Thursday, November 14, 2013

Great Britten: The symphony presents Benjamin Britten's "Peter Grimes" in concert Saturday, November 16, 2013

Anthony Dean Griffey as Peter Grimes in Toronto
Writing in the Larousse Encyclopedia of Music, Donald Paine notes that Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem," written for the consecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1962, "may stand as representative of his genius and of the theme that recurs throughout his work: the indictment of human folly as it shows itself both in the tragedy and wastage of war and in the corruption of human innocence."

Those themes are present both in the "War Requiem" and in Britten's 1945 tragic opera "Peter Grimes."  Coincidentally, both works are being performed this weekend in the Midwest: the "War Requiem" in a series of concerts in Chicago Thursday through Sunday and "Peter Grimes" in a special concert performance on Saturday night here in St. Louis by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.

The Chicago performances are part of the Chicago Symphony's regular subscription series.  The Saturday special here is a preview of the "Peter Grimes" the symphony will be presenting in Carnegie Hall in New York on Friday, November 22nd—the 100th anniversary of Britten's birth.  It's one of over 1000 special concert events being presented this year to celebrate the great English composer's centenary; you can see a complete list at the Britten 100 web site.

Benjamin Britten
London Records 1968
publicity photo
Born in East Anglia in 1913, Britten studied composition with Frank Bridge and John Ireland.  He lived in the USA from 1939 to 1942 and then returned to settle in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, where he would remain the rest of his life.  Although he got international attention with his "Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge" for strings in 1937, it wasn't until the 1940s that his music began to achieve widespread acceptance, with performances of his "Ceremony of Carols" (a worldwide favorite around this time of year), the "Sinfonia da Requiem," and, of course, "Peter Grimes"—a huge hit with audiences and critics alike in 1945.  By the time Britten died in 1976 he was firmly established as one of the most important figures in 20th century music.

Most classical fans are familiar with the "Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes."  These little gems are powerfully evocative of the geographical and psychological landscape of the opera.  They're also a nice distillation of what you can expect from the complete performance of the opera on Saturday.

Inspired by a section of the poem "The Borough" by clergyman and poet George Crabbe (1754-1832), the story revolves around the persecution of the title character – a sullen and socially awkward fisherman – by the denizens of a small coastal fishing village.  In the poem he's a clear villain but in Montagu Slater's libretto it's ambiguous how much of Grimes's tragic end is his fault and how much the result of persecution by villagers.  What's not ambiguous is that, even at the relatively young age of 31, Britten was already a master of orchestral color and mood.

"Britten," writes Paul Schiavo in his program notes, "declared that the struggle between the exceptional individual and society was ‘a subject very close to my heart.' That Peter Grimes portrays that struggle through a decidedly flawed character, less hero than anti-hero, makes it a challenging work but not a less compelling one."  It's also possible that Britten intended the work to serve, to some extent, as a condemnation of the homophobia which Britten, as a gay man, saw quite clearly in British society.

The soloists for Saturday's performance include tenor Anthony Dean Griffey as Peter Grimes (a role he has sung often, including at the Metropolitan Opera in New York), soprano Susanna Phillips as schoolmistress Ellen Orford (who suspects—but can't prove—that Grimes might be abusing his young apprentice, John), bass-baritone Alan Held as Captain Balstrode (in whom Ellen confides), and contralto Meredith Arwady as Auntie (who helps stir the mob up against Grimes).  David Robertson conducts the orchestra and chorus.

The chorus plays an important narrative role in "Peter Grimes," so precision in singing and diction will be important.  Fortunately chorus director Amy Kaiser has an awfully good track record in that regard.

"Peter Grimes" is a big undertaking for the symphony, which does a relatively small number of chorus and orchestra pieces every season and rarely anything on quite this scale.  Those chorus and orchestra concerts have, however, generally been season highlights, so I think you'll find it interesting to see and hear the results—and to see what the New York critics have to say on the 22nd.

"Peter Grimes" will be performed on Saturday, November 16, at 8 PM at Powell Hall and will be broadcast on St. Louis Public Radio at 90.7 FM, HD 1, and via streaming at the station's web site.  For more information:

This article originally appeared at, where Chuck Lavazzi is a performing arts blogger.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Review of Winter Opera's "Faust"

Julia Ebner as Marguerite,Timothy J. Bruno as Mephistopheles
and Clay Hilley as Faust
© Ron Lindsey, 2013
Long regarded by many as one of the highlights of the French grand opera tradition, Gounod's "Faust"—a beautifully sung production of which opened Winter Opera’s season—actually started life in 1859 as an opéra comique with spoken dialog instead of recitatives and without large ballet sequences. It was only the addition of the former in 1860 and the latter in 1875 that elevated Faust to the position of eminence it held in opera houses for over a century.

But in dealing with weighty subjects the reach of Gounod and his librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carré mostly exceed their grasp. The music still retains most of its power but the libretto has aged badly and now looks quaint and even dramatically inert at times.

"Satan", the a 1927 lyric by Leo Robin and Clifford Grey tells us, "lies awaitin' and creatin' clouds of gray."* In "Faust" Mephistopheles fills the lives of Faust, Marguerite, and Marguerite's family with clouds that aren't gray so much as the sort of greenish black we Midwesterners have come to associate with tornado season. By the end of Act 5 (Act 3 in this production), there has been enough death, scandal, and misery loosed upon the stage to fill up at least fifteen minutes of a cable news broadcast.

Julia Ebner as Marguerite,
Timothy J. Bruno as Mephistopheles
and Clay Hilley as Faust
© Ron Lindsey, 2013
This could be tremendously powerful stuff, but the libretto—based on Carré's play "Faust et Marguerite," which is very freely adapted from Part 1 of Goethe’s "Faust"—deals with it in such a pedestrian way that Faust, for example, comes off as little more than a shallow fool. Tenor Clay Hilley brought a truly wonderful voice to the role, fortunately, garnering his share of "bravos". His acting was not at quite at the level of his voice—his aged Faust was too exaggerated to be credible and his youthful Faust struck me as a bit bland—but there was no gainsaying the quality of his singing.

Soprano Julia Ebner was a very effective Marguerite, with a fine, supple voice and respectable acting chops. Bass Timothy J. Bruno’s Méphistophélès was also a vocal triumph, but I felt he failed to convey the character’s menace. His mocking Act 3 serenade, "Vous qui faites l'endormie," ideally a compelling display of sheer malevolence, felt under-played to me.

One of the strongest overall performances came from baritone Eric McKeever as Marguerite’s brother Valentin. "O sainte médaille," the Act 1 aria in which he entrusts the care of Marguerite to young Siébel (a "pants" role, nicely done by mezzo Cherry Duke) was a true showstopper and got the first "bravo" of the day.

