Wrap-up of Opera Summer Fest in Pittsburgh

Hold on… let me catch my breath. Okay, I’m good now, having just run an operatic marathon with an immeasurable host of talented individuals assembled within the Rococo walls of Pittsburgh’s Twentieth Century Club during this year’s Summer Fest, presented by Opera Theater of Pittsburgh.

Top priority credit goes to Artistic and General Director Jonathan Eaton‘s total occupation of the beautiful Twentieth Century Club building in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood. While the main-stage productions occupied a number of different spaces, including the fabulous Art Deco Theater and Beaux Arts Ballroom, the entire building seemed to be a veritable sponge, soaked-through with opera and cabaret singers dripping from every corner. The total and effective use of the space made it feel as though I had entered into a sort of opera club and the entire place was teeming with upbeat energy, at once unpretentious, inviting and exclusive.

Regrettably, my last encounter with OTP was several years back for a New Year’s production of Die Fledermaus, which was charmingly re-contextualized with a Pittsburgh-centric spin. This variety of customization seems to be a staple of Mr. Eaton’s process, this season’s Summer Fest making no exception.

Company of Tales of Hoffmann
Company of Tales of Hoffmann

I must say, I cannot help but feel reluctant when approaching retellings of classical literature that involve substantial re-writes. It is always a treacherous line to tread that so often fails to answer the most relevant question, which is “why?” In the case of this summer’s Tales of Hoffmann Retold, Mr. Eaton pleads a compelling case in pointing out that there is no definitive version of Offenbach’s original, the composer himself having died before the first complete version received its premiere. One thinks immediately of Mozart’s Requiem, and Puccini’s Turandot, the former’s popularity thriving on sections and movements that were not composed by Mozart at all (instead, by his protege Franz Süssmayer) and the latter resulting in Toscanini’s famously ceasing the premiere performance and addressing the audience with, “Here the maestro laid down his pen.” In contrast to these great works having been completed by other, lesser composers, Mr. Eaton has gone back to the source and re-imagined the context of Hoffmann’s fantastical stories of thwarted love with excerpts from another of Offenbach’s operas, Undine (adapted and orchestrated by Music Director Robert Frankenberry). In Mr. Eaton’s version, Hoffmann himself is the composer, attending the dress rehearsal of Undine when the appearance of his most recent love throws him into recounting his famous tales. As you will see below, my fears were more than effectively subdued and I must say Eaton and Frankenberry’s retelling of Offenbach’s crowd-pleasing classic was my highlight of Summer Fest.

Below, I have listed in order of my preference the four main-stage productions featured in Opera Theater of Pittsburgh’s Summer Fest.

Tales of Hoffmann “Retold” by Jacques Offenbach

As I have already remarked, Eaton and Frankenberry’s retelling of this classic was the most solid production of the weekend. The pace was excellent thanks to conductor Brent McMunn, whose musical direction shone clearly from the powerful ensemble numbers to heartfelt arias. Mr. Eaton’s staging was clear and engaging and kept me involved in Hoffmann’s ablutions.

Soprano Julia Engel wins my five-star praise in her portrayal of the famous clock-work girl portrayed in the first tale, updated and re-imagined as a sort of disaster of genetic engineering and plastic surgery, complete with turban and mirrored sunglasses. Ms. Engel’s instrumental versatility and hilarious characterization won me immediately, her shattering upper-range seemed effortless.

Special mention must go to Opera Theater’s Music Director Robert Frankenberry, who due to a serious vocal issue, covered the role of Hoffmann from the pit, while tenor Robert Chafin spoke and pantomimed his role on the stage. I was disappointed not to be able to hear Mr. Chafin’s voice, and extend to him my deep concern and hopes for a speedy recovery!

Make a point to catch this production!

The Secret Gardener by W. A. Mozart

Company of Secret Gardener
Company of Secret Gardener

Second in my list was Mozart’s light-hearted opera buffa The Secret Gardener, apparently written when the composer was just 18 years old. While I do feel that the production dragged a bit at times, leaving slightly awkward little gaps between some of the halting dialogue and Mozart’s lilting da capo arias and ensemble numbers, over-all this work kept me laughing all the way through. Director Michelle Sutherland made creative use of the back end of the Art Deco Theater, having her characters climb up and down stairs and prance about on the mezzanine. Conductor Maria Sensi-Sellner held the small chamber orchestra together clearly and with elegant poise, delivering a performance both accurate and rife with musicality.

Countertenor Andrey Nemzer wins my five-star praise as Cavalier Ramiro, alongside tenor Benjamin Robinson as the good-hearted, scheming fop, Don Anchise. Mr. Nemzer’s voice cut through the Art Deco Theater like a laser beam, offset by the most well-balanced cast of the four productions. Most importantly, aside from Mozart’s seemingly infallible music, the evening was fun and entertaining.

