Thursday, May 30, 2019

Lorenzo Da Ponte

Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749–1838) wrote the libretto for Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro in 1786.

Michael Rose writes in The Birth of An Opera:
[When da Ponte arrived in Vienna in 1781, he] was thirty-two years old, penniless, unknown, and so far without a libretto or even a play to his credit.  Born Emanuele Conegliano, he came from a Venetian Jewish family which had converted to Christianity for practical reasons, had received a thorough education as the protege of his local bishop and been ordained as a priest at the end of it.
An attractive, witty and plausible young man, with a growing reputation as a poet and a taste for liberal politics and married women, he never once allowed his priestly vocation to interfere with his amorous adventures, which were numerous, complicated and risky.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Winter Opera uncorks a sparkling "Merry Widow"

Kathy Pyeatt and the ensemble
This review originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.

As the first catalogs of Christmas made their way to our recycle bin last, Winter Opera opened an early Christmas present for opera lovers last weekend (October 28 and 30, 2016) with a production of Franz Lehár's durable 1905 comic operetta The Merry Widow. As bubbly as champagne and as bright as a Christmas tree, this charming and entertaining show was one of the company's best.

Holly Janz and Jack Swanson
If you've never seen it either on stage or in one of its many film incarnations, know that the story of The Merry Widow revolves around Hanna, a youngish widow from the fictional Balkan nation of Pontevedro, who became a millionaire when her much older husband died on their wedding night. Living the high life in Paris, she's actively courted by young men with their eyes on the twenty million franc prize, but she secretly yearns for her first love, Count Danilo, who was forbidden to marry her many years ago by his snobbish family.

Now a minor official in the Pontevedrian embassy trying to drown his torch for Hanna in champagne and grisettes at Maxim's, Danilo is ordered by the ambassador, Baron Zeta, to woo Hanna and marry her, thereby keeping her millions from leaving the country. But, of course, Danilo's pride won't let him say those "three little words" to Hanna.

You know where this is all going, right?

There's also a subplot concerning Zeta's young wife Valencienne and her brief fling with a young Frenchman, Camille de Rosillon, as well as a recurring gag about the obsession of the embassy attache, Njegus, with the girls at Maxims. Needless to say, all ends happily with a big party.

Kathy Pyeatt and Clark Sturdevant
First and foremost among this production's many virtues is the uniform strength of its cast. Winter Opera has been somewhat uneven in this regard in previous the past, but this time around everyone is simply perfect, beginning with soprano Kathy Pyeatt, who demonstrated how to “glitter and be gay” (or quote a song title from Candide) in the crucial role of Hanna. Her voice was liquid gold all the way to the top of its range, making the popular second act aria “Vilja” a thing of beauty. She's also a fine actress, always in character even when not in focus.

Tenor Clark Sturdevant was a perfect match for Ms. Pyeatt as Danilo. The role lies a bit low for most tenors and is not infrequently sung by a baritone with a solid head voice, but Mr. Sturdevant sounded entirely comfortable with it. He, too, had solid acting chops, which gave the scenes between him and Ms. Pyeatt a convincing reality.

Among the supporting cast, mezzo Holly Janz stood out as Valencienne. The role is written for a soprano but-as both her singing here and a quick glance at her biography demonstrated-Ms. Janz is comfortable with soprano roles as well. Tenor Jack Swanson was an excellent vocal match for her as Rosillon, and their scenes together had real charm.

Baritone Gary Moss was a comically clueless Baron Zeta. I'm not sure why he was the only Pontevedrian with a vaudeville "Balkan" accent, but he certainly made it work for him. Baritone Curtis Shoemake was also a delight as the excessively enthusiastic Njegus.

The chorus is important in Merry Widow, and Chorus Master Nancy Mayo can take pride in how well her forces did their jobs, singling clearly and with impressively precise elocution. It helped that the (uncredited) English translation sounded very natural, often making the English supertitles unnecessary.