John Stephens’s direction, while serviceable, was sometimes rather static. Ensemble scenes, in particular, tended to consist of having chorus members line up, face front, and sing with very little movement. Part of the problem, of course, was that Scott Loebl’s unit set consisted of a wall with a scrim stage left, a door unit center, and a set of stairs leading down to floor level stage right. The stone wall look was great, but its size tended to push all the action downstage. I would think those stairs could have been used in some of the chorus scenes to relieve the congestion.

The Act I waltz scene © Ron Lindsey, 2013
He did, on the other hand, come up with a neat solution to the problem posed by the lack of room for dancing in the famous Act 1 (original Act 2) waltz sequence.  He brought on a pair of ballroom dancers (Stephanie Medeiros and Atanas Pavlov) to do a flashy waltz number of their own.  They apparently beamed in from the 20th century, but it was certainly a theatrically effective moment.

JC Krajicek’s costumes (some of them ill fitting) seemed to have been assembled from several different shows, resulting in an opera that was apparently taking place in no fixed time or place. If that was designed to make the story more universal, I’m not sure it really worked. And that gray brocade suite for Faust made him look more silly than seductive.

Michael Mishra led the orchestra brilliantly, and their playing generally sounded quite polished. The instrumental/vocal balance was very good as well. I didn’t see a chorus master listed, but whoever rehearsed the ensemble did a fine job; the chorus sang with a precision and clarity that was wonderful to hear.

Winter Opera has come a long way in just seven seasons. Now that they’re getting some corporate sponsorship and have apparently settled in at the Viragh Center—one of the best musical theatre houses in town, hands down—I expect them to continue to be a critical part of the local opera scene. If they can get the theatrical aspects of their productions up to the same high level as the musical ones, they will truly be a force to be reckoned with.

Winter Opera’s next show is Verdi’s "Falstaff," one of the Italian master’s very best works, with a first-rate libretto by Boito. Performances are Friday and Sunday, February 7 and 9, 2014. There will also be another special "Holidays on the Hill" show December 10, 12, and 17 at Dominic’s Restaurant. Fore more information:

*"Hallelujah," from "Hit the Deck." Music is by Vincent Youmans

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

Friday, September 13, 2013

Winter Opera Saint Louis Interviewed on STL TV

Winter Opera Saint Louis General Director Gina Galati and Music Director Steven Jarvi sat down for an interview with STL TV to discuss the company and its upcoming seventh season.

(The above embedded video is a playlist of two videos.)

Winter Opera Saint Louis's season begins on November 8 & 10 with Faust, then continues with Falstaff in February and Lucia di Lammermoor in March. Performances take place at the Skip Viragh Center for the Arts at Chaminade (425 S. Lindbergh Blvd, St. Louis, MO, 63131). Tickets and more information can be found by calling 314-865-0038 or visiting

Monday, August 19, 2013

Review of Union Avenue Opera's "Die Walküre"

Alexandra LoBianco as Brünnhilde and Timothy Bruno as Wotan
Photo © Ron Lindsey, 2013
Union Avenue Opera is nothing if not fearless, often taking on works that strain the company’s space at the Union Avenue Christian Church to the limit.  Through next Saturday Union Avenue is presenting the second installment of its most ambitious project yet—Wagner's mammoth operatic cycle “Der Ring des Nibelungen.”  And it's pretty darned impressive.

“Das Rheingold,” which Union Avenue did last August, sets up the characters and the story that play out over the course of the cycle. Wagner regarded it as a mere prologue, though, and “Die Walküre” is where the rubber hits the road, dramatically speaking.  It's a tale of incest, murder, and ironic tragedy as the most powerful creature in the world—Wotan, father of the Gods—finds himself undone by his own machinations and powerless against the curse of the magical ring he stole from the dwarf Alberich back in “Das Rheingold”.

As the opera opens Siegmund, one of a pair of twins sired by Wotan with a mortal and separated at birth from his twin sister, stumbles into the home of Hunding, after eluding a vengeful mob. Hunding isn’t home—he is, in fact, part of the mob—but his wife is. Their attraction is immediate and it’s not in the least dampened when they realize that Hunding’s wife is Siegmund’s long-lost sister Sieglinde. Hunding arrives, recognizes Siegmund, and challenges him to a fight to the death in the morning. Sieglinde has other plans; she drugs Hunding and flees with Siegmund, but not before the latter plucks a magical sword from the trunk of a tree in Hunding’s house.

Alexandra LoBianco as Brünnhilde
Photo © Ron Lindsey, 2013
Back in Valhalla, Fricka is outraged that Wotan is condoning not only adultery but incest as well. She browbeats him into upholding the sanctity of marriage by letting Hunding kill Siegmund, even though Wotan had hoped Siegmund would be the hero who would save Valhalla from the descendants of Alberich. When the Valkyrie Brünnhilde (who, like all the Valkyries, is a daughter of Wotan and the earth goddess Erda) violates Wotan’s orders and tries to save Siegmund, Wotan is forced to punish her by turning her mortal, placing her into a magical sleep, and surrounding her with magical flames that only a true hero can penetrate. His farewell, in the final moments of the opera, is one of the most moving sequences in opera.

Sieglinde, meanwhile, has escaped. She’s pregnant with Siegmund’s child, Siegfried. But that’s another opera.  For a more detailed plot summary of the entire cycle, I refer you to Wikipedia.

The Union Avenue production uses a reduced version of Wagner's original created by English composer Jonathan Dove in 1990 that cuts nearly an hour out of the original’s run time of nearly four hours and takes its three acts down to two. That’s not the sacrilege you might think; Wagner the librettist does not always serve Wagner the composer well, and there’s much in the text that is redundant and discursive. That said, Dove’s edits in the first act delete too much of Siegmund’s back story, in my view, and compress the development of his and Sieglinde’s affection so much that it seems rather rushed. Wotan’s massive blocks of exposition in Wagner’s Act II and III, on the other hand, feel like they could use more editing. Dove also cuts four of Brünnhilde’s seven Valkyrie sisters, which drastically shortens the famous “Ride of the Valkyries” sequence that opens Wagner’s Act III—a pity, as it’s rather stirring stuff.

Melissa Sumner as Helmwige, Cecelia Stearman as Waltraute,
Alexandra LoBianco as Brünnhilde, Lindsey Anderson as Rossweisse,
and Amber Smoke as Sieglinde
Photo © Ron Lindsey, 2013
Still, this reduced “Walküre” still packs a considerable punch, thanks largely to some heavy-duty Girl Power in the cast.  Amber Smoke (Sieglinde), Elise Quagliata (Fricka), and Alexandra LoBianco (Brünnhilde) are all outstanding, with powerful voices and well-defined characters. Ms. Quagliata is the same powerful presence she was in “Rheingold” while Ms. Smoke perfectly captures Sieglinde’s passion and despair. Ms. LoBianco’s really big moments won’t come until the next two operas are mounted in 2014 and 2015, of course, but based on what I saw and heard here I expect very good things from her in “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung”. Melissa Summer, Cecelia Stearman (Erda in last season’s “Rheingold”), and Lindsey Anderson are a formidable trio of Valkyries as well.

