The Marriage of Figaro

22788809_900808640071496_1258060101835248540_nPittsburgh Opera gave the first performance of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro last night, and it was one of those rare occasions when a bit of magic mixed with the music in the air. The centuries’ old opera seemed to take on new life; there was a palpable, sparkling connection between the massive audience and the singers on the stage and the musicians in the orchestra pit that crackled like invisible static electricity. It was by far the best performance of the opera I’ve ever witnessed, and in many respects one of the best operatic productions I’ve seen and heard in a number of years. The cast is one of a uniform excellence rarely attainable, Conductor Antony Walker set the pace from the first note of the overture by vigorously following Mozart’s marking of presto, the scenery made effective use of the Benedum’s huge stage, and the singers were becomingly costumed and clearly well rehearsed. It’s difficult to believe that all this was a “fluke,” a “one off” – it seems much more likely that it was the brilliant result of meticulous preparation by all concerned, and that each of the remaining performances will be of the same caliber – indeed, possibly even better. The thunderous applause of last night was well deserved, and will probably inspire even better things to come.

Left to right - Count Almaviva (Christian Bowers), Cherubino (Corrie Stallings), Don Basilio (Eric Ferring), and Susanna (Joélle Harvey)
Left to right – Count Almaviva (Christian Bowers), Cherubino (Corrie Stallings), Don Basilio (Eric Ferring), and Susanna (Joélle Harvey)

Unless one escapes from the present for a few hours, and takes into consideration the age of the opera, the plot is about as politically incorrect as they come. Even in the 1780’s, the play Lorenzo Da Ponte used as the basis for his libretto, Pierre Beaumarchais’ La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro (“The Mad Day, or The Marriage of Figaro”), was banned in Vienna, and Da Ponte and Mozart had to clear several hurdles before their operatic treatment premiered there on May 1, 1786. The Marriage of Figaro picks up some years into the future from where The Barber of Seville leaves off, and covers a single “day of madness” in the lives of characters who have undergone a few considerable changes. Almaviva, the effervescent, romantic young tenor of The Barber, is now a bass-baritone Count, and a rather womanizing, conniving bully of a Count at that. The action takes place in his palace near Seville, and Rosina is now his Countess. Dr. Bartolo wants revenge against Figaro for ruining his earlier plan of marrying Rosina himself.

Having appointed Figaro the head of his servant staff, the Count now tries to take advantage of his “droit du seigneur” – the appalling right of a nobleman to take the place of a servant on his wedding night – with Figaro’s fiancee, Susanna, the Countess’ maid – all the while trying to dispense with Cherubino, a young page enamored of the Countess. He schemes to delay the civil union of his two servants, while Figaro, Susanna, and the Countess conspire to expose his plot. Thwarted at every turn, the Count retaliates by attempting to force Figaro to marry Marcellina, a woman old enough to be his mother – and just in time it comes to light that she actually is his mother! Through Figaro’s and Susanna’s manipulations, the Count comes to realize the Countess is his true love, and the story reaches a happy ending. What probably gives this tale appeal is that a “have” is out-witted and humiliated by “have-nots.” This would have been especially true at the time the opera was first produced, with the French Revolution festering on the near horizon.

Countess Almaviva (Danielle Pastin) laments that her husband has lost interest in her
Countess Almaviva (Danielle Pastin) laments that her husband has lost interest in her

It was apparent from the start that last night’s performance was going to be a remarkable one. Antony Walker and his brilliant orchestra dove into the music at a brisk and exhilarating pace that was maintained where appropriate and moderated throughout in accordance with the composer’s notations. The orchestra played beautifully, and James Lesniak on the continuo, with much help from the singers, accompanied the frequently tiresome stretches of recitative in a manner that made them sparkle with interest and appeal. The ensembles of the principal singers outnumber the opportunities for the chorus, but, as usual, Mark Trawka made the most of that talented group’s moments.

Left to right - Susanna (Joélle Harvey), Figaro (Tyler Simpson), Dr. Bartolo (Brian Kontes), and Marcellina (Leah de Gruyl)
Left to right – Susanna (Joélle Harvey), Figaro (Tyler Simpson), Dr. Bartolo (Brian Kontes), and Marcellina (Leah de Gruyl)

There wasn’t a weak link in the cast. All of the principal singers, a number of them new to Pittsburgh Opera, delivered performances that were impressive, engaging, and, in many spots, amazingly beautiful. Their acting, too, was highly entertaining. Tyler Simpson (Figaro), Joélle Harvey (Susanna), Brian Kontes (Dr. Bartolo) and Christian Bowers (Count Almaviva), all making their company debuts, proved to be a quartet of artists of the first rank, and were welcomed by an ovation that was unusually loud and long for a Pittsburgh audience. This enthusiasm, however, has been noticed more frequently in recent years, and the day may come when deserving performances see the curtain raised a second time. Had the same performance taken place in New York, these singers would have been obliged to take bows for fifteen minutes or more. The dark-voiced trio of male singers were fully up to delivering some cavernously low passages that were thoroughly musical in quality and projected well through the vast auditorium. Ms. Harvey gave a most convincing demonstration of why she has achieved such success with the role of Susanna. Her voice is limpid, pure and of great beauty.

