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

Fall Preview 2017

Fall Logo

A Letter from the Editor,

Our dear readers, we’ve made it through another summer season! After 40 reviews and 14 features this summer, we’re ready to dig out our sweaters, put on the kettle and continue to keep you up to date with everything local theater. We’ve got some pretty big things coming up for us in the next three months and we can’t wait to share it with you! In addition to everything in this Preview, we’ll also be giving you the scoop on Bricolage Production Company’s latest Immersive Encounter Dodo , The Pittsburgh Playwrights upcoming season, checking in with off the WALL, and  giving you Part 3 of our coverage of the Pittsburgh New Works Festival.

There is plenty to keep us busy this fall and we don’t want you to miss a thing! We would love to hear from our readers and follow along with your autumn theater adventures so keep in touch with us on our FacebookTwitter, Instagram, or Email List and by using the hashtag #FallwithPITR.

If your theater or business would like to feature any advertising on the website for any of the upcoming content this busy season, don’t forget to reserve your spot well in advance! Please don’t hesitate to contact us at about rates and packages at info@pghintheround.com.

Here’s to looking forward to another busy Fall season,

Mara E. Nadolski
Editor in Chief, Pittsburgh in the Round


 

Let’s start off with our Top 5 productions we’re looking forward to this Fall!

quiet#5: All Quiet on the Western Front – Prime Stage: Prime Stage Theatre is known for their productions of shows adapted from literature and this season opener holds true to their nature. Prime Stage honors veterans and those serving our country by partnering with Soldiers and Sailors Hall for this US premiere of the classic World War I novel by Erich Maria Remarque. All Quiet on the Western Front opens at the New Hazlett Theatre November 4.

Tickets and more information can be found here. 

rj-431x500#4: Romeo and Juliet – PICT Classic Theatre: After bringing us productions of Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice in previous seasons, PICT is taking on one of Shakespeare’s best-known tragedies this season with their 100th show! The classic tale of two star-crossed lovers and their clashing families comes to life in a new location at the famous Fred Rogers Studio at WQED in Oakland. PICT has chosen the 1930’s in New York’s Little Italy as the setting for this rendition of Romeo and Juliet which officially opens Saturday, October 21st. For tickets and more information click here. 

Attack Theatre's presentation of "Assemble This" at the August Wilson Center in Pittsburgh. © Martha Rial 2/17/2010

#3: Some Assembly Required – Attack Theatre: In their 23rd season opener, Attack Theatre will be performing another round of original performances in their second production of Some Assembly Required. In this unique series, dancers tow the line between dancing, visual art, music, and even a bit of improv. This show requires input from the audience as to where the performance will go next, thus creating unique  performances with each show. Some Assembly Required opens at Contemporary Craft in the Strip District September 21. Tickets and more information can be found here.

DODO-1-880x420#2: Dodo – Bricolage Production Company: Bricolage’s latest immersive theatre adventure partners with the Carnegie Nexus initiative to bring us a sensory-based experience that brings together art and science while exploring public spaces. Held in the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History in Oakland, adventurers will embark on an experience that navigates through behind-the-scenes areas normally off limits to traditional museum visitors! Adventures being October 13 – find more information here. 

21055136_10155550641940797_7827704986490740316_o#1: Unhinged – Cup-a-Jo Productions: On the heels of their production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf inside an actual home, Fringe Festival veterans Cup-a-Jo brings us a new undertaking with Unhinged. Part haunted house, part immersive experience, the highly experimental project promises to have something for everyone. Unhinged starts performances October 13 in an empty bowling alley in Etna. Cup-a-Jo advises we keep a close eye on their Facebook page for ticket links and performance updates.

Next stop on your Fall Preview tour is 5 Musicals You Don’t Want to Miss This Fall, click here to learn more!

Mark Clayton Southers brings a little history into the mix with his one-act play The Homestead Strike of 1892 in commemoration of the 125th anniversary of the clash between steelworkers and mill owners, opening September 15. Find out more in Yvonne’s article here. 