On the male side, Nathan Whitson is an appropriately thuggish Hunding (although there’s not much to the part in this reduction), but James Taylor is a bit bland as Siegmund. He’s very interesting vocally, though, in that he’s a baritone who now sings as a tenor. His voice has, as a result, a depth that one doesn’t normally associate with tenors and only very rarely did he seem uncomfortable in his top notes.

Amber Smoke as Sieglinde and
James Taylor as Siegmund

Photo © Ron Lindsey, 2013
Timothy Bruno brings the kind of vocal power to Wotan that I missed last year when Kevin Misslich sang the role in “Rheingold.” Unfortunately, he mugs too much and is too physically "busy" (when will actors and directors understand the power of stillness?), undercutting the character's gravitas.  Still, Wotan's famous "farewell" scene with Brünnhilde was appropriately moving.

Dove’s reduced orchestration is for 18 pieces—one per part. Conductor Scott Schoonover has beefed it up a bit with extra strings, but even so, Wagner’s music inevitably loses some of its visceral impact with a band this size. Intonation issues in the brasses, especially toward the end of the second act, didn’t help. The ensemble as a whole played well, though, and Mr. Schoonover’s tempo choices felt more right here than they did in “Rheingold” last year.

Patrick Huber’s unit set is the same one used for “Rheingold.” It’s dominated by a huge screen on which images and video (designed by Michael Perkins, whose innovative work has graced many a local stage) take the place of the elaborate scenery envisioned by Wagner. Those work better here than they did in “Rheingold” (although video playback is still a bit jerky), and are very effective in creating the right moods and sense of place. Unfortunately the screen, the catwalk above it, and the stairs to either side take up so much room that most of the action is played out in a fairly shallow area downstage. Director Karen Coe Miller does the best she can with this space, but it’s hard to create decent stage pictures under those circumstances. It’s also hard for Mr. Huber to light that space, apparently, given the number of times singers’ faces were in shadow.

Teresa Doggett and her crew have done well by the costumes. As in “Rheingold”, Wotan and Fricka are decked out as late 19th century European royalty while the mortals are all in peasant outfits. The Valkyries look appropriately martial, with costumes that have the look but not the bulk of stage armor, so they don’t impede movement or singing. English supertitles by Elise LaBarge and Philip Touchette are, as usual, clear and easily visible throughout the house.

There has not, to the best of my recollection, been a performance of Wagner’s “Ring” in St. Louis in my lifetime and given that our major opera company, Opera Theatre, seems allergic to the composer, there may not be another one for many years, if ever. That means that this may be your only chance to see a locally produced “Die Walküre.” If you have any interest in the “Ring” at all, you should grab it. This may not be a perfect production, but it’s a very good one and well worth seeing.

Union Avenue’s “Die Walküre” has two more performances this Friday and Saturday at 8 PM at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union at Enright in the Central West End. For more information: Note that there is a parking lot but it tends to fill up quickly, so you’ll want to get there not later than 7:30 if you can.

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

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Critics on UAO's "Die Walküre"

Union Avenue Opera's production of Wagner's Die Walküre continues its run this weekend. Here's a sample of what KDHX's Chuck Lavazzi, Mark Bretz of Ladue News, Gerry Kowarsky of Two on the Aisle and Sarah Bryan Miller of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch have to say about the production:

Chuck Lavazzi:
"[T]his reduced 'Walküre' still packs a considerable punch, thanks largely to some heavy-duty Girl Power in the cast...Ms. Quagliata is the same powerful presence she was in “Rheingold” while Ms. Smoke perfectly captures Sieglinde’s passion and despair...Ms. LoBianco’s really big moments won’t come until ['Siegfried' and 'Götterdämmerung'] but based on what I saw and heard here I expect very good things from her...Melissa Summer, Cecelia Stearman, and Lindsey Anderson are a formidable trio of Valkyries as well...Nathan Whitson is an appropriately thuggish Hunding...Timothy Bruno brings the kind of vocal power to Wotan that I missed last year...Wotan's famous 'farewell' scene with Brünnhilde was appropriately moving...Teresa Doggett and her crew have done well by the costumes."
Gerry Kowarsky:
"Vocal honors in this production must go to Alexandra LoBianco and Elise Quagliata...from her joyous battle cries to her passionate defense of Siegmund to the defiance of her father, LoBianco's Brünnhilde is the complete package...Quagliata finds the humanity in Fricka's indignation and brings remarkable drama to narrative passages that could seem dry otherwise...Nathan Whitson's powerful voice makes him an imposing Hunding...There are only three valkyries instead of eight, but three valkyries is enough when they are Melissa Sumner as Helmwige, Cecelia Stearman as Waltraute and Lindsey Anderson as Rossweisse."
"I hope St. Louis operagoers come out for this production even if they aren't familiar with Wagner's opera. Union Avenue deserves to be supported not only for its daring but also for its achievement."
Mark Bretz:
"Scott Schoonover conducts a spirited reading of Wagner’s lush complement stage director Karen Coe Miller’s uniformly polished singers in this rendition...Elise Quagliata’s mezzo-soprano soars as the angered Fricka, while Alexandra LoBianco’s clear soprano resonates in the role of the tortured Brunnhilde...James Taylor’s resplendent tenor captures the angst and turmoil of Siegmund...Amber Smoke brings a fitting melancholy to the unhappy Sieglinde...Timothy Bruno has both the look and the power of the tormented god...Melissa Sumner, Cecelia Stearman and Lindsey Anderson round out the convincing cast...[Patrick] Huber complements the settings with some fine lighting and Teresa Doggett’s costumes bring a sumptuous, mythical look to the proceedings."
"Die Walküre looked and sounded very much like a popular favorite on opening night...[it] is a rare chance, indeed, to see this titanic operatic work performed at all, even in Dove’s and Vick's abbreviated version."
Sarah Bryan Miller:
"'Walküre' continues stage director Karen Coe Miller’s smart, imaginative vision...[The opera] is a big sing, and it demands careful casting...Scott Schoonover found voices up to the task...Alexandra LoBianco’s Brünnhilde, the titular Valkyrie, is a major talent, both vocally and as an actress. She’s a real dramatic soprano who uses her voice and body well, and she still sounded fresh at the evening’s end...Mezzo-soprano Elise Quagliata is a superb singing actress as well...Nathan Whitson’s Hunding...was impressive in every way, with a big dark voice that didn’t quit...As Wotan, bass Timothy Bruno offered an outstanding voice, big and opulent, and a somewhat callow characterization, especially in the early scenes...[Amber] Smoke was most impressive in her last moments onstage, when her beautiful high range was finally revealed...[James] Taylor...has a tenor vocal coloring that made him a good choice for the role."
"Any St. Louisan with any interest in opera should take in this production."
Die Walküre continues its run this weekend: August 23 & 24 at Union Avenue Opera, 733 N. Union Blvd. Performances begin at 8:00pm. Production sung in German with projected English supertitles. Tickets may be purchased online at or by calling 314-361-2881.