Curtis Shoemake and grisettes
Director Dean Anthony clearly has a good eye for what works well on a stage. His blocking always made sense and his pacing was unfailingly right and his choreography did an excellent job of keeping the real dancers front and center in the second act party scene while providing easily executed steps for the non-dancing singers in big ensemble numbers. The minstrel show-style tambourine number for the male principals in "Girls, Girls, Girls" was also an inspired (and well executed) bit of comedy.

Scott Schoonover did his usually fine job conducing the orchestra in a generally very well played reading of Lehár's unforgettable score. There were a few bits of sloppy brass intonation at the very beginning when I saw the show on Sunday, but otherwise the band sounded quite good. I wosj Mr. Schoonover hadn't decided to cut the engaging overture, though.

Scott Loebl's sets were nothing short of beautiful, with a wonderful trompe e'loeil backdrop for the Pontevedrian embassy that looked positively three dimensional. JC Krajicek's lavish and colorful costumes added to the overall visual richness of this production.

Ultimately, the worst thing to be said about Winter Opera's Merry Widow is that there were only two performances of it. If Winter Opera is going to continue producing work of this quality, it really needs longer runs. For more information on the current season, including the annual Holidays on the Hill concerts on December 6 and 7, visit the company's web site.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

"Oh misery me": The problems of "Yeomen of the Guard" are unsolved by Winter Opera

Contemporary Yeomen in period costume at the Tower of London
Gilbert and Sullivan operettas follow a fairly predictable format—so much so that Anna Russell once made it the basis for a sixteen-minute comedy routine on "How to Write Your Own Gilbert and Sullivan Opera." The one oddball in the G&S canon is "Yeomen of the Guard," a somewhat indifferent production of which opened Winter Opera's current season the weekend of October 30th.

"Yeomen" comes at a time in Gilbert and Sullivan's partnership when Sir Arthur Sullivan was beginning to see himself as a victim of his own success. Like his literary contemporary Arthur Conan Doyle, Sullivan felt that his popular works were overshadowing his more serious efforts. As Doyle would come to resent Sherlock Holmes, Sullivan was beginning to resent his comic collaborations with Gilbert. So when Gilbert proposed a more serious libretto, Sullivan jumped at the chance.

First performed in 1888, "Yeomen" wasn't a total departure from the familiar formula. There are disguises, complex plot reversals, and a fair amount of comedy. But the satirical jabs at British institutions are absent and the ending is, if not really tragic, at least unhappy. The result is an uneven mix of Gilbertian absurdity and unconvincing drama that never really works as either comedy or tragedy. Its appeal has always escaped me.

Set in the Tower of London in the 16th century, the story of "Yeomen" revolves around Colonel Fairfax, who is about to executed for sorcery on the basis of false testimony from an evil cousin who plans to inherit Fairfax's fortune if Fairfax dies unmarried. Fairfax offers 100 crowns to any woman who will marry him, sight unseen, and so cheat his cousin of his ill-gotten gains. Elsie Maynard, a young singer more or less betrothed to the jester Jack Point, takes him up on the offer in order to buy medicine for her ailing mother.

Unknown to Fairfax, his old friend Sergeant Meryll and daughter Phoebe have hatched a plot to save his life by disguising him as Meryll's son Leonard, newly arrived to take a position as one of the Tower guards (the "Yeomen" of the title). Once sprung from prison, Fairfax woos Phoebe and then, still disguised as Leonard, seduces Elsie while pretending to be helping Jack Point woo her.

By the end of the opera both Phoebe and her father are trapped in dreary marriages to (respectively) the loutish jailer Wilfred Shadbolt and the bloodthirsty Tower housekeeper Dame Carruthers as the price for keeping their plot secret. Fairfax claims Elsie and poor Jack Point falls senseless to the stage.

In short, no good deed goes unpunished and Fairfax, an ingrate if ever there was one, goes on his merry way.

The inadequacies of the libretto aside, Sullivan produced some wonderful music for "Yeomen," including an artfully constructed overture which was, alas, cut in half for this production. Most of the other optional cuts were apparently made as well, bringing the show in at under two and one-half hours, including intermission. Unfortunately, the slow pacing and static staging by director John Stephens made it feel longer.

