Amahl and the Night Visitors

23509011_1502775556458378_1922291248159416369_o“What brings you joy?” asks Resonance Works | Pittsburgh board of directors president Rob Frankenberry.

There is certainly joy in listening to live classical music. There is joy in the artistry of skilled musicians. There is joy in the unadorned sound of classical instruments. There is joy in well-honed voices filling a space with the arias and choruses of an opera. The Resonance Works’ production of Amahl and the Night Visitors provides many opportunities for joy, along with unfortunate moments of disappointment and sadness.

The evening was divided into two acts. The first act featured a trio of orchestral works, scored for a small chamber group that consisted of (if I counted correctly) 4 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos, and 1 bass as the core group.

The core ensemble was joined by oboists Stephanie Tobin and David Fitzpatrick for Arrival of the Queen of Sheba from Solomon by Handel. I found the oboe duets delightful, played with both precision and aplomb. Arrival is a fun piece, though I prefer a slightly faster tempo, to emphasize the celebratory and de-emphasize the ceremonial aspect of the piece.

Next was Dances Sacrée et Profane by Debussy, featuring the talented harpist, Marissa Knaub Avon. This piece is dreamy, almost meditative – until it’s not. Then the harp explodes with rhythm and aggression, only to be brought back into line by a gentle, repeating motif. The harp can’t be completely tamed though, and the piece ends with a final, good-natured thunk.

Rounding out the first half of the evening was Vivaldi’s Bassoon concerto in E minor, featuring Andrew Genemans on bassoon, with Uliana Kozhevnikova on harpsichord. I’m far from an expert, but Mr. Genemans is a rock star on that bassoon! He was facile, quick, and a master at both the high and low registers of the instrument. It was just fun to watch and listen to him play.

Keeping everyone on track throughout both acts was conductor and artistic director Maria Sensi Sellner. Maestra Sellner has a light, masterful touch, creating a very balanced sound throughout the evening.

But that’s where most of the good news ends. Disappointingly, the second half of the evening, the performance of Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, was not quite as successful as the first.

The singing was universally good. Ivy Walz (Mother), Andrew Maughan (King Kaspar), Andrew Adelsberger (King Melchior), and Jonathan Stuckey (King Balthazar) all gave strong vocal performances, ably supported by the Resonance Chamber Orchestra. The Slippery Rock University Chamber Singers sounded great as the chorus of shepherds; they had a nice blend and their diction was spot on. Eighth grader Liam McCarthy’s thin soprano (Amahl) didn’t fare quite as well as the rest of the cast in the unforgiving Charity Randall Theater, though he acquitted himself nicely, making it through a big role with some very tricky vocal moments.

Despite some really fine vocal performances, the production as a whole didn’t work.
It came down to the fact that this production is neither fish nor fowl: it is neither a concert version of the show, nor is it a fully-realized production – which is a real shame, because I think stage director Craig Joseph had a solid germ of a concept.

He tried to place the show within the context of a circus, which had the potential to be a wild, mysterious, magical take on the story. Unfortunately, the concept was never fully realized, and the result was a mish-mash of elements that added up to confusion, instead of a unified vision. There wasn’t enough set to create a sense of place, time, mood, anything. The set pieces that were onstage were off-concept. The costuming was spotty at best, and the chorus looked like they pulled items from their own closets or raided a thrift store. Lighting design was minimal and clunky. You can do minimal and still have high quality production values; this show didn’t meet that mark.

Resonance Works habitually has the orchestra on stage, in full view, often intertwined with the staging space of the show. I really like this; it makes the connection between singer and musician even stronger, and fits the model for the company. However, in the case of Amahl, this meant there wasn’t enough room on stage for the full ensemble, which was just awkward. This lack of space also didn’t help with staging, which tended to be too static anyway. And, while I appreciate the enthusiasm and pluck of the chorus, I cannot approve the decision to forgo the use of professional dancers to perform the dance done for the Kings by the Shepherds. What resulted was far too amateurish for this fine company, and the production would have been better served by cutting the dance interlude all together.

Amahl and the Night Visitors runs this weekend only, through Sunday, December 17, 2017. You can find out more about Resonance Works and purchase tickets at www.resonanceworks.org.

Corset Up and Remember to Breathe

downloadCorsets on stage: Sometimes we see them, sometimes we don’t. Corsets have certainly made a comeback since designer Coco Chanel knocked them out of daily wear for early 20th century women. However, actors and singers often find themselves wearing corsets as part of period costumes for roles set in anywhere from the 1500s to early 1900s.

This week, there’s a noticeable intersection of laced up undergarments with singers in Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh singer Kara Cornell sings the role of sculptress Camille Claudel, an artist in her own right who was assistant to Auguste Rodin, in Into the Fire for Resonance Works | Pittsburgh on Friday and Saturday. The New York Times described the piece as one that “compresses a tragic life of operatic dimensions into a song cycle of great beauty and emotional resonance.”