Friday, August 16, 2013

"Die Walküre" Opens Tonight at Union Avenue Opera

Alexandra LoBianco & Timothy Bruno
Photo © Ron Lindsey, 2013 | All Rights Reserved

Timothy Bruno
Photo © Ron Lindsey, 2013
All Rights Reserved
Union Avenue Opera's four-year journey through Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle continues on the heels of 2012's successful mounting of Das Rheingold. The second installment, Die Walküre, showcases some of Wagner's most renowned music, including his famous "Ride of the Valkyries." UAO presents Die Walküre in a condensed and reduced version by composer Jonathan Dove. This will be the third time the Ring Cycle has been performed in St. Louis. Patricia Rice of the St. Louis Beacon reports that the last two were brought here in 1889 and 1930 by the touring German Opera Company.

Amber Smoke & James Taylor
Photo © Ron Lindsey, 2013 | All Rights Reserved
Wotan, ruler of the gods, wishes to protect his children, but is forced to forsake them when his twin offspring, Siegmund and Sieglinde, find themselves entangled in forbidden love. In an attempt to protect Siegmund, Brünnhilde, Wotan's Valkyrie daughter, disobey's her father's command and is duly punished: Wotan strips her of her immortality and puts her to sleep surrounded by a wall of flames that only the greatest hero can conquer.

Elise Quagliata
Photo © Ron Lindsey, 2013
All Rights Reserved

Three UAO veterans return for Die Walküre: Soprano Alexandra LoBianco, Leonora in 2009's Il Trovatore and the title role in 2011's Turandot, sings the role of Brünnhilde. Mezzo-Soprano Elise Quagliata returns to sing Fricka, the role she portrayed last season in Das Rheingold. Mezzo-Soprano Cecelia Stearman, who sang in Das Rheingold as earth goddess Erda, portrays the valkyrie Waltraute.

Six artists make their UAO debut. Bass Timothy Bruno sings the role of Wotan. Tenor James Taylor and Mezzo-Soprano Amber Smoke portray Siegmund and Sieglinde, respectively. Bass Nathan Whitson appears as Hunding, Sieglinde's husband. Soprano Melissa Sumner and Mezzo-Soprano Lindsey Anderson round out the cast as valkryies Helmwige and Rossweisse, respectively.

Alexandra LoBianco
Photo © Ron Lindsey, 2013
All Rights Reserved

UAO Artistic Director and Conductor Scott Schoonover leads the orchestra. Stage Director Karen Coe Miller returns after staging Das Rheingold last season. Allyson Ditchey serves as Stage Manager. The Design team includes Set & Lighting Designer Patrick Huber, Projection Designer Michael B. Perkins, Costume Designer Teresa Doggett and Production Manager Sean Savoie. Pianist Nancy Mayo serves as rehearsal pianist.


Audience members who missed Scott Stearman's August 8th lecture have another opportunity to learn more about Die Walküre. Glen Bauer, Ph.D., Associate Chair of the Webster University Music Department, will give a lecture one hour before each Friday performance (August 16/23) in the Fellowship Gallery of Union Avenue Christian Church. Admittance to this lecture is free and open to the general public.

Nathan Whitson
Photo © Ron Lindsey, 2013
All Rights Reserved

Want a chance to drink and be merry with cast and crew of Die Walküre on Opening Night? UAO hosts an Opening Night Reception on August 16 after the performance at Tavern of Fine Arts. Click here for more information.


Steve Potter chats with Karen Coe Miller, James Taylor and Alexandra LoBianco on a recent episode of Cityscape on 90.7 KWMU.

Patricia Rice of the St. Louis Beacon interviews the cast and crew of Die Walküre.

Sarah Bryan Miller speaks with director Coe Miller, conductor Schoonover and lead soprano LoBianco on the Jonathan Dove reduction and the opera's challenges for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

OnStl contributor Chuck Lavazzi previews the production.


Die Walküre opens August 16 and runs August 17, 23, 24 at Union Avenue Opera, 733 N. Union Blvd. Performances begin at 8:00pm. Production sung in German with projected English supertitles. Tickets may be purchased online at or by calling 314-361-2881.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Need a 'Ring Cycle' Crash Course?

Worried about attending UAO's Die Walküre if you've never seen its predecessor Das Rheingold? Fear not! Classical music humorist Anna Russell will catch you up in her witty, famous and irreverent (but always loving) "analysis" of Wagner's Ring Cycle.

(The above embedded video is a playlist of three videos.)

Die Walküre opens August 16 and runs August 17, 23 and 24 at Union Avenue Opera, 733 N. Union Blvd. Performances begin at 8:00pm. Production sung in German with projected English supertitles. Tickets may be purchased online at or by calling 314-361-2881.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Kill the Wabbit! Kill the Wabbit!

Union Avenue Opera's Die Walküre opens Friday, August 16th. Get yourself in the mood with "What's Opera, Doc?"--the famous Looney Tunes cartoon inspired by Wagner's Ring Cycle. Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny star in this classic opera spoof!

Die Walküre opens August 16 and runs August 17, 23 and 24 at Union Avenue Opera, 733 N. Union Blvd. Performances begin at 8:00pm. Production sung in German with projected English supertitles. Tickets may be purchased online at or by calling 314-361-2881.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Free Wagner Lecture Tonight at UAO

Alexandra LoBianco (Brünnhilde) & Bass Timothy Bruno (Wotan)
Photo © Ron Lindsey, 2013
All Rights Reserved
Join Union Avenue Opera and Dr. Scott Stearman tonight for a free interactive presentation leading up to the St. Louis premiere of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre, reduced and adapted by Jonathan Dove. Die Walküre is the second installment of Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle which the company started last summer with its production of Das Rheingold.

Dr. Scott Stearman
Stearman, senior pastor of Kirkwood Baptist Church and adjunct faculty member of Webster University and Missouri Baptist University, returns to UAO after his popular lectures last season to lead us on an exploration of themes in the Ring Cycle and Die Walküre. This lecture begins tonight at 7 p.m. on August 8 in the Fellowship Gallery at Union Avenue Opera, 733 N. Union Blvd., and is FREE and open to the public. Attendees will be treated to a guest performance by select cast members of Die Walküre.

Power, Polytheism, Polyamory, & Impotence in Wagner’s Valkyrie.