Don’t miss it!

A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim

Company of A Little Night Music
Company of A Little Night Music

To me, Sondheim is less about music as he is about language and has an unparalleled ability to marry his clever, thought provoking texts with his sophisticated melodies. Unfortunately, Summer Fest’s production of A Little Night Music faltered primarily in this area delivering, in many cases, a jumble of unintelligible singing, which was often overpowered by the orchestra. Conductor Walter Morales led his orchestra very well and it is no wonder Mr. Morales is such a fixture in a wide diversity of Pittsburgh’s performing arts venues. I did feel, however, that this production suffered from an imbalanced and mismatched cast, and after passing the third hour it became evident that many of the production’s problems might have been solved with a red pencil. I cannot hold this against the cast, who individually performed quite well and seemed to keep up the pace. It seems to me that the show is a relic of an era on Broadway that produced endlessly colossal productions; it’s just too long.

Despite the extended run-time, my five-star review goes unquestionably to Robert Frankenberry, who took the stage as the dim-witted machismo Dragoon, Count Carl-Magnum Malcolm. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, Mr. Frankenberry’s characterization stole the show and in their moments together provided a wonderful foil to Anna Singer‘s kinetic and entertaining Desiree Armfeldt.

Special mention goes to contralto Daphne Alderson in the role of the matriarch Madame Armfeldt. Ms. Alderson brought a warmth and maturity to this role far beyond her years and made me want to sit at the foot of Mme. Armfeldt’s wheelchair to receive my own pearls of wisdom.

Shining Brow by Daron Hagen

In 1993, Daron Hagen’s opera Shining Brow was premiered in Wisconsin by the Madison Opera and brought together large forces including symphony orchestra and chorus and a cast in excess of twenty unique characters. The work follows a tumultuous period of infidelity in the life of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, from 1903 thru 1914. More recently, Opera Theater of Pittsburgh approached Mr. Hagen and commissioned a chamber reduction of his work, cutting it from nearly two-and-a-half hours to just over one hour and removing the significant forces leaving an intimate cast of six accompanied by a septet of winds, strings and piano. This version was dramatically premiered at Wrights famous opus, Falling Water, just outside Pittsburgh this past June.

While the story is compelling and the libretto by Irish poet Paul Muldoon is poignant and gripping, this abridged version left me at a loss for understanding what was going on, and the clipping of the various scenes reduced the action into what felt like a consecutive series of short recitals rather than a clearly linear narrative. Frequent problems with diction further complicated my understanding of the dramatic elements, leaving only volume and staging to suggest the tension and release.

I greatly appreciated director Jonathan Eaton’s intimate staging, and clever use of the tiny space within the Twentieth Century Club’s Beaux Arts Ballroom, and commend his efforts, though I am sorry I missed the performance at Falling Water, as the drama of that setting may have better accommodated the significant abridgment of the work. Special mention goes out to baritone Kevin Kees who portrayed, with genuine earnestness, the misunderstood Mr. Wright and Lara Lynn Cottrill as his ill-fated mistress, Mamah Cheney. Dimitrie Lazich was very well cast as Wright’s client, Edwin Cheney and I would have liked to hear much more of mezzo-soprano Kara Cornell, who swirled in and out as Wright’s cheated wife. The final victim, it would seem, of the reduction of the work was Wright’s mentor Louis Sullivan, capably portrayed by James Flora, whose character inhabited the sparse narrative like a sullen backdrop. The final exchange between Wright and Sullivan seemed somehow unprepared by the trimming of character development and left me searching for the source of their mutual contention.

Despite my myriad criticisms of this unique arrangement of Hagen’s work, Opera Theater’s production of Shining Brow is well worth attending and serves as a great example of how music may take on new forms in unique spaces and settings, not unlike the organic nature of Wright’s buildings, by which the work is inspired. This production provides a wonderful way to experience the operatic form, and should be experienced first hand.

Night Caps

Finally, for the most courageous night-owls I can highly recommend the most unique element of Opera Theater’s Summer Fest, the Night Caps International series of “mini-operas.” Each work, amounting to fifteen minutes of comic opera, was commissioned by Opera Theater of Pittsburgh to compliment this year’s Summer Fest. This year, works by an international quartet of composers including Roger Zahab, Monic Cecconi-Botella, Yanwa Guo and Dwayne Fulton provide for the perfect apéritif, or maybe cherry-on-top, to each of the aforementioned productions. Appropriately conceptualized to take place within various suites of a high-end hotel (surely reflecting Opera Theater’s occupation of the Twentieth Century Club), the antics of each of these short scenes provides for a fun and upbeat close to the evening. Make sure you catch them!

All Photos by Patti Brahim

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