Barbarina (Ashley Fabian)
Barbarina (Ashley Fabian)

Familiar singers were equally impressive. Danielle Pastin, as the Countess, delivered the performance that was expected – lovely in all particulars. She made a great success of her principal arias, and the famous “Letter Duet,” with Ms. Harvey, was a demonstration that the intricate art of duet singing is alive and well, as far as these sopranos are concerned. Corrie Stallings was a comedic delight as Cherubino, and the young woman’s voice proved that she belonged in such a stellar cast. Leah de Gruyl, as Marcellina (Figaro’s “long-lost” mother), was quite engaging, vocally and in action, and she could give lessons to stage actors wanting to fall realistically into dead faints. Ashley Fabian, as Barbarina, a character who makes her first appearance late in the opera, displayed a voice and stage manner well worth the wait.

Antonio (Andy Berry)
Antonio (Andy Berry)

There are two tenor roles in the opera (Don Basilio and Don Curzio), each with comparatively little to do, but with both in the hands of Eric Ferring, they took on a prominence that was out of the ordinary. So well made-up was Andy Berry, as Antonio, the aging, befuddled, inebriated gardener, that he was almost unrecognizable, but his appealing voice and acting abilities shone through unmistakably.

This is a production that shouldn’t be missed. A better one would be very hard to find, indeed. For tickets and much more, visit Pittsburgh Opera.

“The Artistic Team” for The Marriage of Figaro

Conductor, Antony Walker; Stage Director, David Paul; Set Designer, Benoit Dugardyn; Costume Designer, Myung Hee Cho; Lighting Designer, Cindy Limauro; Wig & Make-up Designer, James Geier; Assistant Conductor, Glenn Lewis; Chorus Master, Mark Trawka; Associate Coach/Pianist/Continuo, James Lesniak; Assistant Director, Frances Rabalais; Stage Manager, Cindy Knight.

David Bachman Photography

Danielle Pastin – Homegrown “Countess” to Grace Pittsburgh Opera’s “The Marriage of Figaro”

Marriage-of-Figaro-2For the second production of its current season, Pittsburgh Opera is offering an excellent cast in Mozart’s perennial favorite, The Marriage of Figaro. That this 18th century comic story of romance and mistaken identity continues to delight audiences over 200 years after its first performance might surprise Mozart himself, but his fascinating music will probably keep it on the stage for many years to come. As mentioned in a previous Figaro review, even Albert Einstein was awed by Mozart’s compositions. “Beethoven created his music,” he once wrote, “but the music of Mozart is of such purity and beauty that one feels he merely found it – that it has always existed as part of the inner beauty of the universe waiting to be revealed.”

Judging from photographs, The Marriage of Figaro will be as impressively mounted as the opening production of Tosca. Directed by David Paul and conducted by Antony Walker, the performances will take on added interest in the fact that four of the leading roles will be taken by singers entirely new to Pittsburgh Opera. From the Metropolitan Opera comes the American bass-baritone Tyler Simpson in the role of Figaro. His impressive resume includes international opera and concert appearances. Baritone Christian Bowers, another American with successes at home and abroad, will appear as the Count Almaviva. Soprano Joélle Harvey, who has made a specialty of Mozart and Händel roles, will introduce to Pittsburgh audiences her interpretation of Susanna, one of her “signature” parts. She, too, is an American, as is Brian Kontes, who will appear as Dr. Bartolo. He possesses a “dark bass and strong dramatic energy,” according to Opera News, and while he will be making his Pittsburgh Opera debut, his professional debut took place here in 1998, when he appeared as Elder McLean in Carlyle Floydʼs Susannah at the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh.

Resident Artists, past and present, are included in the cast as well. Corrie Stallings, the recent prize-winner in the prestigious “Mildred Miller International Voice Competition,” will appear in the charming “pants role” of Cherubino – a part sung by Mildred Miller herself at the Metropolitan Opera well over fifty times. Leah de Gruyl will be heard as Marcellina; Eric Ferring will do double duty as Don Basilio and Curzio; Andy Berry will sing Antonio, and Ashley Fabian, Barbarina.

Count (Christian Bowers) and Countess Almaviva (Danielle Pastin)
Count (Christian Bowers) and Countess Almaviva (Danielle Pastin)

Last but by no means least, as the saying goes, Pittsburgh’s own Danielle Pastin will appear as the Countess Almaviva. This exceptionally gifted soprano is no stranger to local opera audiences, and those familiar with her work won’t be surprised to read that Opera News considers hers to be “one of the most sheerly beautiful voices on the scene today,” possessing a “lovely demeanor and irresistibly creamy timbre.” I admit to being a great admirer of the singer, and was thrilled when she agreed to take the time to answer a few questions about the upcoming production of The Marriage of Figaro.

“The cast is superb,” she said, “so it will truly be a wonderfully sung and acted production. We’re having a really great time putting this opera together, and I think that will only continue, once we hit the stage and start getting feedback from the audience.” Her role is one that truly hits the ground running, since the second act curtain rises on her first appearance and she is required to launch into one of the opera’s best known arias. Not being a singer, I have always wanted to ask someone who is how one prepares for what seems to this layman an extremely daunting task.

Figaro (Tyler Simpson), Susanna (Joélle Harvey), Count (Christian Bowers) and Countess Almaviva (Danielle Pastin)
Figaro (Tyler Simpson), Susanna (Joélle Harvey), Count (Christian Bowers) and Countess Almaviva (Danielle Pastin)

“It all comes down to the warm up time,” was Ms. Pastin’s response. “It takes me twice as long to warm up for a role like this, because, as you say, the first appearance I make is singing my first aria. It has to be a well thought out warm up, too, because I have to make sure I don’t over warm, which would make it harder to access the lower middle part of my range, which is where the Countess’s music mostly lies. Typically I do my usual warm up and then sing through the aria at least once in my dressing room before heading to the stage.”