Can you truly love more than one person? Does love oppose power? Why do leaders fall victim to seductive crass power instead of seeking mutual agreement? Does father really know best? In this talk, Stearman will address these questions as he leads us on an exploration of themes in the Ring cycle and Die Walküre. This second installment in the cycle deals with questions most of us face regularly: questions of love and marriage, sex and responsibility, power and politics, and parents and honor. Die Walküre is a rich, multi-layered work that touches on aspects central to our communal and personal lives. Mr. Stearman’s talk will highlight a few of these in anticipation of the enlightening and stirring performances of Wagner’s Valkyrian masterpiece. There will be a Q&A session following the lecture.

Die Walküre opens August 16 and runs August 17, 23 and 24 at Union Avenue Opera, 733 N. Union Blvd. Performances begin at 8:00pm. Production sung in German with projected English supertitles. Tickets may be purchased online at or by calling 314-361-2881.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Rehearsal of UAO's "Die Walküre"

Rehearsals are underway for Union Avenue Opera's Die Walküre, the second part of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle. UAO's artists arrived in St. Louis on Monday to begin the three-week rehearsal process. Take a look at Conductor Scott Schoonover leading Soprano Alexandra LoBianco and Bass Timothy Bruno in musical rehearsal.

Alexandra LoBianco
Photo © Phil Touchette, 2013
All Rights Reserved
LoBianco returns to UAO, singing the celebrated role of Brünnhilde. Her previous critically-acclaimed performances at UAO include Leonora in Il Trovatore (2009) and the title role in 2011's Turandot.

Timothy Bruno
Photo © Phil Touchette, 2013
All Rights Reserved
Bruno, who has sung for Cincinnati Opera, Toledo Opera and Opera Saratoga, makes his UAO debut as Wotan, ruler of the Gods.

Nancy Mayo
Photo © Phil Touchette, 2013
All Rights Reserved
Rehearsal Pianist Nancy Mayo returns after several seasons with UAO. 

Alexandra LoBianco & Timothy Bruno
Photo © Phil Touchette, 2013
All Rights Reserved

LoBianco and Bruno rehearse the duet between Brünnhilde and Wotan at the conclusion of the opera. 

Die Walküre runs August 16, 17, 23 and 24 at 8pm. Venue: Union Avenue Opera, 733 N. Union Blvd. Production sung in German with projected English supertitles. Get your Tickets online at or by calling 314-361-2881.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Review of Union Avenue Opera's "Madama Butterfly"

(c) 2013 Ron Lindsey
It has been ten years since Union Avenue Opera presented Puccini’s 1904 “Japanese Tragedy” “Madama Butterfly”, and if the current production is any indication, they have waited far too long. Musically and dramatically it’s solid work, with eye-catching sets and costumes to boot.

Honesty compels me to admit I have never been a great admirer of “Madama Butterfly”. On the one hand, I have always regarded Pinkerton, the sailor who seduces and abandons the title character, as the prototypical Ugly American. Arrogant, self-centered, and chauvinistic, he's a sort of seagoing Rush Limbaugh. On the other, the Geisha Cio-Cio-San (a.k.a. Madama Butterfly) displays, as written, a degree of naiveté which, despite her youth (she’s supposed to be fifteen when she marries Pinkerton), borders on the delusional. As a result, the tragedy has always struck me as a bit forced.

Still, even I get a bit choked up in the opera’s final pages. From the scene in which the abandoned Butterfly prepares to take her own life after a tearful farewell to the son she has conceived by Pinkerton (and which poverty now obliges her to give up to Pinkerton and his American wife) to the final moment when Pinkerton, unable to deny what he has done, collapses in a heap of grief and guilt over Cio-Cio-San’s body, it’s pathos all the way, folks. This is Puccini, after all, and for me, at least, the emotional pull of his music is what raises “Butterfly” above the level of sordid melodrama.

And, of course, the moral issues it raises about power and principle are as valid now as they were over a century ago, both on the personal and national levels.
First-rate singing and acting by Union Avenue’s cast go a long way towards mitigating what I see as the opera’s weaknesses. Soprano Ann Wazelle’s Butterfly has just a bit more maturity and backbone than one usually sees in the role, which gives her character a bit more depth and Butterfly’s suicide an interesting element of defiance. She seemed to have a bit of difficulty belting out some top notes on opening night (although her high pianissimos were lovely), but was otherwise in excellent voice. I was not surprised to learn that she has substantial theatrical credentials as well as musical ones.

The role of Pinkerton is a familiar one for tenor Mathew Edwardsen, and he plays it with assurance and conviction. His journey from smug (and slightly racist) arrogance to guilt and remorse is entirely believable, despite the fact that Giuseppe Giacosa’s libretto has most of it happening offstage. And his voice is clear and seamless throughout its range.

Baritone Robert Garner is a warm Sharpless, whose warnings about Pinkerton’s immorality fall on deaf ears, and alto Debra Hillibrand is a sympathetic Suzuki, Butterfly’s wise and long-suffering maid and, eventually, her only real friend. Tenor Marc Schapman brings the role of the ethically flexible marriage broker Goro to credible comic life and bass David Dillard has a small but potent cameo as The Bonze, who excoriates Butterfly for converting to Christianity.
Even the smallest named roles, in fact, were well sung and acted effectively. That’s a sure sign of quality, in my experience.

Scott Schoonover conducted the orchestra with great assurance, and their playing was generally excellent, a few opening night flubs in the winds not withstanding. There was very fine and precise singing from the chorus as well.

Director Jon Truitt creates compelling stage pictures and has, thankfully, not given in to the all too common temptation among opera directors these days to impose an idiosyncratic concept on the piece. He plays it straight and allows Puccini to do the rest. His staging of the famous “humming chorus” that accompanies Butterfly’s poignant nocturnal vigil is particularly effective. As Butterfly sits “like patience on a monument”, the townspeople slowly pass below her with lanterns*. It touchingly underscores her loneliness and the pain of her ostracism.

Teresa Doggett’s costumes are strikingly beautiful, as is Patrick Huber’s set with its sliding paper screens and Japanese watercolor-style backdrop. His lighting sometimes left characters’ faces in shadow at inopportune moments, but I think that might be as much the fault of UAO’s performance space as anything else. It is, after all, a church sanctuary that has only been partly retrofitted for theatre.