As is often the case with Winter Opera, there were some truly fine voices in this cast, with mezzo Amy Maude Helfer leading the pack as a completely engaging Phoebe. She displayed a fluid, smooth voice and impressive acting skills. Soprano Eileen Vanessa Rodriguez was an excellent Elsie and bass James Harrington brought a welcome touch of dry humor to the role of Sergeant Meryll.

As Jack Point, baritone Andy Papas had the kind of rich, powerful voice that one doesn't often hear in the "principal actor" roles in Gilbert and Sullivan. He did well by Point's patter numbers, although he made the character a bit more querulous than I would have liked.

There were vocally strong performances as well from tenor Clark Sturdevant as Fairfax, contralto Sharmay Musacchio as a rather young-looking Dame Carruthers, and bass-baritone Adrian Rosas as the one historically based character, Tower Lieutenant Sir Richard Cholmondeley. Baritone Gary Moss sang well as Shadbolt and had some nice comic business, but insisted on delivering all his lines facing downstage, even when interacting with other characters, which simply looked bizarre.

The chorus was small but mighty; credit Chorus Master Nancy Mayo for that.

Scott Schoonover did his usual polished job conducting the orchestra, which generally did quite well by Sullivan's music, that annoying cut in the overture not withstanding. The fact that the Viragh Center has an actual orchestra pit also eliminated some of the balance problems you sometimes encounter in performance spaces that weren’t designed with musical theatre in mind.

Scott Loebl's set gave a nice sense of the Tower's imposing presence while still leaving lots of playing space available and JC Krajicek's costumes evoked the period quite effectively.

If "Yeomen of the Guard" was not, on the whole, one of Winter Opera's better efforts, the bulk of the blame must fall to Mr. Gilbert for producing a libretto that was neither fish nor fowl. "Yeomen of the Guard" is a problematic work, and this production didn't solve it.

Winter Opera's season continues with Mozart's "Cosi fan Tutte" January 22 and 24 and concludes with Verdi's "Il Trovatore" March 4 and 6. There's also a festive "Holidays on the Hill" concert December 8 and 9 and Dominic's on the Hill. For more information:

This review originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.

Monday, August 3, 2015

A dark, driven "Rigoletto" at Union Avenue Opera

Jordan Shanahan and Lacy Sauter
Photo: John Lamb
Union Avenue Opera is following up on its highly praised "Don Giovanni" with an impressive production of Verdi's 1851 tragedy, "Rigoletto." From the ominous brass fanfares that open the prelude to Rigoletto's final despairing howl of "La maledizione" ("the curse"), Tim Ocel's knowing direction drives this "Rigoletto" to its tragic conclusion with the relentless energy of a runaway train.

Implacably dark and menacing, this tale of men behaving incredibly badly is dominated by low voices—basses, baritones, contraltos, and mezzos. The prevalence of those darker and richer sounds is a characteristically smart theatrical decision by Verdi; it lends a sense of inescapable weight to the story of a revenge plot gone horribly wrong.

Jordan Shanahan and James Callon
Photo: John Lamb
That only works, of course, if you have strong singers for those roles. Happily Union Avenue has them in abundance here, with pride of place going to baritone Jordan Shanahan in the title role. If you've seen UAO's "Rheingold," "Siegfried," or "Dead Man Walking," you already now that Mr. Shanahan boasts both a big, wide-ranging voice (with solid bottom notes that sound more like the work of a bass-baritone) and an approach to acting that allows him to completely inhabit his characters. His horror movie makeup is so obviously artificial that it's a bit distracting, but the fierce commitment of his performance makes that a minor issue.

As the feckless (if not downright sociopathic) Duke who callously seduces, assaults, and then abandons Rigoletto's daughter Gilda, tenor James Callon is just as smugly repellent as he should be. He had a couple of rough notes in the second and third acts on opening night, but otherwise sang with admirable clarity garnering the expected applause with popular arias like "La donna è mobile".

