Camaraderie Compliments a Well Crafted Production

Before I write any more, I have to admit something and get it off my chest: until last Tuesday’s performance of Il Matrimonio Segreto by the Resident Artists of the Pittsburgh Opera, I had never heard of this charming little opera nor its composer, Domenico Cimarosa.  Of course, one of the most marvelous things about classical music and opera, is not only its ability to engage and entertain us, but to stir our emotions, make us think and, more often than perhaps we realize, educate us.  Cimarosa was born seven years before Mozart and survived him by another ten.  He was wildly successful during his life and traveled extensively across Europe, even serving for a time in St. Petersburg at the court of Empress Catherine the Great of Russia.  In that time, and having penned over eighty operas, it seems that Il Matrimonio Segreto was his most beloved and successful.  And the historic success of Il Matrimonio only makes it the more appropriate to be paired with the Pittsburgh Opera’s not-so-secret weapon: the Resident Artists program.

Pittsburgh-Opera-Matrimonio
Count Robinson (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Kyle Oliver, center) insists that Geronimo’s family not stand on ceremony as they welcome him (even though his wealth will secure the family’s finances). Left to right, Elisetta and Fidalma (Jasmine Muhammad, Samantha Korbey), Count Robinson, Geronimo (Joseph Barron) and Paolino (Juan Jose de Leon). Pittsburgh Opera’s production of Il matrimonio segreto, featuring Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artists. Photo: David Bachman

As I have remarked many times in past reviews, the Resident Artists of the Pittsburgh Opera, under the tutelage of General Director Christopher Hahn, are a significant pillar in supporting the unique successes of this company.  Tuesday’s performance was no exception, and truly exemplified a level of comfort and familiarity amongst these peers as is rarely seen in pick-up casts assembled of more seasoned actors.  Director Stephanie Havey, who is rounding her second season as the Resident Artist program’s lone stage director, was undoubtedly this production’s golden thread, binding the magical eccentricity of Brandon McNeel and Stevie O’Brian Agnew’s wonderful sets and lighting (respectively) with the charmingly wacky antics of her Resident Artist peers.  The cherry on top was a slew of marvelous costumes, both period-esque (this production is updated to the 1910s) and cartoony.  The arrival of baritone Kyle Oliver as Count Robinson, behind a comically wide, lime-green bow tie and knee-length frock coat pressed out of me an uncontrollable guffaw, enhanced only by his stone-faced butler, who paced around him tossing rose petals in the air.  My delight in Oliver’s portrayal only escalated throughout the show as the Count proceeded to be pushed about by irreverent revolving doors and embarrassed by the lack of effect his courtly charm seemed to have on the ungrateful bourgeois family of financially successful commoner, Geronimo, portrayed by bass Joseph Barron.  Both Mr. Oliver and Mr. Barron were right at home in these characters and carried the ensemble with well balanced vocal fortitude and confident acting ability.  I was particularly fond of Mr. Oliver’s smarmy count, who seemed well aware that he was a bit less impressive and suave than he attempted to be, with hilarious results.

Pittsburgh-Opera-Matrimonio
Elisetta (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Jasmine Muhammad, right) catches her intended beau, Count Robinson (Kyle Oliver, center) in an intimate moment with Elisetta’s younger sister, Carolina (Meredith Lustig, left). Pittsburgh Opera’s production of Il matrimonio segreto, featuring Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artists. Photo: David Bachman

Cimarosa’s music (which complements a rather transparent libretto by Giovanni Bertati) provides a conveniently blank slate, open to a world of interpretive staging.  The arias are sweet, the ensemble numbers appropriately balanced, and nothing gets in the way or wears too thin, as can often be the challenge in operas of this period.  Cimarosa provides us with a simple story that is above all else, funny.  Guest conductor Sara Jobin performed well with the opera orchestra, though the uneventful score left few opportunities to shine without the assistance of the antics of the cast.  Second-year artist Juan José de León and first-year Meredith Lustig were charming as the household clerk Paolino and his wife Carolina, married in secret to avoid the criticism of the social climbing Geronimo, Carolina’s father.  First-year Jasmine Muhammad performed strongly as Carolina’s sister, Elisetta, contractually betrothed to the bumbling Count.  Among her peers, Ms. Muhammad seemed the least comfortable with the demands of her part as her voice seemed to falter in some of the more acrobatic passages.  First-year Samantha Korbey evoked the heftiest laughs from behind a glass of whiskey and a cigarette holder as Geronimo’s crabby, old, widowed sister, Fidalma, who ultimately professes her misdirected love to Paolino, after he has already fainted in horror due to her advances.

Most enchanting about this special performance, is the intimate relationship these young artists share thanks to the Pittsburgh Opera’s Resident Artist program.  If we were to strip away all the costumes, sets, music and acting, we would see a group of very talented individuals simply having fun.  And in the case of Il Matrimonio Segreto, it was a bit of fun that did not leave out the audience.  To Ms. Havey’s credit, it seems as though this intimate camaraderie is precisely what she capitalized upon to rouse such a great production, and it worked beautifully.  I see strong careers ahead for this entire cast, if not especially Ms. Havey, and I look forward to seeing what direction she takes in  her upcoming productions with the Pittsburgh Opera.