Even if, like me, you find parts of “Madama Butterfly” hard to swallow, I think you’ll enjoy this production. Performances continue through July 21st at the Union Avenue Christian Church at Union and Enright in the Central West End. The opera is sung in Italian with projected English text clearly visible throughout the house. For more information:

*”Twelfth Night”, II-iv

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

The Critics on UAO's "Madama Butterfly"

Union Avenue Opera's production of Madama Butterfly was met with critical acclaim over the weekend. Here's a sample of what Chuck Lavazzi of KDHX, Mark Bretz of Ladue News and John Huxhold of the Post-Dispatch had to say:

Chuck Lavazzi:
"Soprano Ann Wazelle’s Butterfly has just a bit more maturity and backbone than one usually sees in the role, which gives her character a bit more depth and Butterfly’s suicide an interesting element of defiance...[Mathew Edwardsen's] journey from smug (and slightly racist) arrogance to guilt and remorse is entirely believable...his voice is clear and seamless throughout its range...Baritone Robert Garner is a warm Sharpless, whose warnings about Pinkerton’s immorality fall on deaf ears, and alto Debra Hillabrand is a sympathetic Suzuki...Tenor Marc Schapman brings the role of the ethically flexible marriage broker Goro to credible comic life and bass David Dillard has a small but potent cameo as The Bonze, who excoriates Butterfly for converting to Christianity...Director Jon Truitt creates compelling stage pictures and has, thankfully, not given in to the all too common temptation among opera directors these days to impose an idiosyncratic concept on the piece...Teresa Doggett’s costumes are strikingly beautiful, as is Patrick Huber’s set with its sliding paper screens and Japanese watercolor-style backdrop."
Mark Bretz:
"One of the world’s most enduring operas returns to Union Avenue Opera for the first time in a decade in a polished presentation that features several outstanding voices under Jon Truitt’s diligent direction...Ann Hoyt Wazelle’s soaring soprano captures the notes as well as the anguish of the title character’s famous arias...Mathew Edwardsen displays a strong tenor and convincing acting in the role of the hedonistic Pinkerton...Baritone Robert Garner is a vibrant presence as the troubled counsul Sharpless...Debra Hillabrand shines as the dutiful servant Suzuki, while Marc Shapman brings an appropriately sleazy demeanor to the opportunistic Goro...[T]he entire cast looked perfect for the place and the era thanks to Teresa Doggett’s well-thought costume design. That attire blended smoothly with a clever set conceived by Patrick Huber." 
"Madama Butterfly is one of the world’s most beloved operas, and devotees of its story and score doubtless will be pleased with Union Avenue Opera’s dutiful representation."
John Huxhold:
"Union Avenue Opera perfectly captured the spirit of this tragic tale...Stage director Jon Truitt had everyone in the cast moving purposely — there was no awkward waiting around for an aria to begin. Nice touches were evident throughout...Of course the focus of the opera is on Cio-Cio-San, and soprano Ann Hoyt Wazelle brought a balance of innocence and resolve to the part...[T]enor Matthew Edwardsen was excellent as the insensitive Pinkerton...Scott Schoonover and his orchestra exactly tracked every breath and phrase shaped by the singers...The chorus and the minor characters matched the quality of the rest of the production." 
"There have been bigger, splashier, more spectacular productions of this opera, but in its own, tender, diminutive way, UAO’s version can stand alongside the best of them."
Union Avenue Opera's Madama Butterfly continues its run this weekend July 1920 @ 8pm. Venue: Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union Blvd, St. Louis. Production sung in Italian with Projected English Supertitles. Tickets and other information: visit

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Union Avenue Opera's "Madama Butterfly" Opens Friday

Ann Hoyt-Wazelle
Photo © Ron Lindsey, 2013
All Rights Reserved
Union Avenue Opera continues its 19th Festival Season this Friday with Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly, presented by Raymond James and running July 12, 13, 19 & 20. Puccini's tragic tale of love and heartbreak returns to the Union Avenue Opera stage after its last production in 2003.

Mathew Edwardsen
Photo © Ron Lindsey, 2013
All Rights Reserved
In the harbor village of Nagasaki at the turn of the 20th Century, love blossoms between Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly), a young Japanese geisha, and Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, an American naval officer. Their marital expectations clash in Madama Butterfly as passion and honor reverberate with the explosive force of Puccini's powerful score, featuring Butterfly's famous aria "Un bel dì" and the exquisite "Flower Duet." A mother, alone and banished from her people, Butterfly pines for her husband. He returns only to humiliate and betray her beyond what she can endure.


Union Avenue Opera presents a cast of veteran artists. Soprano Ann Hoyt-Wazelle, who last appeared as Valencienne in 2009's Die lustige Witwe, returns to portray Cio-Cio-San. Tenor Mathew Edwardsen returns to sing his tenth B. F. Pinkerton, a role he first sang when making his company debut in UAO's 2003 production of Butterfly. Last seen as King Melchior in 2009's Amahl and the Night Visitors, Baritone Robert Garner sings the role of Sharpless, U.S. consul at Nagasaki. Tenor Marc Schapman, who sang the role of fire god Loge in last season's Das Rheingold, sings the role of the matchmaker Goro. Returning after her critically-lauded portrayal of Mrs. Patrick de Rocher in 2011's Dead Man Walking, Mezzo Soprano Debra Hillabrand portrays Suzuki, Cio-Cio-San's maid.

Ann Hoyt-Wazelle & Mathew Edwardsen
Photo © Ron Lindsey, 2013
All Rights Reserved
Mezzo Soprano Emma Sorenson, who made her UAO debut in the ensemble of Un Ballo in Maschera last season, sings the role of Kate Pinkerton. Baritone David Dillard, who sang Polyphemus in last season's Acis and Galatea, portrays the Bonze, Cio-Cio-San's uncle. Soprano Melissa Payton, Mezzo Soprano Debby Lennon, Soprano Tamara Miller-Campbell and Baritone Paul Robinson sing the roles of Cio-Cio-San's cousin, mother, aunt and uncle (Yakuside), respectively. Tenor Anthony Heinemann, most recently featured in the Jazz Trio of Trouble in Tahiti, sings the role of Prince Yamadori. Last seen in the ensemble of Acis and Galatea, Baritone Nathan Ruggles sings the Imperial Commissioner alongside debut artist Baritone Jay Lucas Chacon as the Registrar. Six year old Vincent Perez, of Evanston, Illinois, portrays Dolore, Butterfly's son. Seventeen local professional singers comprise the ensemble.

Photo © Ron Lindsey, 2013
All Rights Reserved

Artistic Director and Conductor Scott Schoonover leads a local orchestra in the pit. Director of the Voice Program at University of Indiana-Evansville, Stage Director Jon Truitt makes his Union Avenue Opera debut, having previously collaborated with Maestro Schoonover on productions of The Merry Widow (Muddy River Opera Company) and La Traviata (Asheville Lyric Opera). Lydia Crandall also makes her UAO debut as Stage Manager. Designers Patrick Huber (sets & lighting) and Teresa Doggett (costumes, wigs & makeup) form the design team of Madama Butterfly.