The New Hazlett Theatre will be starting up their 4th Community Supported Art Performance Series on October 26! See what they’re up to this season here. 

The Pittsburgh Public Theater’s Artistic Director Ted Pappas will be starting his final season there this year. Yvonne sat down with him to get the scoop on what he’s envisioning this season! Click here to read more!

Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks is at it again this year with Henry V, find out more about their 13th season here. 

Quantum Theatre may be in the middle of their run of Red Hills but how much do you know about Rachel Stevens, the director of their next production The Hard Problem? Check out our latest installment of our Artist Spotlight series here. 

See what else the Steel City has to offer this year with a few season previews of City Theatre from Brian, the Pittsburgh Opera from George, and the Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center from our High School Correspondent Emily!

The Pittsburgh New Works Festival is already in full swing, check out Part 1 and Part 2 of this year’s preview with Part 3 coming soon!

In case you missed it, check out our 2017 Collegiate Preview too!

We were pretty busy this summer, you might have missed a show or two. Don’t worry, here are some highlights from Summer 2017:

Annie at the Paliside Playhouse

Big Fish by Front Porch Theatricals

Cloud 9  by Throughline Theatre Company

Little Shop of Horrors at Comtra Theatre

Mr. Burns by 12 Peers Theater

Spamalot at Stage  62

Avenue Q by the Alumni Theatre Company

The Liar  by Kinetic Theatre

Seussical the Musical at the Apple Hill Playhouse

Pippin at The Theatre Factory

One Man, Two Guvnors at Little Lake Theatre

Sweeney Todd by the Pittsburgh Festival Opera

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.

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.

Summer King1

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.

As One

As One HeaderThere was an elbow-to-elbow crowd on hand in the George R. White Opera Studio at Pittsburgh Opera Headquarters last night for the Pennsylvania premiere of As One, including the composer, Laura Kaminsky, and co-librettists, Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed. They must have been pleased with the reception their work received, for it was a favorable one, and hopefully the performers realized that a large share of the enthusiasm was for them, as well, because the two singers delivered trying music quite excellently, as did the string quartet conducted by James Lesniak (a name we’re used to seeing on the programs as “coach or pianist,” but last night in his first conducting assignment). The audience was as diversified as could be imagined, which somehow, considering the topic of the chamber opera before them, offered encouragement and hope for a sense of peace and unity in these days of bombastic division.

In less skilled hands, the subject matter of the emotional struggles and inner turmoil of a transgender person trying to find peace and a sense of being in a vast, confusing and sometimes hostile universe offers every opportunity to go awry. But the librettists manage to remain focused on providing just enough every day, “real” experiences in the life of Hannah, from her youth, to college years, to “finding herself” in young adulthood, to make her seem like a real, plausible character, and, along with Kaminsky’s effective and appropriately shaded score, charged with drama, empathy, and, when needed, a touch of humor, makes no attempt to demand sympathy and acceptance from the audience. It simply and quite effectively tells the story of a portion of one person’s life – a person who happens to be transgender.

Hannah before (Brian Vu) feels compelled to be the “perfect boy” and hide Hannah after (Taylor Raven)
Hannah before (Brian Vu) feels compelled to be the “perfect boy” and hide Hannah after (Taylor Raven)

While the characters are nominally identified as “Hannah Before” and “Hannah After,” for the most part they are on stage together. Through a series of sung pieces, they either individually narrate the story or interact with each other as separate parts of a yet inseparable “whole,” and the concept works. As might be expected, there are parts that are emotionally harrowing, such as when Hannah writes a letter full of excuses for why she won’t be coming home from college for Christmas this year, and the episode in which she relates her narrow escape from an attacker who demands “What the fuck are you!?” The piece leaves the impression that the action takes place in the not so distant past, as there are references to yellowing library card catalogs, pen-to-paper letter writing, and looking things up “online.”

Historically, operas that rely principally on “psychological” drama tend to have a tough go of things. But since As One was premiered in 2014, it has been performed in the better part of a dozen venues, with at least one more to come next month. Whether it will endure due to its musical and artistic merits, rather than as a timely curiosity, only the future will tell.