Ms. Pastin’s career has taken her to cities and venues stretching across this country and the Atlantic. Yet she is a Pittsburgh resident. The inevitable question – “Why?” – received a response that, quite frankly, came as no surprise.

“Pittsburgh always feels like home,” she began, then enthusiastically continued: “I graduated from the Pittsburgh Opera Young Artist Program in 2010 and decided to stay in Pittsburgh for a couple of reasons. I have a lot of family in the area, including my parents.

“And it’s such a great city to live in! I love the vibe that the city projects and the restaurants that are popping up keep getting better and better. I love that Pittsburgh supports so many arts organizations and that they continue to thrive, while at the same time it supports our sports teams. I also love that no matter where I travel in the world, I can always find a STEELERS bar! That says something about how great Pittsburgh is.”

The words of a true Pittsburgh “Countess” and Steelers fan.

For tickets, performance dates and much more, please visit Pittsburgh Opera. I have a hunch that “The Marriage of Figaro” will be one of the highlights of the company’s present season.

David Bachman Photography

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.

Mamma Mia

20292706_10154800983161696_6800590976824145690_nAny fairly seasoned or routine theatre-goer has a certain expectation for crowd makeup at certain shows. The niche, hyper-baroque, perhaps one person piece—the crowd is replete with art majors, the wandering scraggly dude wearing overalls with nothing underneath as a form of expression. Edgy musicals, potentially featuring puppets or Andrew Jackson will have crowds stacked with the more avant-garde choir nerd who discovered themselves in college. And then, there’s the crowd that flocks to Mamma Mia!  Typically, overly giddy hordes of folks who rocked out—with various manifestations of their groove things shaking—to the sex-laced disco/pop hits of ABBA in their bedazzled prime in the 70s flock to see Mamma Mia! The Pittsburgh CLO’s recent production of Mamma Mia! was in no way an exception, as the Benedum was filled to the breaking point with ebullient, giddy beyond compare, dressed-to-the-nines,  ready to practically claw their way on stage to follow the musical journey set to ABBA’s greatest hits.

Lori Hammel, Sally Ann Triplett, and Michelle Dawson
Lori Hammel, Sally Ann Triplett, and Michelle Dawson

And indeed, a massive factor in the success and excitement that goes with witnessing Mamma Mia! on stage is the enthrallment of the crowd and the participatory element that feeds the actors rapture conducting their performances. The story is simple and enjoyable convoluted: Sophie, a beautiful young girl about to wed the love of her life, mails out three wedding invitations to three men, one of whom she assumes to be her father based on her pillaging her mother’s old diary. As the wedding preparations reach a frenetic pace, and her unwitting mother’s eccentric friends (and also, importantly, former band mates) descend upon the scene, the twists and turns of Sophie’s mother’s relationships with the three men—and the truth behind Sophie’s real father—is divulged and unravels, moments up to the “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do.”  There is nothing particularly emotionally wrenching or complex in the characters’ interactions, nor does the plot demand a great deal of attention from the audience. Thus the songs, the exquisite grandiosity of the stage direction and choreography, and the pure performative spectacle of the show can command the rapt audience’s full attention.

Ryan Vona and Erika Henningsen
Ryan Vona and Erika Henningsen

Resounding critical applause should be given to the all those in charge of and involved in the choreography of the show.  Beyond flawless and matching the pacing and throbbing, feverishness emotions of each song, the choreography and the supporting cast of dancers were—and this is a characterization I hesitate using—utterly transcendent. The stage motion and dance accompaniments were so spot on, so spirited, and so technically precise that they would have awed perhaps the more skeptical audience member (and there were certainly several fourteen year old boys who needed convincing). While the younger members of the cast certainly held their own—as well as the pleasantly caricatured men playing the three potential dads—the spotlight, as it is meant to, was claimed gloriously by the three women playing Donna (Sophie’s mother) and her two best friends/former band mates, Tanya and Rosie. While the characters are certainly archetypal, veteran stage and screen actresses Lori Hammel (Rosie), Sally Ann Triplett (Donna) and Michelle Dawson (Tanya) were every bit as luminescent as they could have been. And most importantly, they had the utterly wild and thrilled audience in the palms of their hand, thus making CLO’s production of Mamma Mia the ultimate, incredibly fun guilty pleasure delight that it was intended to be.

Mamma Mia has unfortunately already closed but there’s still more fun from the Pittsburgh CLO this summer, for more information, click here.

Photos courtesy of Archie Carpenter.

In the Heights

heightsA lot has changed since the 2007 Off-Broadway premiere of In the Heights. For the career of its creator/composer/lyricist/original star Lin-Manuel Miranda. For the landscape of musical theatre—thanks to his 2015 follow up Hamilton. For the quality of life for immigrants of all origins in a country where its president has railed so viciously against them.

Why then has this show—that might seem immature when compared to a sung-through magnum opus about America’s ten dollar founding father—survived to be mounted so exuberantly by Pittsburgh CLO?

It’s because Miranda and book writer Quiara Algería Hudes (who has picked up a Pulitzer Prize since Heights opened) have created something that is both timeless and a period piece. They made a point of not including the gang violence and hard crime that is endemic of stories about Latin-American people, but it’s hard not to speculate what these characters would endure in today’s crueler world. Instead, they make a sweet character named Usnavi—who rhymes “awning” and “Good morning” and references Cole Porter in his opening rap—the narrator. Seems strange until you count the show’s four Tony Awards (including Best Musical) and numerous regional productions.

