Header (4)The local premiere of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s Moby-Dick was presented by Pittsburgh Opera at the Benedum last night, and was greeted with great and deserved enthusiasm by an audience which included the composer himself. Indeed, Heggie received one of the loudest roars of applause at the final curtain; here was genuine appreciation of a contemporary American composer with no fear of the “grand opera” idiom, whose orchestration is virtually a symphony unto itself, full of nuance and shading that underline the massive choruses, ensembles and leading characters on the stage. In a spot or two, it seemed like the statue was in the orchestra pit and the pedestal was on the stage, but as a whole, his work is extraordinarily impressive, and it quickly became apparent why this modern opera has enjoyed the success it has over the last seven years or so, and it’s easy to imagine that this new production will be sought out by opera companies for years to come, although it could benefit from one or two slight improvements in the stage design.

Sailors dismember a sperm whale at the Pequod's try works while Greenhorn (Sean Panikkar) and Queequeg (Musa Ngqungwana) comfort Cabin Boy Pip (Jacqueline Echols)
Sailors dismember a sperm whale at the Pequod’s try works while Greenhorn (Sean Panikkar) and Queequeg (Musa Ngqungwana) comfort Cabin Boy Pip (Jacqueline Echols)

Conductor Antony Walker, last seen at the podium in the autumn months, received a rousing welcome when he came into view, and within minutes of beginning the overture, made it clear that he and the instrumentalists had made a careful study of the colorful, quite beautiful orchestration that tells the grim, tragic story almost as well as the singing actors and action on the stage. Heggie’s accompaniment roars like the raging seas, whispers at the right moments, and proves that contemporary opera can be made “classical,” enduring and endearing, just as it was in the days of Verdi, Puccini, Strauss and others – but the sound is new, unique to a present day composer who doesn’t imitate the greats of the past to any great degree, but amply demonstrates that his talents are very much on a par with many legendary names. The music flows continuously, much like Wagner’s and Strauss,’ but even here, he displays individuality rather than imitation. Walker and the orchestra gave a performance of the score that was a major highlight of the evening.

Great demands are made on the all-male chorus, but under Mark Trawka, this group never disappoints, and, augmented by more acrobatic, non-singing dancers from Attack Theatre, the rousing ensembles were quite thrilling, vocally impressive and well choreographed. When the leading singers lend their voices to these abundant moments, the effects are quite exciting. And among the leading singers there is a great wealth of talent. It should be noted first – since it was such a welcomed rarity – that the mostly bloody, gory, but occasionally touching English text was delivered with a great deal of clarity, so much so that the projection of the words above the stage scarcely seemed necessary for the soloists.

Captain Ahab (Roger Honeywell) and First Mate Starbuck (Michael Mayes) share a tender moment
Captain Ahab (Roger Honeywell) and First Mate Starbuck (Michael Mayes) share a tender moment

Based on January reviews out of Utah, one was led to believe that tenor Roger Honeywell lent to Captain Ahab the vocal traits of a Wagnerian Tristan or Siegfried, but he seems to have honed his conception of the role to more aptly fit the aging, bitter and weakening character. His tenor is indeed one of heroic proportions, but he used it skillfully and continently, all the while stumping about the stage on a wonderfully designed artificial leg. But even this aspect wasn’t overdone – in his appearance and acting, a better interpreter of the role would be hard to come by, and he mesmerized throughout. His listeners are able to feel both disdain and sympathy for the character as he sings and acts the part.

The touching friendship between Greenhorn and Queequeg was made prominently endearing by Sean Panikkar and Musa Ngqungwana. The first named young man possesses a brilliant, ringing tenor that local audiences know well from his Resident Artist days with the company, while the bass-baritone was a newcomer. His voice is warm and mellow, and possesses great carrying power that is attained (seemingly) with little effort. Another newcomer who gave a sterling performance was Michael Mayes, as Starbuck. The American baritone has a powerfully rich voice, and acts as well as he sings. These three came in for the lion’s share of applause hurled at the solo singers when the opera concluded.

Greenhorn (Sean Panikkar) compliments Queequeg (Musa Ngqungwana) for having rescued Cabin Boy Pip (Jacqueline Echols), who had been thrown overboard and feared lost in the heart of the sea
Greenhorn (Sean Panikkar) compliments Queequeg (Musa Ngqungwana) for having rescued Cabin Boy Pip (Jacqueline Echols), who had been thrown overboard and feared lost in the heart of the sea

Jacqueline Echols, in the “trouser role” of Pip, provided the lone female voice of the evening, and a strong, beautifully colored voice it was, indeed. In secondary roles, Eric Ferring (Flask) and Ben Taylor (Daggoo and Gardiner) were standouts. The tenor made the most of his vocal opportunities, and with baritone Malcolm MacKenzie (Stubb), provided a moment of brief, comic relief. As Gardiner, the captain of a passing ship in search of his lost son, Taylor, off stage and placed in darkness high above the audience, gave a display of his booming baritone that was quite thrilling. George Milosh (the Nantucket Sailor), Andy Berry (the Spanish Sailor) and Scott Cuva (Tashtego) rounded out the excellent ensemble of talent.