A string quartet serves as a perfect accompaniment to the story – much more would be excessive for the complex yet sometimes simple psychological drama taking place on the stage. James Lesniak did an excellent job of maintaining a proper sense of balance, proportion, and volume, and the players, Charles Stegeman (Concertmaster and Violin I), Rachel Stegeman (Assistant Concertmaster and Violin II), Jennifer Gerhard (Principal Viola) and Kathleen Melucci (Principal ‘Cello) never wavered in their playing of the score, sometimes intricate and prominent, sometimes an appropriate whisper.

Hannah starts to feel more comfortable with herself
Hannah starts to feel more comfortable with herself

 

As far as a vehicle for the display of the vocal talents of two members of the Pittsburgh Opera’s Resident Artist Program is concerned, a better choice than As One can hardly be imagined. It seems as if had the standard pairing of a tenor and soprano been chosen by the composer, the work would have lost some of its effectiveness. The unusual opportunity of hearing such sustained singing by a baritone and mezzo-soprano was not only a rare treat, but the voice types more effectively add to and color the drama of the story.

Brian Vu, as “Hannah Before,” was given the opportunity to display his vocal abilities here as never before. That he had a baritone voice of quality in its lower register was already well known from his appearances in various smaller roles this season and last, but the strength and brilliance of his upper register came as a revelation. He sang the difficult music of the part with a ringing resonance that thrilled throughout, and he acted the role with an engaging sprightliness and a fine sense of pathos by turns.

Brian Vu as Hannah Before
Brian Vu as Hannah Before

He was partnered perfectly by Taylor Raven as “Hannah After.” Her mezzo-soprano voice is of a lovely timbre and wide range, and she, too, acted the part appropriately and with a varied assortment of moods and emotions. The role is not new to her, as she has sung it with Seattle Opera, but it was clear that she and Mr. Vu had spent many hours working together to achieve optimal results with “Hannah,” and their work paid off well. “I have come to really connect with the character of Hannah,” Ms. Raven shared with me a few days ago. “I’m inspired by her honesty and bravery and I feel very honored to tell her story.” Vocally and dramatically, she tells it very well, indeed.

The opera will be repeated on February 21, 24 and 26. For tickets, performance times, a complete synopsis, and much more, visit Pittsburgh Opera. It’s highly recommended that those wishing to hear the work not waste time in securing tickets, as seating is limited and they are moving at a brisk pace.

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

The “Artistic Team” for As One

Conductor, James Lesniak; Stage Director, Frances Rabalais; Set Designer, Chen-Wei Liao; Lighting Designer, Todd Nonn; Head of Music, Glenn Lewis; Director of Musical Studies, Mark Trawka; Stage Manager, Attitra Lelahuta.

Photography: David Bachman

 

 

Artist Spotlight – Brian Vu on “As One”

As One HeaderAs One, the second of Pittsburgh Opera’s two Resident Artist Program productions for this year, opens next Saturday night, February 18, at the company’s headquarters in the Strip District. This modern “chamber opera” requires only two singers, with a string quartet accompaniment, and since seating at the venue is limited, those interested in seeing the production are encouraged to obtain tickets as soon as possible.

As One, as has been widely publicized, tells as much as it can in seventy-five minutes about Hannah, a transgender woman “before and after.” Two voices, “Hannah Before” (baritone) and “Hannah After” (mezzo-soprano), share the role of the opera’s sole character. The three-part work traces Hannah’s life from her youth in a small town, to her college years, and finally to Norway where she learns surprising things about herself. The music and concept for the opera, which is said to tell the tale with both empathy and a touch of humor, are by Laura Kaminsky, composed to a libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed.

Brian Vu, the gifted baritone who will appear as “Hannah Before,” recently took the time to share some thoughts regarding his part in the upcoming production.