Stepping in for Miranda to wear Usnavi’s signature hat is the luminescent Joshua Grosso. If your heart doesn’t beat faster when his charming, nerdy energy bubbles into a hilarious, high-pitched squeal, you don’t have a pulse. His rapping and singing chops are of equal measure as are his dramatic and comedic capabilities. From the start of the show, you know you’re in good hands with him.

David Del Rio, Joshua  Grosso & Marcus Paul James
David Del Rio, Joshua Grosso & Marcus Paul James

When Usnavi calls for “lights up on Washington Heights”, he isn’t just heralding the sunrise and the start of a new day of work, he is also shining a beacon on the secrets and struggles of his friends, family, and neighbors in the barrio. Anna Louizos’ Tony-nominated, incredibly intricate set gives vibrant life to the homes and businesses where he lays our scene. It also miraculously succeeds where most scenic designs fail in bringing some level of intimacy to the gargantuan Benedum Center.

To the immediate left of the corner store Usnavi runs with his wise-cracking cousin Sonny are the steps of Abuela Claudia’s home, where everyone in the neighborhood finds solace and delicious cooking. Next door is Kevin (alpha male Rick Negron) and Camila Rosario’s (fiery Blanca Camacho) eponymous taxi dispatch. They’ve sacrificed everything they have, but the business is failing anyway. Their most loyal employee, an African-American dreamer named Benny, still admires them and does his best to learn Spanish to find deeper community with them.

On the right side of Usnavi is a salon owned by gossip hound Daniela. She supervises flighty Carla and a credit-challenged bombshell named Vanessa desperate to fly the coop.

_AC29598-RETOUCHThree things throw a wrench in what was set to be a typical Fourth of July celebration: the huge revelation Nina Rosario returns from college with, a winning lottery ticket valued at $96,000, and a heat-induced natural disaster.

Still, nothing can stop the resilient citizens of the barrio from living full lives complete with romance, tragedy, and self-discovery. As immigrants or descendants of immigrants, they get the job done.

He may be Joshua Grosso’s right-hand man, but David Del Rio is also a one-man carnival del barrio in the role of Sonny. He spun what could’ve been a string of annoying one-liners into a complex characterization of a kid too clever and compassionate for his own good (but certainly not ours). If Grosso is the heart of the production, Del Rio is the brains and funny bone.

Rounding out the show’s organs are its sturdy spine and powerful lungs embodied by the epic performance of Patricia Phillips. The range of Abuela Claudia’s physicality from the frail older woman to the surefooted survivor she becomes while relaying stories of her harsh upbringing in “Paciencia Y Fe” took my breath away.

Patricia Phillips and Joshua Grosso
Patricia Phillips and Joshua Grosso

Miranda’s eclectic score is chock full of showstoppers from that solo to Benny and Nina’s soaring “When You’re Home” (given wings by Marcus Paul James and Genny Lis Padilla’s insane vocals) to act one’s aspirational anthem “96,000”.

Pinpointing the reason for Miranda’s success is as easy as recognizing how he has been able to inspire artists like Tony winners Karen Olivo and Alex Lacamoire with his singular vision and keep them coming back to his projects. Another of those artists is Michael Balderrama. After dancing for Michael Jackson, he was dance captain, fight captain, and swing for the Broadway iteration of Heights.

At the helm of this production, he maintains the high caliber of work originally executed by director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler. With his fluid and fresh movement, Balderrama has ensured that every member of the ensemble has a distinct identity and heritage. It’s difficult to stay in your seat when the cast is tearing it up in “The Club”.

The ubiquity of fireworks on July fourth makes it unlikely, but, if by some chance you couldn’t see a colorful, crowd-pleasing, explosive display of patriotism somewhere, you’re in luck.

Pittsburgh CLO’s heartwarming and winning In the Heights is hot enough to cause a blackout. You won’t see your fears and anxieties anymore, just what’s right in front of you: home and the people and memories that make it meaningful.

In the Heights runs through July 16th at the Benedum Center. For more information, click here.

Special thanks to the Pittsburgh CLO for complimentary press tickets. Photos courtesy of Archie Carpenter.

An American in Paris

coverAcclaimed director/choreographer and 2015 Tony Award®-winner Christopher Wheeldon received a Tony® Award nomination for Best Director and won the Tony Award for Best Choreography for this production. This show was also the most award-winning musical of the 2015-16 Broadway Season.

After the 2010 world premiere in Pittsburgh of  ‘S Wonderful – The New Gershwin Musical the CLO’s Van Kaplan began discussions with members of the Gershwin family about creating An American in Paris for the stage. The Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright Craig Lucas chose to ground the story in the post World War II. Lucas continued to develop the characters and add their backstories to strengthen the plot.  He did not remake the movie, but instead crafted a fully realized story.

At the end of World War II, Jerry Mulligan, an American soldier, decides to stay in Paris and nurture his passion for painting. With a little help from kindred spirits Adam Hochberg, a composer and fellow veteran; and Henri Baurel, the son of wealthy French industrialists and wannabe song and dance man, they become fast friends and imagine a bright future in the City of Lights.

The intersecting point for al the characters is a ballet audition. Adam is writing the score for the new ballet and brings Jerry along to the audition. Henri’s parents are major supporters of the company so they are there along with Henri. Milo Davenport, an up and coming philanthropist, art dealer and ingénue is in attendance to add more feminine charm.