Kara Cornell
Kara Cornell

On Sunday, final contestants in Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s Mildred Miller International Voice Competition sing at The Frick as “Undressed  – The History of Fashion in Underwear” has its weekend. The show features historical undergarments at the Point Breeze museum. Up to 10 singers selected during sessions (free to the public on Saturday at Carnegie Mellon College of Fine Arts) will compete for cash prizes and summer season roles. Those attending can take the exhibit before the contest and during intermission while the judges deliberate.

Kara shared her perspective as a singer most frequently corseted for one of her recurring roles, Carmen in Bizet’s opera. She’s twice sung the role for Pittsburgh Festival Opera as well as many other companies. The mezzo soprano is also often cast in “trouser roles”, but Kara brings a career singer’s perspective to the corset as a costume piece.

PITR: How often have you worn a corset for a role?

Cornell as Carmen
Cornell as Carmen

Kara: I really only wear a corset when I sing in Carmeneither the title role or the secondary character of Mercedes. So I don’t wear a corset for all of my performings, but I do Carmen enough that I decided to buy my own corset.

I’ve been able to dodge the corset in a lot of Handel and Mozart operas because I usually play the boy/men in those operas! Lucky me! As a singer who does not enjoy being bound up, I am lucky to have only worn tight corsets on the outside of my costume.

PITR:  Some say breathing against the corset might be at first different but a sometimes helpful experience. How does a singer learn to adapt to underpinnings that might appear to hinder breathing?

Kara:  Some of my colleagues really enjoy singing with a corset, and wear their personal corset under their audition outfit! The reason for this is because some singers like to feel a resistance when they breathe – expansion of the ribs is important for a lot of singers, so pushing the ribs against a corset or a tight dress helps them feel engaged around their entire ribcage.

Before I purchased my own corset, I would expand my ribs before I was tied into the corset. Sometimes they would be so tight that I couldn’t breathe! The corset I purchased ends above my belly button, so it makes me feel like I can let my stomach expand and I’m not as smushed.

PITR:  The sculptress Camille Claudel would have worn an Edwardian Corset, which creates a different silhouette than prior eras. It was known not only to constrict the waist and changed the emphasis on the stomach, but it caused the hips to jut out. Some women developed back injuries.

Kara:  I could also imagine Camille Claudel going sans corset, as she needed to have mobility in her body, in order to sculpt.

PITR:  Costumers also have multiple challenges…

Kara:  Buying my own assures that I have a well fitting corset that makes me look great AND makes me feel like I can still breathe. Another big issue with outer corsets is removing them quickly–if there is a quick change into another costume, untying a corset can be a real pain to do in 15 seconds.

Also, many quick changes happen in minimal lighting, because there isn’t always time to run back to the dressing room. The lack of light behind the stage curtain also makes it hard to see where the ties are on the corset, so a lot of time can be wasted. Some costume designers therefore cut a corset vertically and add velcro. This seems like a nice idea, but doesn’t always work because now the singer’s breathing can literally pop open the velcro!

22366282_10155832145656974_1927005191475115616_nOf course, singers in concert while singing from a role would not bring their own corset along for events such as Resonance Works program or a recital setting like the Miller Competition. No such trappings “out of costume” for these singers. But when you’re attending a full-out Elizabeth, Victorian, and Edwardian period production you may assume the actresses are in corsets. Most often, cast members work “laced up” for the whole show.

Aspects of period movement that include sitting, standing, and breathing in a corset are part of training. Nothing may accentuate one’s waist like a corset, but, then again, nothing may bring on the “vapors” as quickly on a hot day.

Women in the 20th century may have merrily torn off their corsets or burnt their bras, but laced undergarments give us an idea of the women who went before–how they had to get dressed (often only with assistance) and how their movement was limited while corseted.

On stage, knowing yourself and your corset are requirements for a good experience on stage. Just remember to breathe!

About the Events

Into the Fire/A Poet’s Love is presented by Resonance Works | Pittsburgh on Friday at 8 pm, PYCO School of Music Recital Hall, Wexford, and Saturday at 8 pm, Levy Hall, Rodef Shalom Congregation, Oakland.

The Mildred Miller International Voice Competition of Pittsburgh Festival Opera finals take place on Sunday from 2 to 5 pm in the intimate auditorium of the Frick Art & Historical Center, Point Breeze. A special online promo code for PITR readers (MILLER2017) now provides tickets for $10. All students are admitted free.

On Saturday, admission is free for all to hear the 20 semifinalists sing from 11 am to 1 pm and 3 to 6 pm, Kresge Theatre, Carnegie Mellon College of Fine Arts.

Undressed: A History of Fashion in Underwear opens on Saturday, October 12 at the Frick. Those attending the Miller finals on Sunday may also visit the Frick galleries.

Resonance Works Presents Verdi’s “Falstaff.”

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

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

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

Benjamin Bloomfield (Falstaff)
Benjamin Bloomfield (Falstaff)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Production Team for Falstaff

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

Photography – Alisa Innocenti