“Hannah is a deeply complex character, emotionally and musically,” was his response to my question about the challenges facing him in the role, which, in hindsight, seems like a somewhat rhetorical question, indeed. “I think two obvious challenges are the sheer difficulty of the music and the many layers of the character. It’s interesting to have both ‘Hannah Before’ and ‘Hannah After’ onstage, because you can really get a mental and emotional picture of how both evolve over the course of her life, from her youth to her eventual transition. Her feeling of being aligned with herself are heard through the musical landscape and libretto.”Brian Vu - Karli Cadel Photography

A native of Los Angeles, Mr. Vu is a graduate of the Yale School of Music and U.C.L.A. He is a First Place Winner of the Lotte Lenya Competition, as well as a recipient of the Sullivan Foundation Award and a Grand Finalist in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. Additional prizes he has won include the George London Foundation’s, the Gerda Lissner Competition, the Licia Albanese-Puccini Competition, and the Opera Buffs of Los Angeles, among others. He has been a Young Artist at the Glimmerglass Festival, a Vocal Fellow in Marilyn Horne’s Music Academy of the West and is a former member of the Wolf Trap Opera Studio.

On the concert stage, Mr. Vu made his Carnegie Hall debut singing Mitch Leigh’s Impossible Dream (with the composer in attendance), and returned there in December 2014, performing songs from the Frederick R. Koch Collection of Yale’s Beinecke Library. He has sung selections from The Merry Widow with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and as the baritone soloist with the Yale Glee Club and Yale Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem.

Some of the roles he has performed with Pittsburgh Opera to date include Baron Douphol in La Traviata, the Second Nazarene in Salome, Berardo in Richard the Lionheart, John Brooke in Little Women and Leo Stein in 27. He will appear as Calvin Griffith in the company’s world premiere of The Summer King, and future engagements elsewhere include his debut with Houston Grand Opera.

It appears that a number of opera companies agree with Mr. Vu that As One is a musical experience of merit. With few exceptions, “new” operas tend to receive their premieres and then sink into oblivion, whether they deserve to be neglected or not; but this work, since it premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Fishman Space in 2014, has been produced at Seattle Opera (where Pittsburgh Opera’s Taylor Raven sang “Hannah After”), Urban Arias at the Atlas Performing Arts Center (Washington, D.C.), West Edge Opera (Oakland, CA), and several other venues, and early next month will be performed by Denver’s Opera Colorado. Review “bites” and a brief video/audio clip are available at “As One” in the News.

Taylor Raven and Jorell Williams in the Seattle Opera Production of As One - Photo by Rozarii Lynch
Taylor Raven and Jorell Williams in the Seattle Opera Production of As One – Photo by Rozarii Lynch

Taylor Raven, mezzo-soprano, will appear as “Hannah After,” as she did in the Seattle production. Unfortunately, her schedule did not allow time for any comments on the upcoming performances here in Pittsburgh.

“I think everyone has dealt with feelings of not belonging, and of doubting their instincts and impulses,” Mr. Vu added. “And this beautiful story really took me down memory lane to all the times I’ve felt alive doing something that was right for me and ‘wrong’ to the world – feelings of loneliness, rejection, then reconciliation with myself, and all the other things that come with ‘growing pains.’ Just imagine the growing pains of a transgender woman!

“And I think audiences will really empathize with Hannah and better understand a bit of what a transgender woman or man must endure and overcome throughout their lives.”

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

 

 

Richard the Lionheart (“Riccardo primo, re d’Inghilterra”)

Richard HeaderPittsburgh Opera’s Resident Artist Program unveiled its first production of the season last night at the CAPA Theater – Georg Frideric Händel’s largely neglected Richard the Lionheart. Händel composed the music to an Italian language libretto by Paolo Antonio Rolli, and as Riccardo primo, re d’Inghilterra (“Richard the First, King of England”), it premiered at the King’s Theater, London, in November 1727. After an initial run of a dozen performances, and a couple of productions in Germany around the same time, the work fell into oblivion, until the opera was rediscovered by the Händel Opera Society and performed by the Sadler’s Wells Opera in London in 1964. Revivals since that time have been scarce, and the work was not heard in the United States until Opera Theatre of Saint Louis produced it in the summer of 2015. Pittsburgh Opera’s production marks the second time the work has been heard in America, so to call it a rarity here is not an understatement. It’s also not an understatement to say that there have been less than a handful of occasions over the decades when I was completely captivated by an opera on a first hearing and that Saturday night was one of them.