As the auditions, begin a stunningly beautiful aspiring ballerina, Lise Dassen, appears.  She is hoping to win a spot in the company but having arrived late is turned away. Adam, sensing she is the “one”, encourages her to stay and participate. As the other dancers are passed over and dismissed, Lise remains. She is the focus as Jerry, Adam and all of us in the audience fall in love with her and her stunningly graceful performance.

After Lise’s stellar audition, Milo announces she wishes to fund the new ballet with Lise as the star using Jerry’s designs. The plot then begins its twists and turns as long held secrets are revealed complicating the characters lives.

The story is told predominantly through dance, a beautifully executed fusion of classic ballet with Broadway style dance routines. Take a second in the “An American in Paris” ballet number to watch the dancers feet and in particular their shoes to see just how seamlessly this works. The ballet dancers are en pointe and the Broadway dancers in heels. It works as a lovely blend of both styles.

The importance of dance is reflected in the casting choices. Since April, McGee Maddox, former principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada plays the role of Jerry. Sara Esty, a classically trained ballerina from the Miami Ballet, is Lise. She has been alternate and standby for Lise for the Paris premiere and on Broadway prior to assuming the role full-time on the national tour and her experience shows.  Their dancing is a joy to watch. What’s missing is the smoldering sexual chemistry between them. The lust and love they share that is the cornerstone of the show’s story does not come across in this casting.

Etai Benson
Etai Benson

Etai Benson is a standout as Adam Hochberg who as the narrator sets the opening and close of the show. His stage presence, robust voice and acting skills draw you into the story and serves as the bond between Jerry, Adam and Henri. The importance of Adam’s character in essential to the story, as he causes Henri, Lise, Milo and Jerry to do the right thing for Lise in the name of love. Benson delivers this central theme in an understated yet solid performance. He is always there, never out front, but quietly setting the mood with his piano translating the tone of the show with Gershwin’s haunting melodies.

Nick Spanger as Henri Baurel in “I’ll Build You a Stairway to Paradise”
Nick Spanger as Henri Baurel in “I’ll Build You a Stairway to Paradise”

Emily Ferranti is enjoyable and fetching as the rich dilatant and aspiring philanthropist Milo Davenport.

Part of what makes the show a hit is the accomplished dancers and ballet corps who animate  Wheeldon’s choreography and direction. Music Director David Andrews Rogers brings out Gershwin’s complex and multi-layered score featuring “I Got Rhythm,” “Liza,” “”S Wonderful,” “But Not For Me,” “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” and orchestral music in the dance number “An American In Paris.”

The designers use every modern design tool and technology to create a colorful, flowing and fluid environment that easily transitions us around Paris. The set elements, projections and lighting tie together in a unified design concept that creates a multilayered environment built around French masterworks and Jerry’s sketches.  As pointe shoes and dancers prohibit modern automated scenery moving on tracks, the scenery literary dances on and off the stage with that same sense of fluid motion.

Sara Este as Lise
Sara Esty as Lise

The show is a sensory delight of color, sounds and movement. The costumes combination of color and textures draw your eyes in and direct your focus. For the audition scene all the other players except Lise are in muted colors. She is positively radiant in blue, the center of attention on a crowded stage. The spangles and feathers in “I’ll build a stairway to Paradise” and the eye popping colors of the “An American in Paris” ballet are feasts for the eyes. Lise’s signature flowing canary yellow dress has become a symbolic show icon.

If you love dance, beautiful choreography, the Gershwin’s music, and fabulous staging, then An American in Paris is a must see.

One final note, on opening night, early in the first scene there was a scenery malfunction that caused the show to stop briefly and regroup. The entire team handled it with the utmost professionalism with hardly a beat of delay between realization and bringing the curtain down. Following informing the audience of a hold and a few minutes to reset everything, the show restarted with Adam at his piano repeating his line “And this is how it really happened” to the applause of the audience.  Chalk up another theatre moment to remember for all of us at the Benedum on opening night.

An American in Paris, presented in cooperation with PNC Broadway Across at the Benedum Center with performances now to June 11th.

Photos courtesy of Matthew Murphy. 

For tickets click here: 

The Summer King – The Josh Gibson Story

Summer King

It was truly a “gala” occasion in the long history of Pittsburgh Opera, at the Benedum last evening, when the much publicized and widely heralded The Summer King – the company’s first ever “world premiere” – was performed for the first time. With music by Daniel Sonenberg, set to a libretto that is a collaboration between the composer and Daniel Nester and Mark Campbell, the opera tells a necessarily condensed version of the life of Josh Gibson, referred to by many in his day as “the black Babe Ruth.” Today he is remembered at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, but in his lifetime, like all African-Americans, was barred from a place in the Major Leagues. Christopher Hahn, General Director of the company, who has proven on previous occasions that he is not shy when it comes to taking the great risks inherent to the production of new, contemporary works, is to be especially congratulated on his latest – and greatest – innovation, as a work never heard by anyone before is indeed a giant leap to lofty heights.

The composer and the librettists were on hand, as was a large and very enthusiastic audience, and Mr. Sonenberg possibly received the greatest ovation of the evening when he was coaxed to the stage at the conclusion of the performance. He well deserved it, as his orchestration of the piece is rich, full, exquisitely colorful, and carries the action on the stage quite vividly and with a masterfully arranged appropriateness, finely honed to each of the many scenes which make up the opera. Antony Walker and the remarkably gifted instrumentalists of the orchestra had a field day (no pun intended) in bringing the vibrant and enchanting score to life.

Gibson’s tragically short life fits operatic treatment like a glove. The opera encapsulates not only key events in his career and sad decline, but is a reflection on an era; an unenlightened era of segregation in our own backyards, when sharply defined division permeated far beyond the sandlots. The work is well staged and makes effective use of creative media and lighting effects.