Mathew Edwardsen & Debra Hillabrand
Photo © Ron Lindsey, 2013
All Rights Reserved

Local media is all aflutter about this Butterfly. Town and Style magazine profiles Union Avenue Opera and its production sponsor Raymond James. Brittany Nay of Ladue News interviews Scott Schoonover on Butterfly and the opera company's future endeavors. Sarah Bryan Miller interviews the maestro and previews the production in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Patricia Rice speaks with cast, conductor and director for the St. Louis Beacon.


Performances of Madama Butterfly run July 12, 13, 19 & 20 at 8pm. Venue: Union Avenue Opera, 733 N. Union Blvd. Production sung in Italian with projected English supertitles. Tickets may be purchased online at or by calling 314-361-2881.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Review of Opera Theatre's "The Kiss"

Photo: Ken Howard
Fed up with politics? Disgusted with TV? Got a headache from 3D movies? Wilted by the heat? Well, take heart, dear friends. Opera Theatre has a charming romantic comedy for you that will take your mind off whatever’s bugging you and send you out of the theatre with a smile on your face and a Smetana melody in your heart.

The product, ironically, of a time in composer Bedřich Smetana’s life when his personal life was at a low ebb—his deafness was complete and he had lost an important job as a result—“The Kiss” is a resolutely sunny and good-natured confection of an opera with sparring lovers (a la “Much Ado About Nothing”), a hilariously crotchety father, nice-guy smugglers, and a happy ending for all. It’s filled with Smetana’s captivating melodies and lively dance-inspired rhythms and features a heroine with surprisingly modern-sounding attitudes toward the opposite sex and marriage, given that the opera premiered in 1876.

Chalk that up to the fact that the libretto is by a female author. Alžběta Pechová (writing as Eliška Krásnohorská*) wrote a total of four operas for Smetana, including “The Kiss.” “Entering into the world of these operas,” writes director Michael Gieleta in the OTSL program, “one is immediately transported into the realm of Mother Earth: into the countryside milieu of a household setting, motherhood, fertility, domestic relationships, betrothals and marriages, ill-balanced families, male faults, and female endurance.” The libretti show “the genuineness, the unquestionable emotional honesty” that comes from first-hand experience; something that “is seldom encountered in operatic portrayals penned by male librettists.” “The Kiss” looks at the quarreling lovers from a female point of view, in short, and it’s not a submissive one.

Corinne Winters
Photo: Ken Howard
Lukáš, a wealthy young farmer, had always loved Vendulka, but his parents forced him to marry another. Now a widower and orphan with a baby son, Lukáš returns to ask for Vendulka’s hand from her cynical and curmudgeonly father Palouckŷ. Papa warns that the lovers are too much alike and too stubborn to make a match, but things are going well enough until Lukáš asks for a kiss to seal the betrothal. Vendulka refuses out of consideration for the deceased wife, the argument escalates, and by the end of the first act Lukáš is off getting tanked with a couple of local lasses, Vendulka has run off with her aunt Martinka to join a band of jolly smugglers, and Palouckŷ gloats over the whole mess.

All ends happily, but not before Lukáš eats a considerable helping of humble pie and both he and Vendulka admit they might have been just a bit hasty.

The Opera Theatre production could hardly be better. Soprano Corinne Winters (who has done such fine work as Mélisande and Micaëla in the last two seasons) carries the bulk of the opera as Vendulka, convincingly portraying a wide range of emotions from joy to despair with a radiant, clear voice. Tenor Garrett Sorenson (who sang Hoffman so well back in 2008) brings that same impressive tenor to the role of Lukáš.

Bass-baritone Matthew Burns has demonstrated his flair for comedy before on the OTSL stage, so it’s no surprise that his Palouckŷ gets so many laughs. He looks a bit young for the part, though.

Emily Duncan-Brown
Photo: Ken Howard
The young servant Barče only has one aria of any consequence—the “Lark Song” from Act II—but it’s a doozy, filled with flashy vocal leaps and pyrotechnics. Soprano Emily Duncan-Brown’s performance was a true showstopper—lovely and seemingly effortless.

Baritone Matthew Worth is the mellow voice of reason as Lukáš’s brother-in-law Tomeš, mezzo Elizabeth Batton a fine comic presence as Martinka, and bass-baritone Charles Z. Owen roguishly charming as the smuggler Matouš, whose merry band brought to mind the comic pirates of Penzance.

James Macnamara’s set has an oddly artificial look for an opera filled with so many lovely musical evocations of nature. The stage floor is covered in something that looks a great deal like Astroturf and the moveable backdrop consists of long, rectangular wooden panels that wouldn’t look out of place in a high-end bar. Still, it works well enough, and Fabio Toblini’s colorful Bohemian peasant costumes add to the cheerful look of the piece.

Michael Gielata’s direction handles focus and stage movement nicely. His decision to accompany Smetana’s cheerful overture with a pantomime sequence showing the funeral of Lukáš’s wife struck me as oddly discordant, though. Conductor Anthony Barrese brings Smetana’s lively, tune-filled score to brilliant life.

“The Kiss” has one more performance on Friday, June 28, at 8 PM at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. It’s a sunny, lovable piece that only someone as crabby as Palouckŷ could fail to enjoy. For more information:

*Why, I have no idea.

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

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Review of Opera Theatre's "Champion"

Photo: Ken Howard
The opera receiving its world premiere this month at Opera Theatre has an impressive pedigree. The music is by jazz trumpeter, bandleader, and genre-crossing composer Terrence Blanchard, and the libretto by Pulitzer Prize­winning playwright Michael Cristofer, whose play “The Shadow Box” remains a perennial favorite of small theatre companies. It’s a bit surprising, then, that while I found “Champion” moving and often profoundly sad, I felt that it lacked the real dramatic depth I would have expected from that kind of talent.

The true story on which “Champion” is based is certainly tragic enough. In 1962, U.S. Virgin Islands immigrant Emile Griffith won the World Welterweight Championship in a controversial fight that left his opponent Benny “Kid” Paret dead and Paret’s two-year-old son fatherless. Griffith went on to win multiple titles but ultimately lost them all and had to end his career as “boxer’s brain”—the result of multiple knockouts—began to claim his mental faculties. A beating from a group of thugs outside a Manhattan gay bar exacerbated the damage and hastened his slide into dementia.

Photo: Ken Howard
As the opera opens, an aging and confused Emile is preparing to meet the son of Benny Paret in an attempt at reconciliation. As Emile’s adopted son and caretaker Luis helps him dress, Emile’s mind drifts back and forth in time, unveiling his story in a series of flashbacks and visions. Along the way we meet important figures in his life: the mother who abandoned him in the Virgin Islands and later reconnected with him in New York, his manager, his wife (whom he married in an attempt to deny his homosexuality), and the men and women at the gay bar he frequented. Through it all we see Emile try to come to grips with the contradiction between his private and public persona and his guilt over the death of Kid Paret.