James Callon and Mark Freiman
Photo: John Lamb
Soprano Lacy Sauter, who was such a heartbreaking Blanche in "Streetcar Named Desire" last season, returns to UAO as Gilda, whose absurdly self-sacrificing nature leads to the opera's tragic conclusion. The very implausibility of the character is, in my view, a real obstacle for any actress, but Ms. Sauter manages to pull it off with a convincing characterization and a voice that easily navigates the coloratura passages in the famous "Caro nome" aria in Act I.

Bass-baritone Patrick Blackwell is the doomed Count Monterone, whose dying curse falls heavily on Rigoletto and bass Mark Freiman is the ironically principled assassin Sparafucile. They're both compelling actors, with big, powerful voices that fill the UAO space. There's fine singing as well by Mezzo Kristee Haney, darkly seductive as Sparafucile's sister and partner in crime Maddalena.

This is, in short, a very strong cast, right down to the smallest walk-ons. That includes Debby Lennon as Gilda's nurse Giovanna, Andy Papas as the put-upon Count Ceprano, Anthony Heinemann the sneering courtier Borsa, and Robert Garner as Marullo, whose momentary attack of conscience, while not explicitly called out in the libretto, nevertheless makes good dramatic sense.

Patrick Blackwell
Photo: John Lamb
Union Avenue's chorus sings with impressive power and clarity. Under Scott Schoonover's usual expert direction the orchestra sounds impressive despite its small size and the vocal/instrumental balance is quite good.

Tim Ocel has demonstrated on more than one occasion that he knows how to handle the unique demands of the operatic stage—most recently in UAO's stunning "La Traviata" last season. He has done it again with this "Rigoletto," maintaining a sense of tragic inevitability while still allowing the big musical moments to breathe.

Kristee Haney and Mark Freiman
Photo: John Lamb
Kyra Bishop's deliberately shabby set with its peeling plaster and exposed lathe and Teresa Doggett's intentionally drab costumes (only Rigoletto has any real color) are presumably intended to underline the moral decay that pervades Francesco Maria Piave's libretto. If so, they do the job admirably. Paige Seber's lighting, however, is so dim that faces are sometimes lost. I'm not sure that the darkness of "Rigoletto" needs to be that visible.

Union Avenue Opera's admirable "Rigoletto" runs through August 9th at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union at Enright in the Central West End. The opera is sing in Italian with projected English text. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8, although given that parking on the lot is at a premium, you'll want to get there by 7:30 if possible. For more information, visit the company's web site.

This review originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Singing as Olympic sport in Opera Theatre's "Richard the Lionheart"

Tim Meady
Photo: Ken Howard
If you're in the mood for an evening of singing so incredible that you'll wonder why it isn't an Olympic sport, then allow me to recommend Opera Theatre's production of the American premiere of Handel's "Richard the Lionheart" (original Italian title: "Riccardo primo, re d’Inghilterra"), final performances of which are this Wednesday at Friday at 8 at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus.

Written in London (where Handel's Italian-language historical operas were all the rage) for the Royal Academy of Music's 1726/27 season, "Richard" was intended, in part, as a celebratory work for the coronation of England's King George II. As a result it turns England's feckless Crusader king into an absurdly noble romantic figure and suffers (in my view) from an overdose of English Jingoism in its final act.

Yes, that’s right: an opera written in Italian by a German-born composer celebrates the English virtues of George II, a German-born King. It’s enough to make your head spin.

One other thing that might make your head spin if you're not an opera and/or classical music fan is that fact that the male leads in "Richard the Lionheart" (Richard and the Syrian prince Oronte) are sung not by tenors but by countertenors—men who sing in the mezzo-soprano or alto range. That's because in Handel's day it was fashionable for these parts to be sung by castrati—male singers who were castrated before puberty and whose voices, therefore, never dropped in pitch.

Handel had a couple of the great castrati of his era to work with in this opera, so Richard and Oronte's arias are flashy and absurdly difficult, filled with elaborate, rapid passages and florid ornamentation. Opera Theatre has, happily, two fine singers in the roles: Tim Mead as Richard and Tai Oney as Oronte. Mr. Mead is clearly the stronger of the two, with a powerful, wide-ranging voice and a convincingly forceful stage presence, although Mr. Oney is no slouch. Their respective calls to arms in the third act are a highlight.