The lyric stage of Händel’s era was quite a different place from the one that would produce so many well-known “grand opera” standards a century and more later. His was the age of the castrato and what would later come to be referred to as the opera seria, musical works with the stories used primarily as hooks on which to hang as many arias as possible that displayed the virtuosity of the famous singers of the day. The castrato singer is mercifully a thing of the past, but roles written for this voice range can today quite easily and effectively be assumed by counter-tenors or mezzo-sopranos. The Anglicized title of Richard the Lionheart is used for this production, although it is sung in the original Italian (with English surtitles projected above the stage), and the title role is portrayed by mezzo-soprano Leah de Gruyl. The auditorium of the CAPA Theater holds about 400, and not many of the seats were empty – they should all be full for the remaining performances, for the production in many ways excelled any given to date this season at the Benedum, which holds about three thousand.

Isacio (Andy Berry) disarms Berardo (Brian Vu), while Costanza (Shannon Jennings) recoils in fright
Isacio (Andy Berry) disarms Berardo (Brian Vu), while Costanza (Shannon Jennings) recoils in fright

The plot (which received just a glance in our preview), as briefly as possible, takes place in Cyprus about 1190 and centers around King Richard’s upcoming marriage to the Spanish princess, Costanza, who has been shipwrecked with her entourage on her voyage to meet her future husband. She is sheltered by a governor, Isacio, whose daughter Pulcheria is betrothed to Oronte, a Syrian prince. Both men are attracted to Costanza, to the point where the father is willing to send his own daughter to Richard as a bride in Costanza’s place so that he may keep her for himself. He reveals his plot to Pulcheria, who wants no part of the fraud, but sees it as an opportunity to free herself from an unfaithful fiancé. Costanza and her servant, Berardo, suspect that all is far from being right, and Berardo sets off to find the truth.

The King, disguised as an ambassador, arrives to collect his bride, and Pulcheria presents herself as Costanza. But Berardo has uncovered Isacio’s treachery and passes the information to Oronte, who in turn is more than happy to tell all to the now furious Richard. The King is determined to return to England with the real Costanza or avenge himself by force. He presents Isacio with a choice, and the latter chooses war. Richard defeats his forces, and Pulcheria, now reconciled with Oronte, is named ruler in her father’s place. The opera comes to a happy ending as King Richard and Costanza are united.

Pulcheria (Claudia Rosenthal) daughter of Isacio, the governor of Cyprus
Pulcheria (Claudia Rosenthal) daughter of Isacio, the governor of Cyprus

Michael Beattie conducted, the orchestra being augmented by a few period instruments and players from Chatham Baroque. It wasn’t until the beginning of the third act that he unassumingly popped his face up from the orchestra pit, and the resounding ovation he received was well deserved. Mr. Beattie has dropped in on a couple of occasions in the past when “Baroque” was the bill, and an excellent conductor of the genre he is indeed. The orchestra played smoothly and strongly throughout, a solid column of lovely sound that was a symphony in itself, without once drowning the powerfully voiced singers. Any lover of Händel’s orchestral writing and Mr. Beattie’s masterful interpretation of it should not miss this production.

The opera is impressively mounted, with the costumes rich and becoming, the stage settings necessarily minimalistic but for the most part effective and quite colorful. The thick fog of the third act was especially impressive but was probably intended to roll off to the wings, rather than fall straight into the orchestra pit.

