Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Union Avenue Opera Kicks Off "30 Days of Wagner Countdown" Today

Union Avenue Opera, in anticipation of its premiere production of Richard Wagner's Das Rheingold (opening August 17), has today kicked off its 30 Days of Wagner Countdown.

In the 30 days leading up to opening night, UAO will be bringing you facts, trivia and chances to win great prizes. Be sure to connect to Union Avenue Opera on Facebook and Twitter so you won't miss a thing!

Check out Operatic Saint Louis in the coming weeks for news and exclusive content on Union Avenue Opera's Das Rheingold, running August 17, 18, 24 & 25. Tickets are available through or by calling 314-361-2881 Monday-Friday.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Review of Union Avenue Opera's "Un Ballo in Maschera"

Emanuel-Cristian Caraman as Riccardo and Courtney Mills as Amelia
Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) is classic Verdi, with star-crossed lovers, vendettas, political intrigue, a tragedy of bad timing in which nobody lives happily ever after, and even a sorceress who makes sadly accurate predictions of doom. The Union Avenue Opera production was beautifully sung, with a cast of impressive voices headed by the ringing dramatic soprano of Courtney Mills as Amelia. Acting, unfortunately, was mostly hammy. Still, you don't see Un Ballo done that often, and the ensembles knocked my knee breeches off.

Based on the play Gustav III by Eugene Scribe, Un Ballo takes the historically factual 1792 assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden at a masked ball and grafts on a tragic romantic subplot, omniscient seer, and other stapes of 19th century tragedy. Antonio Somma’s original libretto retained the play’s historic setting but at the last minute right-wing censors, unnerved by a recent assassination attempt on Napoleon III by a trio of Italians, demanded that the action be removed to Colonial Boston.

If you think the clash between that political and cultural milieu and the tropes typical of Romantic Italian opera might lead to moments of unintentional absurdity, you’d be dead on, which is probably why many recent productions have moved everything back to Sweden. Union Avenue sticks with Boston but Teresa Doggett’s costumes clearly made this an alternate-universe Boston, with a look somewhere between Colonial and contemporary. For me, that made the required suspension of disbelief somewhat easier.

Even more to the point, though, the uniformly strong vocal performances of Union Avenue’s singers rendered incredulity issues raised by the setting and some aspects of the casting less problematic than they might have been. These were some terrific voices.

Aside from the aforementioned Ms. Mills, beautiful sounds routinely issued from the head and chest of tenor Emanuel-Cristian Caraman as the doomed Governor Riccardo; baritone Andrew Cummings as his secretary Renato, who turns assassin when he discovers his wife Amelia an in apparently late-night clinch with Riccardo; and soprano Rachel Holzhausen, in the mostly comic coloratura “pants” role of the page Oscar. Contralto Denise Knowlton sounded just as impressive as the sorceress Ulrica, as did basses Todd von Felker and David Dillard as conspirators Sam and Tom. All of Verdi’s conspirators, in fact, are low voices—a nice contrast with the more tenor-heavy sound of Riccardo’s partisans. The members of the chorus, as is usually the case at Union Avenue, combined admirable power with clarity.

On the acting side of the ledger, unfortunately, we had mostly debits. In his famous “advice to the players” monolog, Hamlet laments a number of bad acting practices, including performers who “saw the air too much” with their hands and “tear a passion to tatters” with exaggeration. There was a fair amount of that here—so much, in fact, that I’m inclined to blame director Mark James Meier more than the performers. Ms. Mills provided a most believable characterization, to my eyes, as did Ms. Holzhausen, even if her charmingly choreographed and irresistible Oscar seemed to have been dropped in from an operetta or contemporary musical. For the most part, though, I found that I had to set my theatre critic hat aside and simply let the fine singing carry the evening.

Under Scott Schoonover’s expert direction, the orchestra produced sounds with an appropriately Verdian punch, thanks in part to solid work by the brasses. When they combined with the full vocal ensemble in numbers like the Act I finale, the effect was spectacular.

Un Ballo in Maschera ran June 30 through July 6 at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union at Enright. The Union Avenue season closes August 17 through 25 with their most ambitious effort yet—Jonathan Dove’s adaptation for small opera companies of Wagner’s titanic “Das Rheingold”. For more information, you may visit, check out their Facebook page, follow them on Twitter @UAOpera, or call 314-361-2881.

Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic for 88.1 KDHX, where this review originally appeared

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Critics on "Un ballo in Maschera"

Union Avenue Opera's production of Verdi's Un ballo in Maschera continues its run tonight. Here's a sample of what Mark Bretz of Ladue News and Sarah Bryan Miller of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch have to say about the production:

Mark Bretz:
"Union Avenue Opera’s artistic director Scott Schoonover elicits a handsome rendering of Verdi’s intricate and intriguing score from his Union Avenue orchestra. The orchestra’s rich and resonant sound supports fine singing by the show’s primary performers, most notably Andrew Cummings, whose powerful baritone as Renato provides this production with its most glorious moments...Courtney Mills has a lush and luxurious voice that strongly shapes Amelia’s character...Rachael Holzhausen adds a delightful spark to the proceedings as the sprightly page Oscar, bringing vibrancy and exhilaration to her too few scenes...Denise Knowlton is convincing in both her singing and acting as the mysterious conjurer Ulrica."
Sarah Bryan Miller:
"[Courtney Mills' voice] is a voice to be reckoned with, shot through with silver along with plenty of steel, and big enough to effortlessly fill the auditorium on a pianissimo...Mezzo-soprano Denise Knowlton, as the witch Ulrica, is another one with great potential. A strong actor with a big, warm voice, she commanded the stage in her scenes...Baritone Andrew Cummings, tall and sexy, was one of the most appealing characters on stage...As the page, Oscar, soprano Rachael Holzhausen was cute, perky and hit all her high notes...Among the supporting roles, bass Todd von Felker as Tom stood out as a sardonic, observant conspirator. Tom W. Sitzler, a sailor who comes to Ulrica for advice, made the most of his small role."
Un ballo in Maschera continues its run this weekend: July 6 & 7. Venue: Union Avenue Christian Church at 733 N. Union Blvd. All performances begin at 8pm. Production sung in Italian with Projected English Supertitles. Tickets start at $32 and are available online at or by calling the box office Monday through Friday between 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. at 314-361-2881. Student Rush tickets are available for $15 at the door with a valid student ID (cash only).