The story of the opera is based on a real incident in 1191 in which Richard's fiancée, Berengaria of Navarre, was shipwrecked off the coast of Cyprus and held hostage by the island's ruler, Isaac Komnenos. Richard conquered the island and got her back. The opera changes Berengaria's name to Costanza and adds a subplot in which Isaac (Isacio in the opera) tries to pass off his daughter Pulcheria as Richard's intended, much to the distress of Pulcheria's lover Oronte.

L-R: Susannah Biller and Devon Guthrie
Photo: Ken Howard
It's silly stuff and stage director Lee Blakeley has tacked on an unconvincingly dark ending that flatly contradicts the text and the music, but nothing can detract from the fine singing and acting of this cast.

I've already praised Mr. Mead and Mr. Oney. Soprano Susannah Biller has a crystal-clear coloratura that navigates the music with ease, while soprano Devon Guthrie has an equally impressive but darker tone that works well for Pulcheria. Bass-baritone Brandon Cedel radiates menace as Isacio and bass Adam Lau is warmly sympathetic as Costanza's cousin Berardo. Both have formidable voices that project well.

Grant Llewellyn conducts the appropriately small orchestra with great flair and sensitivity. Their playing is perfection, with shout-outs to Laura Osterlund on sopranino recorder for her wonderful work on Costanza's "swallow" aria, and to Simon Martyn-Ellis, whose archlute adds a nice bite to the continuo part played by Damien Francoeur-Krzyzek on harpsichord and Melissa Brooks on 'cello.

For the full Opera Theatre experience, come early and have a picnic or a drink on a table on the lawn. For details on "Richard the Lionheart" and the other three operas this season, visit the company web site.

This review originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Opera Preview: An e-chat with James Robinson, director of "Emmeline" at Opera Theatre

James Robinson
Opera Theatre's fourth production of the season is the local premiere of Tobias Picker's 1996 "Emmeline," which has a book by poet J.D. McClatchy, based on the novel of the same name by Judith Rossner. I spoke with stage director James Robinson about the piece via email this week.

Chuck Lavazzi: "Emmeline" is the story of a young textile mill worker who is seduced by her employer's son-in-law, gets pregnant, and is forced to give up the baby. Two decades later she unwittingly meets and marries the young man who turns out to be her son. That kernel of story, it seems to me, resonates on both a deep psychological level with its overtones of Oedipus as well as on a political and social level. What aspects of the opera do you find most compelling and why?

James Robinson: I've always been drawn to stories about "the other" in a society. "Emmeline" is certainly about someone who through no fault of her own has become a pariah, an outcast. It's certainly a deeply psychological story that has strong ties to "Oedipus," but it's also the tale of a woman who is really looking and longing to be loved. Obviously, she is taken advantage of by McGuire, the employer's son-in-law who not just takes advantage of her and, to be blunt, he rapes her. McGuire knows that young Emmeline, who has just come to work in the mills, is lonely and he suggests that he can become a father figure to her (knowing that she desperately misses her father and family). What's masterful about the way McClatchy and Picker have approached this situation is that the audience is almost fooled into believing this is a traditional romantic situation — the text is like a love duet and the music is achingly romantic. Then you have to say, "Wait a minute, she's 14 and he's at least twice her age!" Of course, when she finally falls in love with Matthew we again are hoping that she finds true love. Again, it turns out very badly and both librettist and composer know how to deliver a real punch in the gut. So I think these elements are really interesting. In a sense, "Emmeline" with its taut libretto and stunning music is like an opera by Janacek. It follows that composer's masterworks like "Katya Kabanova" and "Jenufa".

I guess on another level, I love the fact that this is an American opera set in New England and it's rooted in a real time and place. Historically, the mills of Lowell, MA were fascinating in terms of the girls who were sent to work there and what it meant — both good and bad — to industry in the US. I also enjoy presenting operas that shed light on times and places that are not commonly familiar to most people.