To catalog the merits of the individual singers would require a volume, so a few words about each will have to suffice. Probably the best thing that can be said of last night’s cast as an ensemble is that Pittsburgh Opera’s Resident Artist Program contains voices that equal and/or excel those of many of the famous singers who are paid small fortunes to come here from time to time, sometimes to “deliver the goods,” but sometimes to rest on the laurels they have won in New York and elsewhere. An astonishing amount of vocal talent was on the CAPA stage Saturday night, and the weeks of rehearsals to bring out the best of Händel and his vocal writing paid off brilliantly.

Everyone celebrates Isacio’s defeat: Costanza (Shannon Jennings), King Richard I (Leah de Gruyl), Pulcheria (Claudia Rosenthal), Berardo (Brian Vu) and Oronte (Taylor Raven)
Everyone celebrates Isacio’s defeat: Costanza (Shannon Jennings), King Richard I (Leah de Gruyl), Pulcheria (Claudia Rosenthal), Berardo (Brian Vu) and Oronte (Taylor Raven)

Shannon Jennings (Costanza) was a vision and sang treacherously difficult music with what seemed to be the greatest of ease and with a voice of beautiful quality and quantity. She displayed amazing breath control and acted the part with sympathetic dignity. Much the same may be said of Claudia Rosenthal (Pulcheria). What a treat (and relief) it was to hear such sustained soprano singing; pure, clear, unmarred by a tremolo or similar tricks (although these would be totally out of place in Händel), and she infused her acting of the part with the few subtle traces of comic relief the opera allows quite effectively. She, too, achieved resounding success in her role, and like Ms. Jennings, was received by the audience with great enthusiasm.

Newcomer Taylor Raven, mezzo-soprano, sang and acted the male role of Oronte quite well. Her performance aroused interest in her upcoming appearance in As One next month. Leah de Gruyl, in the title role, gave a very impressive interpretation of the King. Regal in bearing and heavily disguised in effective make-up and costuming, her dark-hued mezzo-soprano voice proved quite capable of negotiating the tricky vocal writing of the title part. The ovation she received was well warranted.

Men sing only two of the male characters. Brian Vu (Berardo), heard several times in smaller roles, sang more in this production, and his strong baritone of fine quality was well worth the wait. He acted the part of Costanza’s devoted servant correctly and effectively. Likewise, bass Andy Berry was given his largest opportunity to date as the conniving Isacio, and his voice and acting fit the part well.

As a whole, Richard the Lionheart is one of the best productions Christopher Hahn and the Pittsburgh Opera have offered, and lovers of music, well performed, are highly encouraged not to miss this treat.

The opera will be repeated on January 24, 27 and 29. For tickets, performance times, a complete synopsis, cast biographies and much more, visit Pittsburgh Opera.

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

The “Artistic Team” for Richard the Lionheart

Conductor, Michael Beattie; Stage Director, Crystal Manich; Set Designer, Alison Gondek; Costume Designer/Coordinator, DeLisle Merrill; Lighting Designer, Tlàloc Lopez-Watermann; Wig & Make-up Designer, Nicole Pagano; Head of Music, Glenn Lewis; Director of Musical Studies, Mark Trawka; Associate Coach/Pianist, James Lesniak; Assistant Director, Frances Rabalais; Stage Manager, Cindy Knight.

Photography: David Bachman

Artist Spotlight: Leah de Gruyl as “Richard the Lionheart”

Richard HeaderWith each passing year, Pittsburgh Opera’s Resident Artist Program productions seem to maintain or excel the high standards of those of the past. At first glance, this season’s offerings give every reason to look forward to them with keen anticipation. First up this winter is George Frideric Händel’s Richard the Lionheart, an ultra-rarity nearly three centuries old. It took a very long time for the work to receive American attention, with the United States premiere taking place as recently as 2015, when Opera Theatre of Saint Louis performed it during their summer season. Pittsburgh Opera’s production will mark only the second time the opera has been heard on this side of the Atlantic.