The production, a collaboration between Pittsburgh Opera, Utah Opera, Opera San Jose, Teatre Liceu (Barcelona) and Chicago Opera Theatre, is colorfully designed and for the most part, an impressive staging. The rather abstract set design of Erhard Rom and marvelous costuming by Jessica Jahn are effectively made the most of under the stage direction of Kristine McIntyre. Using singers and “supes” to manipulate the scene changes seems to be the new norm, but takes a bit away from the impact of a total theatrical experience. One effect most in need of improvement is the drop that illustrates the raging storm that ultimately dooms Ahab and all but one of his crew. A cloth (with anonymous hands in the wings visibly making it “wave”) made for an anti-climax when it was needed least.

The crew of the Pequod prepares for the final chase
The crew of the Pequod prepares for the final chase

The orchestra floor was well filled, but since the upper tiers of the Benedum are not visible from there, only the box-office and those on the stage know the size of the first-night audience. But it seemed like it should have been larger. Those who budget their operatic dollars for the warhorses are highly encouraged to take advantage of hearing Moby-Dick – it may very well one day fall into the category of the tried and true works.

For tickets, full production details, wonderful photographs and more, visit Pittsburgh Opera.

“The Artistic Team” for Moby-Dick

Conductor, Antony Walker; Composer, Jake Heggie; Librettist, Gene Scheer; Stage Director, Kristine McIntyre; Set Designer, Erhard Rom; Costume Designer, Jessica Jahn; Lighting Designer, Marcus Dilliard; Wig & Make-up Designer, James Geier; Original Choreography, Daniel Charon; Choreographic Reconstruction, Natalie Desch; Dancers, Attack Theatre; Assistant Conductor, Glenn Lewis; Chorus Master, Mark Trawka; Associate Coach/Pianist, James Lesniak; Assistant Director, Frances Rabalais; Stage Manager, Cindy Knight

David Bachman Photography

“Moby-Dick” Coming to Pittsburgh Opera

Header (4)Pittsburgh Opera will continue its mission of giving contemporary American operas a hearing when the four-performance run of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s critically acclaimed and much publicized Moby-Dick begins at the Benedum next Saturday night, March 17. The work is based on key elements from Herman Melville’s classic novel of the same name – the tale of Captain Ahab’s all-consuming pursuit of the legendary white whale that chomped off one of his legs at the knee.

Five years in the making (and dedicated to Stephen Sondheim), Moby-Dick premiered at Dallas Opera on April 30, 2010 – an elaborately staged production with the “Wagnerian” tenor, Ben Heppner, singing the role of Ahab. Heggie is said to have composed his music with Heppner’s voice in mind, and librettist Scheer has estimated that about half of the dialogue uses Melville’s own words. Dallas Opera had commissioned the piece jointly with San Francisco Opera, San Diego Opera, State Opera of South Australia and Calgary Opera, and, unlike many new works, the opera has enjoyed a number of runs prior to this, its Pittsburgh premiere. Besides the performances of the companies that commissioned the work, Moby-Dick has been done by Washington National Opera and Los Angeles Opera, while Dallas Opera revived the original production in 2016. The considerable expense of this production discouraged one or two other venues from pursuing their initial interest in the work.

Greenhorn (Sean Panikkar), Captain Ahab (Roger Honeywell), Queequeg (Musa Ngqungwana)
Greenhorn (Sean Panikkar), Captain Ahab (Roger Honeywell), Queequeg (Musa Ngqungwana)

Pittsburgh Opera audiences will see a new staging, co-produced with Utah Opera. A set and costumes were created to make the opera more practical for regional companies, because, unlike the earlier productions, the set is designed so that it can be adjusted to just about any venue. Utah Opera debuted the new creation in Salt Lake City this January to a great deal of critical acclaim. The current issue of Opera News gives the event a considerable splash and is all the more interesting in that a couple of the singers reviewed will also be heard here. A few minutes of the Utah staging are available on YouTube.

Of the opera in general, Robert Coleman writes that “Heggie’s visceral score and colorful instrumentation highlight fascinating contrasts in character development, voice pairings and music style; the composer’s use of dissonance and flirtations with atonality dance well off an overwhelmingly lyric and tonal score.” The Stage Director, Kristine McIntyre; Set Designer, Erhard Rom and Costume Designer, Jessica Jahn, all receive very favorable comment, and words including “stunning” leap from the page – and these three will be part of the Pittsburgh production team.