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The action takes place in two acts of multiple scenes, beginning with men reminiscing about Gibson in a barber shop about a decade after his death. The action then fades back to 1930, when his wife Helen tells him in a Homestead park of a pregnancy she ultimately would not survive, then progresses over the period leading to his death at 35 in 1947. This is the time of Gibson’s career as a stellar hitter for the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays, and when his regular “jook joint” was the long gone, legendary Crawford Grill in the Hill District, where he meets his girlfriend Grace after she hits on the daily number by playing his batting average of 440. Encouraged by a reporter for the Pittsburgh Courier, as well as Grace, he considers trying to break the “color barrier,” by aiming for the Major Leagues. A meeting is arranged with the Washington Senators, but the story is simply a humiliatingly cruel ruse to appease the African-American press. Gibson heads south of the border, with a few of his teammates and Grace, since race is not an issue in the Mexican League, where he plays for the Rojos del Águila de Veracruz, is crowned “The Summer King,” and enjoys tremendous but brief success, as Grace is anxious to return to Pittsburgh – since the Second World War is over, and her husband will soon be home.

Back in Pittsburgh, talk of integration in the Major Leagues begins to appear as just over the horizon, as indeed it was, but by this time Gibson is drinking heavily to self-medicate excruciating headaches, hallucinating about his late wife, and having one-sided, imaginary conversations with Joe DiMaggio. He is visited by his old friend Sam Bankhead, who tells him that Jackie Robinson will join the Dodgers, before Josh drifts in and out of delirium and reflections on his lifetime, then dies.

The very large cast faces a daunting task in interpreting the vocal line of the opera. The voices parts are difficult, oddly rhythmed, and fragmented declamation of recitative from the beginning until the fourth scene of the second act. Occasionally a hint of melody suggests sustained singing is about to happen, but it rarely does. Alfred Walker, whose large repertory encompasses the major baritone roles in Richard Wagner’s epic music-dramas, made his Pittsburgh Opera debut in the title role. He is a world-renowned singer quite capable of handling the demands of the score, and his acting was charmingly amusing in the few light moments of the story, and powerfully dramatic through the rest. He made an engaging picture, and it is difficult to imagine that he could have achieved a greater success in the role. Much the same may be said of Denyce Graves, also making her local operatic debut, as Grace. She, too, is a top notch singer of international acclaim, and her rich mezzo-soprano voice was in fine condition and a true thrill to hear. She was a delight to the eye in the period costumes of the era. She and Mr. Walker were at their best in the fourth scene of the second act, which allows them the best opportunity to display their abundant vocal abilities.

Another singing part that stands out vividly is the character of Wendell Smith, of The Pittsburgh Courier, which was sung by Sean Panikkar, a former Resident Artist with the company who has gone on to make a name for himself with most of the American opera companies and on international stages as well. His pure tenor voice rang out resoundingly in the role, and he acted the part in a highly engaging manner. Other newcomers to Pittsburgh who stood out in the crowd were Kenneth Kellogg, in the baritone role of Sam Bankhead, and the lyric soprano Jacqueline Echols, as Helen Gibson.

Summer king2

For the rest, it must suffice to say that tenors Martin Bakari (as Scribe and a “Trash Talking Player”), Terrence Chin-Loy (as Double Duty Radcliffe), Robert Mack (as Judy Johnson) and Norman Shankle (as the Elder Barber and Gus Greenlee) made their local debuts; current Resident Artists Brian Vu (as Calvin Griffith), Eric Ferring (as Señor Alcalde), and Taylor Raven (on the program as “Girlfriend”) made the most of their brief opportunities; former Resident Artists Phillip Gay (as the Younger Barber and Cool Papa Bell), Kyle Oliver (as Dave Hoskins), and Jasmine Muhammad (as Hattie) return for these performances; Pittsburgh native Ray Very did triple-duty (as a Radio Announcer, Branch Rickey and Clark Griffith), Gregg Lovelace was on the program (as Broadway Connie Rector), and George MiloshRobert Spondike and Scott Cuva made a brief, entertaining appearance as Mariachi singers.

As usual, the singers in the magnificent Pittsburgh Opera Chorus, under the direction of Mark Trawka, were a prominent and very successful feature of the evening. Such a large group of singers keeping time and tune in such difficult music was a truly remarkable accomplishment. In the curiously constructed epilogue/prologue combination which ends the opera, the children’s chorus, which gradually builds into the full chorus, provided some of the most beautiful music of the performance.

Whether the opera will go on to other venues, only time will tell. But it is certain that The Summer King is a major milestone in local operatic history, and the remaining performances deserve capacity audiences.

For tickets, performance dates and times, a complete synopsis, and much more, visit Pittsburgh Opera.

Special thanks to Pittsburgh Opera for the two complimentary press admissions.

The “Artistic Team” for The Summer King  –

Conductor, Antony Walker; Stage Director, Sam Helfrich; Set Designer, Andrew Lieberman; Costume Designer, Kaye Voyce; Lighting Designer, Robert Wierzel; Media Designer, Darrel Maloney; Wig and Makeup Designer, James Geier; Assistant Conductor, Glenn Lewis; Chorus Master, Mark Trawka; Associate Coach/Pianist, James Lesniak; Assistant Director, Frances Rabalais; Stage Manager, Cindy Knight.

