The Marriage of Figaro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barbarina (Ashley Fabian)
Barbarina (Ashley Fabian)

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

Antonio (Andy Berry)
Antonio (Andy Berry)

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

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

“The Artistic Team” for The Marriage of Figaro

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

David Bachman Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Bachman Photography

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.