Captain Ahab (Roger Honeywell)
Captain Ahab (Roger Honeywell)

While not a total stag-do, like Britten’s Billy Budd (also taken from a Melville novel), male voices dominate Moby-Dick, with a single “pants role” (Pip) taken by a female singer. But considering the acclaim the Canadian tenor Roger Honeywell received for his January 20 performance of Captain Ahab in Salt Lake City, a great deal of fine singing will be heard on Saturday evening. “Honeywell’s unflagging heldentenor intensely portrayed Ahab’s obsession,” Opera News notes, “deftly negotiating angular, piercing vocal lines. His more melodic Act II aria, ‘Heartless God,’ was an exquisitely sung respite before the work’s stormy ending.” Sean Panikkar, well remembered as a former Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist, will lend his brilliant tenor voice and commanding stage presence to the role of Greenhorn (Ishmael in the book), and South African bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana, also praised for his Salt Lake City performance of the role, will make his local debut as the tattooed harpooner Queequeg.

The American baritone Michael Mayes, already announced for next season, will make his Pittsburgh Opera debut as Starbuck. Eric Ferring, fresh from last month’s success in Ashes & Snow, will sing Flask; Malcolm Mackenzie, Stubb; Jacqueline Echols, Pip; Benjamin Taylor, Gardiner; George Milosh, the Nantucket Sailor; Scott Cuva, Tashtego, and Andy Berry, the Spanish Sailor. Antony Walker will conduct, and dancers from Attack Theater will augment the ensemble.

Greenhorn (Sean Panikkar), Queequeg (Musa Ngqungwana)
Greenhorn (Sean Panikkar), Queequeg (Musa Ngqungwana)

It was announced in early February that a $25,000 Art Works grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) was awarded to Pittsburgh Opera to help support the upcoming performances. “We appreciate this strong endorsement from the NEA,” General Director Christopher Hahn said at the time. “This new production of Moby-Dick will help introduce thousands of people to opera.” It is sincerely hoped that his audience size prediction comes true, for opera, as presented by the company, is a very expensive proposition. While the grant is generous and welcomed, a semi-educated guess is that it costs far more than $25,000 to raise the curtain, and an unknown work is always a risky financial undertaking.

For tickets, complete production details and more, please visit Pittsburgh Opera.

David Bachman Photography


Ashes & Snow

Header (2)The Pittsburgh Opera world premiere of Douglas J. Cuomo’s Ashes & Snow last evening offered a number of novelties aside from being the first ever performance of the work. Operas featuring a sole singer are rather uncommon. Francis Poulenc’s 1958 La voix humaine (“The Human Voice”) is the only other that comes to mind that has attained any enduring popularity, but as recently as 2015, Arnold Schoenberg’s 1924 Erwartung (“Expectation”), was the first opera projected live on a Times Square jumbotron. While the French and German works center on lone sopranos and are of somewhat shorter duration, Cuomo’s English-language adaptation of the Wilhelm Müller poems Franz Schubert set to music in the 1820’s runs for an hour and a quarter, and challenges a tenor to carry the show over an electronic accompaniment. An opera premiere with the composer taking up the guitar? Almost certainly a first.

Mr. Cuomo has an extensive background in composing for the stage, television, and film, and Ashes & Snow is not his first opera. His study of music is complemented by years of playing in pop, jazz, and funk bands. “I wanted to break free here and let the music take me wherever it did,” he is quoted in the program notes, “because I could change it as I was composing to fit my inspiration in the moment. I did, however, stay strictly within the form of the Schubert song-cycle. There are 24 poems in the original, and I re-interpret the text of each in a different way.” Müller’s poems inspired him in a variety of ways; a few of the set pieces in the opera are for the most part literal translations, while others he uses as a “springboard.”

Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Eric Ferring, tenor, the _Protagonist_“This is a punky, hard-edged piece,” Cuomo continues, “but it is also a world of miniatures, intimate, stark and delicate. Operatic in its heightened emotion, with movements of great power and great stillness, the protagonist is singing a long and evolving mad scene, as he searches for faith and grapples with his (and our) ideas of love, human connection, loneliness, desire, betrayal, faith, and finally the nature of existence itself.” “We are not sure at the end whether… our protagonist finds what he is seeking,” Director Jonathon Moore adds, “or indeed what choice he will make. But choose he must.”

All this is carried on a musical background of guitar, piano, trumpet and electronic sound effects. The tenor is “mic’d” – not because he needs volume, but to place him on an equal “sonic playing field” with the instrumentalists. There were few moments when this seemed necessary, as the accompaniment wisely and rarely competes with the singer in any way, and the one in question possesses a powerful set of lungs. It also provided the challenge of how to mic a man who spends (nearly) the entire work in nothing but a pair of boxer briefs. The result was the appearance that he kept his wallet in a most unusual location, with flesh colored tape doing the best it could to conceal the wire running up his back.