Photography: David Bachman

Turandot

TurandotGiacomo Puccini’s final opera, Turandot, was presented for the first time this season Saturday night at the Benedum, and a gratifyingly large crowd packed the auditorium to enjoy a truly resounding rendition of the composer’s swan song. The work is staged on a grand scale, with impressive sets and costumes, careful attention to the massive choral and orchestral effects the score offers, and impressive singers, and that the audience was pleased with the results was expressed with unusual enthusiasm after each of the first two acts, and a deafening ovation at the final curtain. For once, those stampeding the exits were in the minority, while those who lingered as long as possible to express their appreciation were the distinct majority. The warm spring evening brought out a long demonstration of applause and cheers that must have pleased all concerned in the performance.

The opera’s title is frequently pronounced with the final “t” being silent, even by many of its greatest interpreters, but as Puccini’s descendants have pointed out, the correct “Italianization” of the name would be something like “Turandotta,” and the name should be pronounced as written. Unfinished at the time of Puccini’s death in 1924, this musical masterpiece is set to an Italian libretto by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni. Franco Alfano used a sketch of Puccini’s to finish the opera (although a few others have tampered with the ending, with mixed results), and it was first heard at La Scala, Milan, in April 1926, with the mightily gifted Rosa Raisa in the title role (her husband, baritone Giacomo Rimini, taking the role of Ping), the light-weight, lyrical tenor, Miguel Fleta, as “The Unknown Prince,” Calaf, and the famous Arturo Toscanini wielding the baton. Saturday night, Antony Walker was back at the podium for only the second time this season, and in the orchestra pit, in addition to the large group of gifted instrumentalists that are always on hand, were the very gongs Puccini himself had handcrafted in Italy when he was orchestrating the opera. In an amusing and engaging pre-show talk by Christopher Hahn, General Director of the ambitious company, the audience learned that one of the gongs bore the signature of the late Luciano Pavarotti.

Prince Calaf (Thiago Arancam) and Princess Turandot (Alexandra Loutsion) do a little trash-talking to each other about whether he’ll be able to solve her riddles
Prince Calaf (Thiago Arancam) and Princess Turandot (Alexandra Loutsion) do a little trash-talking to each other about whether he’ll be able to solve her riddles

The plot is a grim one, set in ancient China, and tells the story of the Princess Turandot, who has been raised to grind an ancient ax to avenge a wronged ancestor, and who is so determined to be claimed by no man that she sets before potential suitors a series of impossible riddles. One wrong answer costs the loser his head, and she has caused the deaths of countless would-be mates. As her latest victim is about to be executed, the bloodthirsty mob in its clamor for a better view knocks an elderly blind man (Timur, the vanquished King of Tartary) to the ground, and a devoted young slave girl (Liù), cries out for help to lift her master back to his feet. In the crowd is a handsome young prince (Calaf), who recognizes the old man as his long-lost father. Timur explains to his son that only Liù has remained devoted to him, and when Calaf asks her why, she explains that he once smiled at her, shyly betraying her unrequited love for the prince. But Calaf is so obsessed with winning Turandot that he resists the discouragement of all and bangs a large gong to summon the cold-hearted princess.

To Turandot’s horror, Calaf answers her riddles correctly. As she begs her father, the Emperor Altoum, to rescue her from the mysterious stranger, Calaf tells her that if she guesses his name by dawn he will forfeit his victory and sacrifice his own life. It is commanded that no one shall dare sleep until Turandot learns his name. Ping, Pang and Pong, Turandot’s ministers, try to coax Calaf to flee while he has the chance, since she is determined that Timur and Liù know his name, and is willing to torture it out of them. Liù tells the mob that she alone knows his true identity, to save Timur, and she breaks away from her tormentors and slides her own neck along a soldier’s sword. As the grief-stricken old man follows the crowd that carries her body away, Calaf and Turandot are left alone for a stand-off. Succumbing to Calaf’s kiss, Turandot’s heart of ice is melted by a new, unknown emotion – love – the populace rejoices, and the story comes as close to a “happy” ending as the plot can possibly get.

 Ping (Craig Verm) burns Liu (Maria Luigia Borsi) with a red-hot poker in a futile attempt to get her to reveal Prince Calaf’s name
Ping (Craig Verm) burns Liu (Maria Luigia Borsi) with a red-hot poker in a futile attempt to get her to reveal Prince Calaf’s name

 

It was (to me, at least) a foregone conclusionthat Mark Trawka and his magnificent chorus would make the most of the colossal ensembles the opera calls for, since they have been kept in the dark silence since La Traviata in October. And indeed, they did. With great sonority and precision, this large, talented group poured out a glorious torrent of sound that thrilled time aftertime through the course of the three-act evening. They well deserved the roar of approval they received at the opera’s conclusion. Antony Walker has a sure grasp of the score, and the orchestration flowed for the most part quite smoothly throughout, rising to thrilling massiveness in the crashing ensembles in which the chorus and principal singers were  also giving all they had to give.

Thiago Arancam made his Pittsburgh Opera debut in the role of Calaf. He’s a fine looking young tenor who presents an impressive stage appearance, and the audience was clearly smitten with him. He relied on the strength and ringing qualities of his voice, and poured out the famous “Nessun dorma” aria with tremendous vehemence, but little attention to the more delicate shadings and nuances the piece offers. Still, at its conclusion, the crowd erupted in a roar of approval, all but drowning the beautiful orchestration that follows. If his intent was to make a good first impression, he more than succeeded. Alexandra Loutsion, a former Resident Artist with the company, assumed the title role for the first time, and presented an imposing figure and a strong soprano voice quite capable of meetingthe trying demands of the score. She will have the opportunity to add finishing touches to her portrayal in the upcoming repetitions, but for a first performance, she sang and acted the role impressively.