Leah de GruylAs the company’s brief synopsis of the opera states: “King Richard I of England travels to Cyprus to retrieve his shipwrecked fiancée Costanza. But Isacio, the Governor of Cyprus, wants her for himself. Betrayal, greed, love and war – all the ingredients for a thrilling opera.” Adding to the interest of the production is the fact that a woman – Leah de Gruyl, the talented, promising mezzo-soprano, is assuming the title role. Ms. de Gruyl is a familiar face and voice to Pittsburgh Opera patrons; so far this season she has appeared in both La Traviata and Salome, and made her debut with the company in Little Women last year. But in Richard the Lionheart her much larger part will offer greater opportunity for the display of her talents.

Leah de Gruyl as Flora Bervoix in La traviata
Leah de Gruyl as Flora Bervoix in La Traviata

A recent graduate of the Masters and Artist Diploma programs at the University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music, Ms. de Gruyl’s appearances there included solo work in Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” and Symphony No. 3, Verdi’s “Requiem,” and Adams’ “El Niño,” as well as the title role in La tragèdie de Carmen (Peter Brook’s adaption of the Bizet classic), Mother Marie in Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, The Third Lady in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, Aloés in Chabrier’s L’Étoile, Mother Goose in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, and Eboli in the C.C.M. Philharmonic’s concert presentation of the five-act French version of Verdi’s Don Carlos.

With the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, she has sung as soloist in Dvorák’s “Requiem,” and with the Asheville Symphony Orchestra in Haydn’s “Lord Nelson Mass.” In June 2015, she made her Carnegie Hall debut as soloist in Maurice Duruflé’s “Requiem.” She sang the title role in Carmen in the touring reduction with Cincinnati Opera as well as the full-length version with the Rome Festival Opera.

Leah de Gruyl (left) makes her Pittsburgh Opera debut singing the role of Aunt Cecilia March in Little Women (with Laurel Semerdjian)
Leah de Gruyl (left) makes her Pittsburgh Opera debut singing the role of Aunt Cecilia March in Little Women (with Laurel Semerdjian)

She was at Sarasota Opera as a Studio Artist during the winter of 2015, covering the role of Eboli in Don Carlos. As an Emerging Artist at Virginia Opera, she sang the role of Juno in Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, and covered the role of Mary in Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman in the spring of 2016. This past summer she appeared as Madame Flora (Baba) in Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium, with PORTopera (Portland, ME).

“I first knew that I wanted to pursue a singing career when I was about 16 or 17,” was her answer to one of my favorite questions for vocalists. “I had always sung rock with my dad, but I had been taking voice lessons from my piano teacher for a couple of years by that point, and was learning how to sing with a totally ‘new’ voice.”

Chatham Baroque will be on hand with their marvelous period instruments and talented musicians for the performances of Richard the Lionheart, which open Saturday night, January 21, at the CAPA Theater. Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama has collaborated with Pittsburgh Opera to create custom sets for the performances.

Leah de Gruyl performs as the Page of Herodias in Salome (with Jonathan Boyd)
Leah de Gruyl performs as the Page of Herodias in Salome (with Jonathan Boyd)

“This is my first Händel opera,” Ms. de Gruyl said of the production, “and one challenge was applying my voice to the very quick fioritura passages in a few of the arias. I have never sung anything this fast! I’m used to lyricism, so learning the style and the proper articulation has been very beneficial and enjoyable. Michael Beattie, our conductor, has taught me so much in the past couple of weeks, and I learn something new in every rehearsal. The other obvious challenge is playing a man. This role was written for a castrato, which means lower mezzo-sopranos now sing it. I have to be mindful that I’m embodying a ‘kingly’ posture during the staging process, and I think it becomes more accessible to me with each rehearsal. Crystal Manich, our director, is brilliant, and gives me a lot of suggestions for how to make it happen that work very well. Her concept is beautiful, the music is stunning, and it is very well cast. My colleagues all bring something special to the table.”

For tickets, cast information, a full synopsis, and much more, please visit Pittsburgh Opera. The company’s Resident Artist Program has been providing excellent productions, and Richard the Lionheart promises to be a very rare treat – figuratively and literally.