No CaptionSo far as stage design, a more fitting set for a man confronting his demons could scarcely be imagined. A motel room is trashed in every sense of the word. Liquor and beer bottles, some empty, some not, are everywhere; take-out and fast food trash is sprawled amidst tipped over lamps and drawers pulled from the slides of a dresser. Clever projections heighten the man’s mostly dark moods, and in a spot or two seem like his hallucinations. From the start, the spectator is confronted with the emotional rawness that lies ahead – the first number is sung by the man as he is naked (very discretely posed and in semi-darkness) and trying – unsuccessfully – to keep down the liquor he swills straight from the bottle. There is no turning back from a visceral experience with such a stark beginning. A very short moment of lightness finds him briefly switching on the TV, only to see the off-stage musicians on the screen.

The sheer intimacy of the piece made its staging in the George R. White Opera Studio at the company’s Strip District headquarters a wise decision; it most probably would make a lesser impression in a larger venue. Some familiar with Schubert’s treatment of the poems may find themselves hard-pressed to take in Cuomo’s composition on a first and single hearing, while some may find the unique musical experience entertaining from the start, even if a sameness of mood at times makes the opera seem a bit longer than it actually is. As with the majority of contemporary operas, only time will tell if Ashes & Snow will be revived by other companies.

No Caption NecEric Ferring, the tormented “Protagonist,” sang the role with a vocal opulence that came as no surprise. The music encompasses his finely burnished and powerful head tones and solid lower register in places and allows for occasional fortissimo and delicately delivered pianissimo passages, but for the most part lies comfortably in the middle and provides many opportunities for the display of his voice at its best. He sang the role with a compelling sympathy and a heart-rending understanding of the complex character – sometimes flat on his back or belly, and once from under a mound of bedclothes. Acting the role relies largely on facial expression and body language, and while it’s difficult to imagine a singer not being nervous during the first undertaking of such a role, it hardly showed. The audience was with him throughout, maintaining the art song recital gatherings’ tradition of total silence until the final note faded away – then burst into hearty applause, cheers and whistles. Mr. Ferring modestly attempted to share the ovation with the composer, director, musicians, and designers, and the crowd politely indulged him, but his was by far the finest achievement of the evening, and his listeners clearly wanted him to know it in no uncertain terms.

In many respects, the work offers something for all lovers of music, and the remaining performances are deserving of capacity audiences. For tickets, more in-depth production details and a good deal more about the opera and those involved with its presentation, please visit Pittsburgh Opera.

“The Artistic Team” for Ashes & Snow

Composer, Douglas J. Cuomo; Director, Jonathan Moore; Musical Direction, Mark Trawka; Scenery & Properties Designer, Brandon McNeel; Lighting Designer, Cindy Limauro; Video Designer, Joseph Seamans; Sound Designer/Engineer, Kristian Tchetchko; Head of Music, Glenn Lewis; Associate Coach, James Lesniak; Assistant Director, Frances Rabalais; Stage Manager, Emily Grand

David Bachman Photography

Eric Ferring on Pittsburgh Opera’s “Ashes & Snow”

Header (1)For its second and final Resident Artist production of the winter months, Pittsburgh Opera will present Douglas J. Cuomo’s Ashes & Snow, beginning Saturday evening, February 17, at the company’s headquarters in the Strip District. There is much about this work to arouse curiosity, as it is rather unique in a number of ways. It will be the first ever staging of the work – the company’s second world premiere in as many seasons – and is a “one man show,” requiring a sole singer as the unnamed “Protagonist.” Eric Ferring, the young tenor of the company, will take on the role of a man facing his demons in a second-rate motel, armed with a bottle. Cuomo uses as his inspiration Wilhelm Müller’s 24 poems which Franz Schubert set to music in his “Winterreise” (Winter Journey) song cycle. To quote from the company’s synopsis of the new composition: “Mr. Ferring will be accompanied by three on-stage musicians, led from the piano by Pittsburgh Opera Director of Musical Studies Mark Trawka. Also included is a trumpet, an electric guitar played by the composer himself, and electronic sound effects. The musical style is ‘21st century art-song,’ infused with acid jazz and punk energy, to create a very raw and emotional experience.”

Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Eric Ferring, tenor, the _Protagonist_ who will be the sole singer in the productionWhen Mr. Ferring kindly took the time to share a few thoughts on Ashes & Snow earlier this week, he modestly attributed his assignment of the role to the fact that he is the only tenor in the Resident Artist Program, but local opera goers who have heard him in a number of productions over the last couple of years know enough of his singing and acting abilities to look forward to hearing him in such a pivotal role. A native of Dubuque, Iowa, Mr. Ferring earned his Master of Music in Opera Performance at The Boston Conservatory, and received his Bachelor of Music in Vocal Performance from Drake University. He has been a Young Artist at both the Seagle Music Colony and Cedar Rapids Opera, and has conducted a number of productions as well.  He has won prizes at the Great Lakes Region of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, the 2017 Gerda Lissner International Voice Competition, the 2014 Hal Leonard Vocal Competition: Art Song Division; was a two-time finalist for the International Crescendo Music Awards, and a winner at the 2013 Central Iowa Symphony and Fort Dodge Symphony Competitions. Yet this is but a partial list of his accomplishments to date.

“I will be honest and tell you that creating a new role this early on has definitely been a big challenge,” Mr. Ferring shared with us. “Of course, logistically, I am the lone tenor here in the Resident Artist Program, and have been or will be in every production this season. And, as with world premieres, we’ve had many musical and textual edits, and continue to have those conversations as we work through the production in staging rehearsals for the first time which are a blessing for continuity and expression, but hard for memorization purposes!

No Caption Necessary (1)“It has been a truly remarkable experience to work with the composer daily and to bring this piece to life in a truly meaningful way for performers and audiences alike. Everyone has felt loss and pain in some way, and they’ve struggled through the heart’s journey to deny, accept, reminisce, belittle, and hopefully move forward from that loss. This piece is a universal story that everyone can and should connect with even if it’s difficult. I have found rehearsals the most enlivening but also the most draining part of the process. I definitely underestimated how tiring it would be to perform a one-man show and to interact with this material daily in such a vulnerable, intimate way, but by doing so, I think audiences will not be able to help but be moved by this work.”

In conclusion, Mr. Ferring offered – with a touch of humor – “It’s a must-see, and you’ve heard that from the entire cast.”

Seating is limited, so those interested in this new work are encouraged to get tickets as soon as possible. They may be purchased online by visiting Pittsburgh Opera, where much more information about the production is available as well.

David Bachman Photography

Pittsburgh Opera Announces 80th Season’s Line-Up

HeaderFor its 2018-’19 season – the company’s 80th – Pittsburgh Opera will offer a variety of productions sure to meet with just about any music lover’s taste. The four Benedum Center stagings will be of tried and true classics, while the Resident Artist Program will again offer the new, including yet another world premiere.

The festivities begin with the 64th annual Diamond Horseshoe Ball, Saturday, September 22, 2018, at the Omni William Penn Hotel. This most elegant of Pittsburgh Opera’s special events is the company’s “signature season kickoff gala,” an evening of cocktails, dinner, dancing, and special entertainment. Live and silent auctions raise funds that enable Pittsburgh Opera to offer special programs such as “Opera Opportunity,” which allows students in grades 7-12 and their teachers from eligible schools to purchase reduced-price tickets to Benedum Center performances.

Madama ButterflyPuccini’s perennial favorite, Madama Butterfly, will open the season at the Benedum, with performances on October 6, 9, 12 and 14. It’s hard to believe that when the opera premiered in February 1904, at Teatro alla Scala in Milan, it was resoundingly jeered. The composer made revisions (several times), and today the opera, according to “Operabase,” ranks 6th as the most frequently performed works the world over. Loaded with tuneful arias, the opera also includes some of Puccini’s most majestically atmospheric orchestration. The music saves the day – the tragic plot, involving an American naval officer who temporarily takes a Japanese girl of 15 as a “bride of convenience,” would be unpalatable if it weren’t for the fact that no soprano capable of singing the stellar role can pass for that age.

Dina Kuznetsova, the Moscow-born soprano who has sung everywhere from New York to New Zealand, will appear for the first time with Pittsburgh Opera in the title role. Cody Austin, the tenor who made a fine impression in last season’s La Traviata, returns as Lt. Pinkerton, a role which challenges the singer to elicit sympathy. Baritone Michael Mayes, who will make his first appearance with the company next month in Moby-Dick, will return as the kindly Sharpless, and Laurel Semerdjian, well remembered and impressive in her Resident Artist days, returns as Suzuki, one of Puccini’s rare mezzo-soprano roles. Current Resident Artist Ben Taylor and others will fill supporting roles. Antony Walker will conduct the performances.