Princess Turandot (Alexandra Loutsion) and Prince Calaf (Thiago Arancam) receive Emperor Altoum (Joseph Frank)’s blessing​
Princess Turandot (Alexandra Loutsion) and Prince Calaf (Thiago Arancam) receive Emperor Altoum (Joseph Frank)’s blessing

 

Wei Wu returned as Timur, and gave the finest performance he’s offered with the company to date. The smaller roles were in the hands of competent singing actors who rounded out the ensemble. Andy Berry (the Mandarin), Joseph Frank (Emperor Altoum), Samantha DeStefano and Meghan DeWald (Handmaidens) all added to the general excellence of the production.

Somewhat of an error was made in thrusting Ping (Craig Verm), Pang (Julius Ahn) and Pong (Joseph Hu) into cartoonish costumes and comedic antics that distracted and over-emphasized the prominence of the roles. They sang well individually, but the beautiful blending of the voices in the first scene of the second act was missed entirely. Even had it not been, three men in white union suits emblazoned with the Chinese character for “Love” would have distracted from its effectiveness. Despite the impression that they were members of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta troupe who showed up at the wrong theater, they were audience favorites, and when all is said and done, the pleasure of the paying customers is what matters most.

The most artistically satisfying singing of the evening was done by Maria Luigia Borsi in the comparatively small and somewhat ungrateful role of Liù. Her beautifully pure soprano tones throbbed with emotion in her two arias, and she brought out the devotion and timidity of the character in a manner that was heart-rending. Her most delicate singing carried through the expanses of the Benedum most exquisitely.

As a whole, the opera is being presented with a colorful grandeur and pageantry that shouldn’t be missed. For tickets, a complete synopsis and much more, visit Pittsburgh Opera.

Special thanks to the company for the complimentary press tickets.

“The Artistic Team” for Turandot

Antony Walker, Conductor; Renaud Doucet, Original Stage Director and Choreographer; Kathleen Stakenas, Stage Director; André Barbe, Set and Costume Designer; Guy Simard, Lighting Designer; James Geier, Wig and Makeup Designer; Roxanne Foster, Assistant Choreographer; Glenn Lewis, Assistant Conductor; Mark Trawka, Chorus Master; James Lesniak, Assistant Coach/Pianist; Frances Rabalais, Assistant Director; Cindy Knight, Stage Manager.

Photography – David Bachman.

The Nutcracker

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I’ve attended the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s production of The Nutcracker countless times. I went as a young, aspiring dancer growing up, and in the past few years, have the renewed the tradition as an adult. This year, as any other, I was dazzled.

As I mentioned in a previous article, the PBT’s production of The Nutcracker is set in Gilded Age Pittsburgh, in a Shadyside home (where the Kaufmann and Heinz families are guests). The giant clock mounted at the proscenium is modeled after the old Kaufmann’s clock, and during “The Waltz of the Snowflakes,” the backdrop becomes an antique view from Mt. Washington. It’s a delightful change that brings the story closer to home for the audience.

The opening scenes at the Christmas party are full of energetic and joyful, full of laughs, magic tricks, and humorous characters. The journey through the woods is transcendent (and my favorite), and the Land of Enchantment is full of, well, enchantment, and a circus-like display of vibrant colors and dancing. I enjoyed how Marie was portrayed a bit differently this year: playful and curious as a girl on the brink of an adventure ought to be, and less like the typical, innocent damsel waiting for her Prince Charming. Less Cinderella, more Alice. A refreshing characterization.

The sets, costumes, and choreography amazed everyone in the audience, as usual. Snowflakes falling, a Christmas tree growing larger than life, impossible clown cars, and spinning carousels descending from the sky left nothing to the imagination. The lead dancers were all on point (no pun intended), the ensemble routines were gracefully in-sync, and the youngest little dancers charmed as sheep, mice, and bumblebees.

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve seen this production many time but not much changes from year to year. The costumes and choreography remain largely the same. This could be taken as a criticism, but instead I think of it as watching one of your favorite holiday films or making a family recipe– A Christmas Story and grandma’s cookies don’t change from year to year either, but they’re just as delightful every time. PBT has found something that works, and works well. It makes sense to stick with it.

The PBT dancers are extremely talented and their art is commendable, but I’d argue that what has really helped this production stand the test of time is making the ballet accessible to everyone. For children that have never been to a ballet before, for adults that think ballet is boring or snobby, and for the die-hard ballet supporters, all the same, here is laughter at the clowns’ and antics, and awe at the Sugar Plum Fairy’s and Cavalier’s pas de deux. It’s the perfect mix of holiday and Pittsburgh nostalgia to tickle everyone’s memories in some way.DSC_9831-1

My only real issue with this production is the lack of live musicians. Tchaikovsky’s music always deserves a full orchestra.  It’s a shame to miss out on that, but it’s certainly understandable why they opt for a recording instead. Either way, it’s difficult to remain disappointed however you listen to Tchaikovsky’s score. Each movement is like a special treat, just as familiar as a favorite Christmas carol.

The Nutcracker is playing at the Benedum until December 27. The Benedum is stunning at this time of year, and this show is perfect as a family outing or a date night. It’s a wonderful Christmas activity to add to your list (and perhaps a tradition to begin). You can purchase tickets and read more about the show hereSpecial thanks to the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre for complimentary press tickets.

Photos courtesy of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.