Photography: David Bachman

Unbolted

Unbolted-Graphic(Small)There is a certain immutable emotion that resides in rhythmic silences.  That which we cannot articulate, understand, imitate in words or conversational gestures dwells in the physical pulsations of our movements with our own bodies and those around us.  Our relationships, our communicability is innately (though often subversively) dependent on these physical communications, these bodily extensions of our most internalized dialogues and thoughts, then become our predominant method of interaction. This, in addition to the show’s premise of “unbolting your chair and freeing your mind,” is what transforms the show from a beautifully orchestrated dance performance to a riveting, emotional excavation executed through interpretative choreography.

Staged in three acts—or in three periods, as Attack co-founder Peter Kope emphatically and giddily implored the audience conceive of the show’s structure—Unbolted is a, on a prima facie level, a fragmented narrative compartmentalized into the three linearly fluid, thematically aligned movements.  Structurally, the purposeful interspersing of two intermissions is enormously beneficial to the show’s overall impact and consumption–and, indeed, Unbolted and the individual and collected performances exist to be consumed, indicated by the sumptuously open, inventively in-the-round seating arrangement. Each period is a microcosmic entity, in which the extraordinarily complex and painstakingly precise choreography escalates from evocative and expressive to rapturously frenetic.  Stakes increase subtly yet feverishly—a counterintuitive simultaneity that is only achievable by the flawless precision and creativity of the choreography.  Each intermission, then, functions as a caesura, a moment in which the audience is allowed to breathe and digest what they have just consumed.

And each moment to digest is crucial.  While the first period is a mesmerizing slow burn, allowing the audience to acclimate to the ceaseless rhythmic narrative that is presented to them and adjust to the multifaceted complexities of viewing a dance performance in the round (or, rather, in the rectangle), it ends drastically, with Dane Tooney’s beautifully craven interpretative routine that employs an ever-extending ribbon that he zigzags achingly across the stage, calling upon some audience members to participate by holding.  This first finale is riveting, Tooney’s fluidity impeccable, and the denouement begs the audience to consider what is unspoken, and what we achieve or strive to achieve through physicality that cannot simply be evoked with words.

Unbolted truly catapults into the emotionally overwhelming realm in the second period.  Staged in a deceptively austere, tempered opening choreography in which the performers are seated, facing alternating directions, in a straight line.  At first the movements are subtle—hands, arms, gazes interweave and interlock as if to convey or physicalize the pulsations of a heart, or the twitches of a gorgeous vertebra. This enthrallingly simple beginning swells with immutable and unspeakable emotional aching—again, with brilliant deception, as the period kicks off with jaunty, high-spirited musical accompaniment at first—and each dancer truly comes into their own in a staging of an exclusionary game that escalates to a mortal renunciation and the panicked turmoil of loss.  Sarah Zielinski and Kaitlin Dann are at their most devastating and haunting—their individual moves and facial expressiveness stir something truly inchoate and heartbreaking that, coupled with the use of Adagio for Strings, reduced me (in the best way) to tears.

The third period of Unbolted culminates with the construction of the notoriously monstrous chair, and the reliance on props (specifically the maps that divided and unified the various performers throughout the show) is expert, allowing the dancers to highlight both their technical and performative acumen. What is more, there is a resounding sense of completion and journey that is brought to a head in the final piece—as an audience member, perpetually acclimating to the multidimensionality of the show and the hyper-emotionality throughout, the final period feels triumphant.  The complicated fractiousness witnessed throughout—particularly between expert performers Anthony Williams and Ashley Williams in their show-long, complex relationship—seems, if not resolved, then even more meaningful in the show’s conclusion.  Unbolteds unexpected strength, too, lies in the performers’ astonishing abilities and communication of visceral feelings and their ability to outshine the concept of the show (and the 10 foot chair).  The dancers of the company are phenomenal, and the future potential of Attack is unquestionable given the astronomical success of Unbolted.

Special thanks to Attack Theatre for complimentary press tickets. Unbolted has unfortunately already closed but you can find out more about Attack Theatre and what they’re up to by clicking here.