter receives its first performance of the season on Saturday, November 5, at 8:00 p.m. Quite different from “lyric opera,” this German “music-drama” has also been done by the company on a number of occasions, though hardly as often as Verdi’s work. It’s a tremendously difficult piece to stage successfully, with the orchestra playing continuously from the first note until the last (despite the fact that there is no overture); no “set pieces” to be applauded during pauses, and requires singers of tremendous stamina to sustain the demands of the composer of the one act, approximately two-hour combination of chaotic dissonances and some of the most exquisitely beautiful, sumptuously orchestrated music ever created. Strauss’ score was written for well over a hundred instrumentalists; just how many will fit into the Benedum’s orchestra pit remains to be seen.
To some – even today – the plot is about as sordid as operatic literature has to offer, and it created quite a stir when it premiered in Dresden in 1905, soon to be banned in Vienna, London, and, after a single performance at the Metropolitan in 1907, New York. The composer based his own libretto on a German translation of Oscar Wilde’s 1891 French language play of the same title, and he painted in tone as realistically and vividly as can be imagined the tale of the erotically charged, depraved young Salome, stepdaughter of the lascivious Herod, who, to even that monster’s horror, demands the head of Jochanaan (John the Baptist) on a silver platter as a reward for dancing the famous “Dance of the Seven Veils.” Even though he had been dead for several years at the time the musical adaptation of his play first created a furor, Wilde’s name and his works still raised “polite society” eyebrows – as well as those of the censors. A New York critic sputtered that the work was one of a “diseased mind.” The Scandinavian-American soprano, Olive Fremstad, who sang the title role at the Met’s scandalous premiere, told her biographer that Strauss’ music in Salome made Richard Wagner sound like Mozart. This is but a slight exaggeration, as the two composers’ styles are different, but the tidal wave of sound listeners will hear in the work may come as a jolt to the uninitiated. With all this noted the fact remains that Salome is an overwhelmingly sensational evening of entertainment.
Antony Walker will return to conduct Salome, and his frequently proven skills are sure to make the most of the stupendous orchestration, so crucial to the success of this music-drama. In the leading roles, Patricia Racette (Salome), Robert Brubaker (King Herod), Michaela Martens (Herodias) and Nmon Ford (Jochanaan), will all make their Pittsburgh Opera debuts, with a number of Resident Artists, both present and past, filling the many secondary roles. The work will be repeated on Tuesday, November 8, at 7:00 p.m., Friday, November 11, at 7:30 p.m., and at the Sunday matinee, November 13, at 2:00 p.m.
After the two autumn productions, 2016 will be a memory when the works of the Resident Artist Program are heard. First up is Händel’s renamed Richard the Lionheart. The work has never been heard in Pittsburgh before – indeed, Opera Theater of St. Louis gave its American premiere as recently as 2015, although the work dates to the 1720s. Chatham Baroque will be on hand with their remarkable period instruments when Conductor Michael Beattie lifts his baton on the first performance, at the CAPA Theater, on Saturday, January 21, 2017 at 8:00 p.m. A tale of power, love, betrayal, shipwreck and war in 12th century Cyprus, Riccardo primo, re d’Inghilterra (or “Richard the First, King of England”), was composed in the age of the castrato. After its initial run at the King’s Theatre in London and a few performances in Germany, the opera was virtually forgotten until the 1960s, although Händel had interpolated some of its music into a few of his other works. The Pittsburgh Opera cast will include Leah de Gruyl as King Richard, Shannon Jennings as Costanza, his betrothed; Claudia Rosenthal as Pulcheria, Andy Berry as Isacio, Brian Vu as Berardo and Taylor Raven as Oronte. The opera will be repeated Tuesday, January 24, at 7:00 p.m., Friday, January 27, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, January 29, 2017 at 2:00 p.m.
More rarely heard music has been chosen for the Second Stage Project to be given at Pittsburgh Opera’s headquarters in the Strip District, when As One, described as a chamber opera for two voices, will be given its first performance on Saturday, February 18, at 8:00 p.m. With music by Laura Kaminsky, composed for a libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, the piece depicts “the experiences of its sole transgender protagonist, Hannah, as she endeavors to resolve the discord between herself and the outside world.” Much like last season’s 27, the work was first produced in 2014 (in Brooklyn) and has rarely been heard since. Baritone Brian Vu and mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven will portray “Hannah Before” and “Hannah After,” respectively. Little else about the production has been announced as of this writing, but the three repetitions will take place on Tuesday, February 21, at 7:00 p.m., Friday, February 24, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, February 26, 2017, at 2:00 p.m.
With the return of spring, the two remaining operas will move back to the Benedum. Turandot, Puccini’s last and lavish composition, is familiar from past productions here and is a crowd pleaser as well, as it includes some of the composer’s finest music – most notably the justly famous tenor aria, “Nessun dorma.” The tale of the ancient Chinese princess with a heart of ice – which can only be melted by a brave tenor skilled at answering riddles – will bring Conductor Antony Walker back to the podium, and the marvelous choruses should ring out resoundingly under Mark Trawka. Former Resident Artist Alexandra Loutsion is announced for the title role, with tenor Thiago Arancam making his Pittsburgh Opera debut as Prince Calaf. Other newcomers will be Julius Ahn as Pang and Joseph Hu as Pong. Wei Wu, as Timur, is also announced as making his local debut, but he looks remarkably similar to the singer of the same name who appeared in last season’s The Rake’s Progress. Completing the cast will be Craig Verm (Ping), Maria Luigia Borsi (Liù), and Joseph Frank (Emperor Altoum). Turandot will almost certainly draw large audiences on Saturday, March 25, at 8:00 p.m., Tuesday, March 28, at 7 p.m., Friday, March 31, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, April 2, 2017, at 2:00 p.m.
The last production of the season will be a company first – the world premier of Daniel Sonenberg’s The Summer King. It will be the first fully staged production of the work, at least, as it was heard in concert form two years ago in Portland, Maine. The story of baseball legend Josh Gibson, who rose from sandlots on Pittsburgh’s North Side, to fame in the Negro Leagues and enshrinement in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, will be premiered at the Benedum on Saturday, April 29, at 8:00 p.m., and will be repeated on Tuesday, May 2, at 7:00 p.m., Friday, May 5, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, May 7, 2017, at 3:00 p.m. Antony Walker will conduct the work, and the cast will include the Pittsburgh Opera debuts of Alfred Walker (Josh Gibson), Denyce Graves (Grace), Kenneth Kellogg (Sam Bankhead) and Norman Shankle (Gus Greenlee). Alumni from the Resident Artist Program – Sean Pannikar (Wendell Smith), Phillip Gay (Cool Papa Bell) and Jasmine Muhammad (Hattie) will complete the roster of singing actors.
For a wealth of information about this season’s productions, including tickets, a schedule of events, complete synopses, cast details and much more, please visit Pittsburgh Opera.