Hansel & GretelGerman works aren’t frequently staged by the company, and Engelbert Humperdinck’s delightful musical setting of Hansel & Gretel will come as a breath of fresh, Bavarian air. Everyone knows the fairy tale; some who might not have heard it before, and may think the opera is for the kiddies only, will be surprised by the amount of beautiful music included in the score – lovely vocal pieces and sumptuous orchestration. The composer’s masterpiece will be performed (in English) at the Benedum on November 3, 6, 9 and 11, again with Antony Walker wielding the baton. Mezzo-soprano Corrie Stallings and soprano Ashley Fabian will sing the title roles. Frequently the part of the witch goes to a “character tenor” in hag drag, but happily that won’t be the case in this production – Marianne Cornetti, well known to local musical audiences, is cast for the role.

afterWARdsThe winter months of 2019 will again bring the Resident Artist productions. First up will be another world premiere, David Paul’s afterWARds  (“Mozart’s Indomeneo Reimagined”). The work is described as a condensed and reorganized version of Mozart’s music, in which the composer’s tale of the Trojan War “shifts the opera’s focus towards its four protagonists and their timeless struggles for love and peace in a world full of carnage and destruction.” The new work will be performed at the CAPA Theater on January 26, 29, February 1 and 3, and while a conductor has not yet been named, newcomers Terrence Chin-Loy, Hannah Hagerty and Caitlin Gotimer will sing the roles of Idomeneo, Idamante and Elettra, respectively, with Ashley Fabian as Ilia.

Glory DeniedFor the more intimate production which routinely is done at the George R. White Opera Studio at Pittsburgh Opera Headquarters in the Strip District, Tom Cipullo’s Glory Denied will be performed on February 23, 26, March 1 and 3. Based on Tom Philpott’s book, the opera deals with the true story of Colonel Jim Thompson, America’s longest-held prisoner of war. To quote from the company’s press release, “The opera deals not only with Thompson’s suffering in the jungle of southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, but also the tragic aftermath that followed his liberation. Colonel Thompson endured his brutal captivity by doggedly clinging to memories of his loving wife Alyce and their children. Alyce, however, believed Jim was dead. She and her children moved to Massachusetts with another man, leading to a painful reunion after Jim’s release. Glory Denied is, above all, the story of an American family during one our nation’s most turbulent eras.” Conductor, director, staging and a few other particulars are still “in the works,” but Terrence Chin-Loy and Ben Taylor will sing young and older Thompson, respectively, while the same variations of his wife will be sung by Ashley Fabian and Caitlin Gotimer.

La BohèmeSpring will return the productions to the Benedum, as usual, with Puccini’s classic La Bohème performed on March 30, April 2, 5 and 7. So much is known of the work that little needs a rehashing here, but an interesting piece of trivia concerning the opera’s first performances in America, in the late 1890s, is that a touring company, unequipped with a full score, used a simple piano score to make up scratch orchestration that undoubtedly came not even close to Puccini’s unmistakable sound. It comes as no surprise that the opera was received by small and indifferent audiences. Once better-prepared companies began presenting the tale of impoverished Parisian artists – with Puccini’s orchestration – the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

Internationally acclaimed soprano Nicole Cabell is cast as the tragic Mimì. Tenor Sean Panikkar returns to Pittsburgh as Rodolfo. Others in the cast include Craig Verm as Marcello, Sari Gruber as Musetta, and Ben Taylor as Schaunard. Jean-Luc Tingaud will conduct the performances.

Don PasqualeDonizetti’s comic Don Pasquale will conclude the season, with performances on April 27, 30, May 3 and 5. The opera premiered in 1843, but the staging will move the music and action to 1930s Hollywood. The wealthy old bachelor Don Pasquale wants to arrange a marriage for his ward and nephew, Ernesto, to a “proper” young lady. But Ernesto already loves a young widow, Norina, and resists his uncle’s wishes. The couple, with the help of Dr. Malatesta, plot to trick Don Pasquale into letting them marry. Gary Wedow will conduct the simple tale set to tuneful, engaging music.

The delightful soprano, Lisette Oropesa, last heard here in The Daughter of the Regiment a few seasons ago, will return as Norina. Kevin Glavin, a familiar face and voice locally, will take the title role, and tenor Javier Abreu will sing the part of Ernesto. The few remaining parts, at this time, have yet to be cast.

We’ll offer more information about the productions as we get closer to the actual performances, but for the most current details, tickets, and more, please visit Pittsburgh Opera

The Long Walk

HeaderA fair sized and attentive audience witnessed the second performance of Jeremy Howard Beck’s The Long Walk last night at the CAPA Theater. Considering the intensity of the subject matter and music, each of the two acts runs a few minutes over an hour, making the work just the right length. While Stephanie Fleischmann’s concise adaptation of Brian Castner’s gut wrenching tale of his difficulties in assimilating back into family and civilian life after serving as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Captain with the U. S. Air Force in Iraq, the libretto, like Mr. Castner’s book, makes it obvious at all times that he is by no means the only person to suffer this ordeal; the grim reality that so many veterans struggle with similar, equal, or worse challenges permeates the work throughout.