Speaking of the music, in the New York Times review of the 1998 City Opera production, Bernard Holland (who liked the score quite a lot) wrote that the composer "has a true ear for lyrical run-on musical sentences. They ride gracefully and take interesting directions." I'm not entirely sure what he means by that. Now that you've spend so much time with the music, and you tell me what you think he was getting at there?

I would say that Picker has written some really wonderful lyrical passages that are not entirely predictable. "Emmeline" is a very tuneful score and the vocal writing plays off of a lot of solo writing in the orchestra. I would say it's one of the great strengths of the piece because you never really know where the lines are going. So in a sense it's very much like the way people speak or think — there's a great deal of spontaneity that keeps you wondering where things are heading. This as opposed to a more formulaic pattern of vocal writing.

It sounds like even though Picker studied with some aggressively "modernist" composers like Elliott Carter and Milton Babbitt, he has personally gone back to a more tonal style of composition. Is this something you see happening frequently in the contemporary opera world?

Interestingly, I have come across many composers who worked with some hardcore modernists over the years but who have opted to compose in a more lyrical even tonal style. There is a rigorous element to Picker's music that certainly reflects some of his earlier compositions but I think this has less to do with atonality and more to do with rhythm. "Emmeline" is, in fact, an extremely tonal score but there are some extremely complex rhythmic patterns used throughout.

Yes, I think something similar is happening in the concert world as well. I've been hearing a lot of "new music" lately that seems to recognize that the war against tonality that the serialists started has been lost. That's a positive development in my book.

I've seen the same thing. I'm not sure it's a complete rejection of brutal atonality as many of these newer/younger composers are employing certain techniques but in a more personal way and with music rooted in tonality. There's also a lot of fusion of styles that I think is very interesting. You hear influences of jazz, rock and international music. The real pros know how to bring these things together to create their own voices.

Last question: "Emmeline" is, as you say, a layered and complex piece. What are you hoping audiences will take away from it, emotionally and/or intellectually?

I'm hoping the audiences for "Emmeline" will find it a riveting story with really gorgeous music (and terrific performances). True, it's a dark story but it's also quite a moving story that resonates on so many levels. Someone I know saw a dress rehearsal (and she's not a huge opera fan) and wrote me the most incredible note about how the opera touched her deeply on levels of love, religion, passion, taking advantage of children, etc. Is the story too dark? I don't think so. After all, we know pretty early on that Cio Cio San, Mimi and Tosca are not going to have an easy time of it.

"Emmeline" opens Sunday, June 14, and runs through June 27. For more information, visit the Opera Theatre web site.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Puccini's music and Opera Theatre's performers star in "La Rondine"

Act II quartet and chorus
Photo: Ken Howard
Puccini’s romantic drama "La Rondine" was something of a problem child for the composer. Opera Theatre's utterly splendid production of the original 1917 version (there are thee altogether) illustrates the issue: Giuseppe Adami's clunker of a libretto. As beautifully sung, impeccably acted, intelligently directed, and generally entertaining as this "La Rondine" is, there's just no getting around those words.

The opera's history was troubled from the beginning. The original request from Vienna's Carltheater in 1913 was for an operetta. Puccini asked for (and got) permission to instead write a genuine opera, but lighter in tone than his tragic masterpieces. When he offered the finished product to his publisher Tito Ricordi in 1916, Ricordi turned it down. Yet when it was published by Ricordi's rival Lorenzo Sonzogno, Ricordi (as stage director Michael Gieleta relates in his program notes) "spread bad word of mouth about 'La rondine'...with such zeal that even a century later, both experts and amateurs retains all sorts of 'opinions' on what 'La rondine' was and wasn't."

Sydney Mancasola and John McVeigh
Photo: Ken Howard
It was revised twice after its premiere (the final version was mounted by OTSL back in 1996), but no revision of it has ever achieved the popularity of "La Boheme" (which it somewhat resembles, at least in the second act) or Puccini's other operas. Until very recently it was still not uncommon to see it dismissed as "Puccini's operetta."

