When asked to review The Pittsburgh Savoyard’s productions of Gianni Schicchi and Trial by Jury I at first refused. Up until my attendance of these operas my experience of this art form was limited to watching Bugs Bunny in a Viking helmet in Saturday morning cartoons. Do I like admitting my cultural limits in public? Of course not! But I believe I am in good company here. I write this review not from an expert’s perspective, but as a new and excited opera audience member.
I am a Pittsburgh transplant, and every year I reside in this fine city I find more reasons to love living here. One of those reasons is the ticket price accessibility of the Pittsburgh’s cultural institutions such as the Pittsburgh Savoyards. The ticket prices are in the $20 range, which many can afford. This company is celebrating their 79th season, and I attended opening night of their latest production at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall in Carnegie, PA.
Gianni Schicci and Trial by Jury are both one-act operas. Gianni Schicci, an Italian opera written by Puccini circa 1917-18. Though it was performed in English I was assisted in my comprehension by the supertitles projected above the stage. It is the story of the welcome death of a family patriarch and the scramble to change his will to benefit his family and not the convent he intended. Running concurrent to that narrative thread there is also a love story featuring the patriarch’s nephew and a lower class young woman. In the interest of not spoiling show for future viewers, I will not reveal the major plot twist that brings these two storylines together.
There were a few standout actors in this production. I couldn’t take my eyes off Ian Greenlaw in the title character of Gianni Schicchi. To borrow a phrase from the hippies, he just had great energy. Most of the scenes in Schicchi are group scenes with characters delivering lines at each other in rapid-fire succession. I would have been overwhelmed if not for Greenlaw’s dynamism on stage. He was a grounding point for the whole production. Also of note was Katie Manukyan as Lauretta singing on “Oh, my dear papa”. Manukyan, a Notherwestern University trained singer delivered this song about not being able live without her love with a reserved sincerity that let the audience really focus on the emotionalism of the lyrics. I was truly moved by her performance.
My major qualm with this production has to do with a style choice. Pittsburgh Savoyards producers and director James Critchfield adapted the script to reflect a modern Pittsburgh aesthetic. This means the property that is at stake in the contested will include a house in Wilkinsburg, steel mills and a Porsche. Also the stage was replete with enough Steelers paraphernalia that it looked like a cheesy storefront in the Strip. Lastly, they brought in McFeely (in reference to Mr. Roger’s Mr. McFeely) as a deliveryman, and for reasons I can’t decipher, Hillary Clinton as an estate lawyer. I admit that at first I found the idea of an adaptation to be potentially fun, but when executed it fell flat for me. The problem was that I found myself investing more in anticipating what new Pittsburgh reference would be revealed in the plot than actually investing in the story execution. When you are on the edge of your seat to see how the actors pronounce East Liberty (Sliberty) instead of the edge of your seat to see how the conflict will be resolved, there is an issue.
The second show of the night was a Gilbert and Sullivan farce first produced in 1875 called Trial by Jury. This show was also adapted with a Pittsburgh aesthetic in mind but that was mainly interpreted in the cast’s wardrobe. I didn’t find the Pittsburgh as distracting. Trial by Jury is the story of a woman suing her former fiancé (wearing a yellow tuxedo shirt and black pants with a gold stripe down the leg) because he fell in love with another woman and broke off their engagement. The jury consisted of bridesmaids wearing black and gold gowns, McFeely again, and a few other men. The judge was outfitted in typical judge attire and the bride also appeared in standard wedding wear. There is something just really charming and campy about a courtroom musical where the feuding parties, the jury and even the judge sings.
Highlights of this performance include Aleç Donaldson’s singing as the fiancé Edwin on the songs “Is this the Court of Exchequer” and “When first my old, old love I knew”. Donaldson’s voice is rich and has a command of harmonizing. I found Donaldson’s vocals and the vocals of the learned Judge Michael Greenstein to be the strongest of the Trial by Jury’s cast. Kudos also to the set design. The warring parties were blocked center stage and behind them on both sides were stacked risers where the jury sat. The simplicity helped me focus on the quickly unfolding action whereas the cluttered stage design of Gianni Schicchi made for a scattered viewing experience.
Overall, I had a fine night attending my first opera. Bravo to Pittsburgh Savoyards for more making opera accessible and for putting on a rousing community production. Bravo to Music Director and Conductor Guy Russo for leading a fine orchestra of talented musicians. Their playing was on point. And lastly bravo to the people behind the renovation of the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall in Carnegie, PA; the work that has been completed is already beautiful. I can’t wait to see more productions in this space.
Please note that there were two casts alternating performances. This review is based on the October 7th performance.
Unfortunately, Gianni Schicchi and Trial by Jury closed on the 16th. For more information about the Pittsburgh Savoyards and their Spring production of Patience click here.
Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Savoyards for complimentary press tickets. Photos courtesy of Greg Kornides.