Header (1)“’The Crazy’ is winning,” Mr. Castner writes in the opening pages of his book that shares the opera’s title, “so I run… ‘The Crazy’ in my chest is full to bursting.” In the first act, certainly, it’s clear that “The Crazy” is indeed winning. Something as seemingly innocuous as his wife giving a son a “count down” to start eating his carrots at dinner is enough to bring the ghosts of Iraq back to haunt him. His wife Jessie fears that her grandmother’s prophecy that even veterans who return alive have had a part of them die in combat service, and that the husband she knew is gone forever, never to return. Packing another son’s hockey equipment brings a harrowing flashback of a comrade “suiting up” to take “The Long Walk.” He is tortured by the memory of almost shooting a group of Iraqi women to end their wails of grief – nearly everything in his life takes him back, gnawing at him. Once he seeks psychiatric advice, hope begins to shine through that, while many hurdles remain to be cleared, Brian’s constant running is taking him a bit further from the past – and closer to a future offering solace and peace – with each step.

Brian (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Ben Taylor) gets help from the Shrink (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Shannon Jennings), who diagnoses him with Blast-induced Traumatic Brain Injury
Brian (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Ben Taylor) gets help from the Shrink (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Shannon Jennings), who diagnoses him with Blast-induced Traumatic Brain Injury

The music of the work, especially that of the first act, tends to bombastic dissonances in the orchestration, while the vocal parts are declamatory in nature – sweet and melodic arias would be entirely out of place, so the composer wisely omits them, while in the second act, there are a few places where less trying strains appropriately come as a balm to the ear. The music flows constantly, too, allowing for no breaks that might cause the work to lose momentum. Staging such complex psychological drama is an enormous challenge, especially when the action so frequently jumps from a Humvee in Iraq to a home in Buffalo, but the direction and design of the piece, best represented by the accompanying photographs, works, with much help from the cleverly thought out lighting and stage effects.

Jessie Castner (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Leah de Gruyl) comforts her husband Brian (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Ben Taylor) after he woke from a nightmare
Jessie Castner (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Leah de Gruyl) comforts her husband Brian (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Ben Taylor) after he woke from a nightmare

The powerful orchestration was conducted with vigor by Glenn Lewis – sometimes with a bit too much enthusiasm, but the singers wisely made no attempt to force their voices to be heard over the instrumental onslaught. These occasional lapses aside, the orchestra was an integral, compelling part of the performance. Baritone Benjamin Taylor made an impressive showing as Brian. He acted the part with a keen understanding and study of the role, and vocally was very satisfying, even in the spots where he is required to run in place and sing at the same time – no easy thing to do successfully. He was an audience favorite, and deservedly so.

Leah de Gruyl (Jessie) possesses a mezzo-soprano of compelling warmth that is always a pleasure to listen to, and she acted the role of Brian’s frustrated but loving and understanding wife with an appropriate sense of the dramatic restraint required by her complex role. CAPA graduate Adrianna Cleveland (Perneatha) sang a heart rending scene with a gospel flair as the grieving widow of a fallen soldier, and the brief moments that blended her voice with Ms. de Gruyl’s were mesmerizing.

Brian Castner (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Ben Taylor) struggles to read a bedtime story to his children Samuel (River Beckas), Virgil (Simon Nigam), and Martin (Harrison Salvi)
Brian Castner (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Ben Taylor) struggles to read a bedtime story to his children Samuel (River Beckas), Virgil (Simon Nigam), and Martin (Harrison Salvi)

The opera is quite a rarity in that it includes a little singing for child characters. River Beckas (Samuel), Harrison Salvi (Martin) and Simon Nigam (Virgil) were charming as three of Brian’s and Jessie’s sons, and sang and acted like seasoned veterans. The singing required of them is not of the sort that damages undeveloped vocal chords – the reason children, aside from augmenting the chorus, are virtually non-existent in this musical genre.

Other singers, some Resident Artists and some making their first appearances with Pittsburgh Opera, rounded out the cast very capably. Shannon Jennings did triple duty, as Aunt Sarah, an Iraqi woman and the “Shrink,” the last part affording the best display of her lovely voice. Ashley Fabian, another gifted young singer, appeared in two roles, an Iraqi woman and Yogini. Eric Ferring, the gifted and reliable tenor, was Ricky, a role that left the listener wanting his part to be larger. We’ll hear a lot more of the young man next month. Thomas Shivone (Jeff) and Martin Bakari (Castleman) completed the cast as Brian’s other haunting compatriots.

Perneatha Evans (Adrianna Cleveland) mourns her husband Kermit at his funeral
Perneatha Evans (Adrianna Cleveland) mourns her husband Kermit at his funeral

Pittsburgh Opera’s Resident Artist productions – season in and season out – prove to be presentations of which the company may be proud. Hundreds of aspirants audition for the handful of slots available, and that the cream of the crop make the final cut is amply demonstrated every winter. There are only two more chances to catch The Long Walk, and the production is highly recommended.