In both the first and third versions, the libretto of "La Rondine" is often so cryptic that it's nearly telegraphic. "We are given minimal background information concerning the characters," observed Mr. Gieleta in an interview with me during tech week, "as if the piece was prompting the audience to figure the actual storyline out for themselves from the scraps of textual evidence. In that context, La Rondine is reminiscent of a good theatrical play in which the author renounces traditional omniscience and where the public is free to interpret the scarcely narrated facts in their own way." Unfortunately, it also makes some of the characters' decisions a bit baffling.

The story is basically “Traviata lite”. Magda, a “kept woman”, leaves her rich, middle-aged lover Rambaldo and her lush life in Paris to take up with Ruggero, a young hunk from the sticks. Unfortunately the young hunk is, as written, far too painfully naive to be sympathetic, and the rich lover little more than a cipher, which makes Magda's decision to leave them both seem more immature and petulant than tragic.

Corinne Winters
Photo: Ken Howard
That said, this is such an impressive production in every way that I mostly found myself able to suspend disbelief and revel in the many wonderful individual moments. The ecstatic "toast to love" in the second act, with the full chorus in full voice, is but one of many examples. One does not, in the final analysis, go to a Puccini opera for the intelligence of the libretto but for the emotional power of the music. And "La Rondine" has that in abundance.

This production also has bravura performances in abundance, led by soprano Corinne Winters as Magda. She has, in her lower register, the kind of richness I associate with mezzos or altos, while still retaining a crystal clear head voice. Her first big aria in Act I ("Chi il bel sogno di Doretta" in the original Italian) was a real show stopper, drawing enthusiastic applause from the opening night audience. Better yet, her acting is completely convincing, even in the drawn-out melodramatic renunciation of Ruggero in the third act.

As Magda's maid Lisette, whose expectations of music-hall stardom prove to be wildly unrealistic, soprano Sydney Mancasola also displays a wonderfully clear voice with great top notes, along with a sure comic sense. Tenor John McVeigh turns in an equally fine performance as the poet Prunier, Lisette's on again/off again lover, with yet another fine, strong voice and a convincingly sympathetic character.

Corinne Winters and Anthony Kalil
Photo: Ken Howard
In the role of Ruggero, tenor Anthony Kalil did not sound as vocally powerful to me as the rest of the principals, but otherwise turned in a respectable if somewhat monochromatic performance. There is, I think, a bit more variety to Ruggero's character than I saw, at least on opening night. Still, he certainly holds his own with Ms. Winters, Ms. Mancasola, and Mr. McVeigh in that rapturous quartet-and-chorus number in the second act.

Bass-baritone Matthew Burns isn't given much to do as Rambaldo, but even so he manages to suggest that there is more to his character than the libretto indicates, and does so with a robust and well-focused voice. Sopranos Ashley Milanese and Elizabeth Sutphen and mezzo Hannah Hagerty all provide well-sung cameos as Magda's friends Yvette, Bianca, and Suzy.

Mr. Gieleta direction is unfailingly sure-footed, creating powerful stage pictures, clarifying character, and generally serving the material remarkably well. Alexander Dodge's and Gregory Gale's costumes beautifully conjure up both Belle Époque Paris and the seaside resort to which Magda and Ruggero flee in the third act, assisted by Christopher Akerlind's dramatic lighting design. This is a "La Rondine" that looks as good as it sounds.

John McVeigh, Corinne Winters and ensemble
Photo: Ken Howard
Speaking of how it sounds, OTSL Music Director Stephen Lord conducts the orchestra with the assurance we have come to expect of him over the years, while the ensemble of (mostly) St. Louis Symphony musicians responds with powerful, impeccable playing. Puccini's entrancing score comes through in all its glory.

"La Rondine" may never get as much respect as Puccini's more famous works, but it deserves to be seen, if only because it's one of the few Puccini operas in which the heroine isn't either a hapless victim or clueless enabler of badly-behaved men. Say what you will about Magda, she ultimately chooses her own road, even if her reasons are not always clear. And when her story is told this well—to say nothing of this beautifully sung—it’s a reminder of why we love opera in the first place.

The Opera Theatre of St. Louis production of "La Rondine" continues through June 28 in rotating repertory with three other operas at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. More information is available at the opera theatre web site.

This review originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.