For tickets and much more, please visit Pittsburgh Opera.

The “Artistic Team” for The Long Walk  –

Conductor, Glenn Lewis; Stage Director, Frances Rabalais; Set Designer, Katy Fetrow; Costume Coordinator, Jason Bray; Lighting Designer, Tlàloc Lopez-Watermann; Sound Designer/Engineer, Gladstone Butler; Wig and Makeup Designer, Nicole Pagano; Guest Pianist, Djordje Nesic; Director of Musical Studies, Mark Trawka; Associate Coach/Pianist, James Lesniak; Stage Manager, Cindy Knight.

David Bachman Photography

Pittsburgh Opera’s Benjamin Taylor Takes “The Long Walk”

HeaderFor the third offering of its current season, Pittsburgh Opera will present another local premiere of a contemporary work, The Long Walk, beginning Saturday evening, January 20, at the CAPA Theater. With music by composer Jeremy Howard Beck and a libretto by Stephanie Fleischmann, the opera is adapted from Brian Castner’s critically acclaimed, autobiographical book of the same title. The opera explores a soldier’s return from Iraq, where he served as an officer in an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Unit, and his struggle with “the Crazy” that gnaws at his brain as he tries to re-adapt to family and civilian life. Opera Saratoga premiered the work in the summer of 2015. Castner’s emotional story is said to tell the tale with a “brutal honesty” that carries over to its operatic treatment.

Resident Artist Benjamin Taylor, baritone, will sing the leading role of Brian, and earlier this week shared some thoughts with us about his career and his part in the upcoming production.  It’s always interesting to learn from young singers how they began their pursuit of operatic careers.

“I’ve been enamored with music since I was a child,” Mr. Taylor shared. “I sang in choirs and also played in metal bands throughout middle and high school.  I got into opera when I did a program in Rome for six weeks, and saw Verdi’s Rigoletto for the first time. Rigoletto’s aria ‘Cortigianni vil razza dannata’ moved me so much that I changed my plans of doing choral work to becoming an opera singer.”

Former Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer, and veteran of the Iraq War, Brian Castner (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Ben Taylor)
Former Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer, and veteran of the Iraq War, Brian Castner (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Ben Taylor)

His studies and experience to date are quite impressive. He has a Master’s of Music degree from Boston University, where he also earned his Performer’s Certificate from Boston University’s Opera Institute. His performances with the Institute included roles in Midsummer Night’s Dream, Così fan tutte, La Tragédie de Carmen, Angels in America, and other works.

For the past three summers Mr. Taylor has been a Gerdine Young Artist, and Richard Gaddes Festival Artist with the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, where he sang roles in The Barber of Seville, Shalimar the Clown, Madama Butterfly, and covered roles in La Bohème, Ariadne auf Naxos, The Trial and other operas. In 2016, he sang the role of Marcello in La Bohème with Crested Butte Festival, and Yamadori (Madama Butterfly) in Berkshire Opera’s inaugural season. He received his Bachelor’s of the Arts at Morgan State University, where he sang with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Jessie Castner (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Leah de Gruyl) and her husband Brian (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Ben Taylor)
Jessie Castner (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Leah de Gruyl) and her husband Brian (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Ben Taylor)

“There are a lot of wonderful challenges in this role for me,” Mr. Taylor added regarding the upcoming performances of The Long Walk. “This is the biggest role I have ever sung, as well as the hardest musically. One major hurdle is that I’m running in multiple scenes and singing at the same time. Being that I don’t run for exercise – or enjoyment – I had to learn to love it, at least for a few months!” Sustaining the breath control and tone production so necessary in opera, while involved in vigorous physical action is, indeed, no easy task.

“I have a lot of family members who have served in almost every branch of the military, and just as many friends that have served as well. One of my best friends served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he deals with his own ‘long walk.’ Doing this piece is special to me because I am able to have a glimpse of what Brian and my friend experienced after coming back from the war and empathize with them on some level.”

Since past seasons have proved that the company’s Resident Artist productions are frequently very impressive highlights of the winter months, Pittsburgh Opera’s The  Long Walk  should prove a worthy presentation of the work’s first local hearing.

Joining Mr. Taylor in the cast will be Resident Artists Leah de Gruyl, Eric Ferring, Shannon Jennings, Ashley Fabian and others. Glenn Lewis will conduct for the production, directed by Frances Rabalais and designed by Kathryn Fetrow.

For tickets, full cast and production details, educational resources and much more, please visit Pittsburgh Opera.

David Bachman Photography

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 pianist James Lesniak, providing 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 (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