This is the kind of material that offers opportunities to ask serious questions about the way our culture defines masculinity and the odd contradictions that definition creates. Mr. Cristofer’s libretto certainly does that, often very effectively. As Griffith observes in the opera, “I killed a man and the world forgave me; I loved a man and the world wanted to kill me.” Mr. Blanchard’s eclectic score supports and adds emotional resonance to the text. But ultimately the most genuinely moving moment in the evening came near the end, when Emile embraces Paret’s son—a touching scene that takes place in total silence.

The problem, I think, is that most of the scenes in “Champion” go on too long and lose their dramatic impact in the process. The scene in which the young Emile and his mother visit the hat factory run by Emile’s future fight manager is a typical example: the same words and music are repeated, more or less unchanged, at least two or three times, like some sort of instant replay. It’s a pattern that’s repeated often enough to drain away the sense of dramatic momentum and make the show feel a bit plodding. I think a bit of editing would tighten the overall structure and add a sense of dramatic urgency that “Champion” often lacks.

And then there’s the matter of the ending. After the touching silent embrace and a scene in which Emile finally finds a way to forgive himself for his past mistakes we’re back to the beginning, with the confused Emile not sure where his shoe goes or where he goes. It’s not clear that he’ll remember the catharsis he’s been through or that anything has actually changed. That might be medically realistic, but after everything he (and we) have been through, I think we all deserve better than that.

Still, it’s a pretty good opera as it stands. With some work, I think it could be a great one. And there’s no question that “Champion” is getting a truly outstanding production from Opera Theatre, with a wonderful cast, fine orchestral playing, and polished tech.

Bass Arthur Woodley captures the confusion and vulnerability of the elderly Emile perfectly, right down the palsied hands and slumped posture. And you can hear the echoes of the character’s youth in that powerful voice. Bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock is a real force of nature as the young Emile. He sings powerfully as well. He is not, however, a good physical match for Mr. Woodley, who is noticeably taller.

Making her OTSL debut, Denyce Graves shows considerable acting skill and a remarkably wide-ranging voice as Emile’s mother Emelda. The role sounds more alto than mezzo to me, but Ms. Graves didn’t seem to be particularly challenged by the low notes. Baritone Robert Orth is very effective as Emile’s aggressive manager Howie Albert and tenor Victor Ryan Robertson does an excellent job as both the brash, light-footed Kid Paret and his more mild-mannered son.

There’s very fine work here as well by soprano Chabrelle Williams in multiple roles (including Emile’s wife), mezzo Meredith Arwady as bar owner Kathy Hagan, tenor Christopher Hutchinson as the Ring Announcer (who acts as something of a Greek Chorus), and tenor Lorenzo Miguel Garcia as the Young Man with whom Emile flirts on the night of his beating.

Tenor Brian Arreola cuts a sympathetic and loving figure as Luis and young Jordan Jones shows skill beyond his years as Little Emile.

Director James Robinson keeps the show moving and the blocking focused and motivated, assisted by Seán Curran’s always reliable choreography. Allen Moyer’s multi-level set make very effective use of video projections (by Greg Emetaz) to quickly define time and location, enabling swift set changes.

Mr. Blanchard’s score sounds modern without being harsh. Jazz, blues, and Afro-Caribbean elements are present as well, with the former mostly showing up in urban scenes and the latter in Emile’s memories of his home. There’s even a jazz rhythm section in the orchestration (piano, bass, and drums). Mr. Manahan’s direction integrates it all seamlessly.

The bottom line on Opera Theatre’s “Champion” is that its flaws aren’t big enough to overcome its strengths and, in any case, a world premiere here in St. Louis always deserves attention. I think “Champion” is worth seeing for the quality of the performances and for the importance of the questions it raises. Performances continue through this Sunday at the Loretto-Hilton Center in Webster Groves. For more information:

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

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Review of Opera Theatre's "Il Tabarro" and "I Pagliacci"

Robert Brubaker as Luigi and Emily Pulley as Giorgetta in Il tabarro
Photo: Ken Howard

Opera Theatre’s second production this season is a dramatically powerful and musically impeccable combination of two classics of verismo opera: Puccini’s “Il Tabarro” (“The Cloak”) and Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci” (“The Clowns”). “Verismo” is, literally, the Italian for “realism”; the verismo libretti deal with the joys and sorrows of ordinary people. Verismo arose as a kind of reaction to the mythic and historical subjects favored by Verdi and earlier masters.
Verismo was, in short, an attempt to make opera more “relevant” to (in the words of critic Stanley Sadie) “a middle-class public, which had a social conscience and expected to be seriously addressed in the course of its entertainment.”

Yesterday’s relevance, however, is today’s historical artifact. The provincial touring commedia dell’arte troupe of “Pagliacci” and, to a lesser extent, the commercial barge on the Seine of “Tabarro” would have been familiar to audiences when the operas were written at the turn of the last century, but now they seem exotic. How do you recapture the immediacy the original composers and librettists had in mind?

Director Ron Daniels has elected to move the action up slightly in time—both operas now appear to take place sometime in the middle of the last century. Otherwise, however, he seems to be willing to let these grim and violent dramas of despair, betrayal, and passion gone rancid speak for themselves—with dramatically powerful results.

Both operas deal with older men in loveless marriages with younger women who yearn for improbable escape with young lovers.

In “Tabarro” the barge owner Michele and his wife Giorgetta clearly loved each other at some point—they even have a poignant duet in which they recall those earlier days—but the death of their infant son has apparently driven a fatal wedge between them. She now dreams of escaping to the town of her birth with the stevedore Luigi, while Michele nurses a grudge and plots revenge. Michele is just sympathetic enough to make him a quintessentially tragic figure.

Kelly Kaduce as Nedda and
Robert Brubaker as Canio in Pagliacci
Photo: Ken Howard
In “Pagliacci,” on the other hand, Canio (Pagliaccio in the troupe’s show) is a boiling reservoir of rage from his first appearance on stage. When a villager jokingly suggests that the hunchback Tonio might have designs on Canio’s wife Nedda (the troupe’s Columbina), his smile becomes the rictus of Batman’s nemesis The Joker as he declares (in a very free translation of the original) “that’s not funny. .” When Tonio, angered by Nedda’s rejection of his crude attempt at seduction, arranges for Canio to find Nedda in flagrante delicto with her lover, the villager Silvio, the increasing spiral of violence is not so much tragic as grimly inevitable—a slow-motion train wreck.

The cast for this production, three of whom appear in both operas, could hardly be better.

Baritone Tim Mix is utterly credible as the tragic Michele, the black-hearted Tonio, and the mild-mannered Prologue of “Pagliacci,” who delivers the artistic manifesto of the verismo movement. It’s a classic triple-threat performance, beautifully sung. Tenor Robert Brubaker is equally remarkable in the contrasting roles of Luigi and Canio, with a powerful, ringing voice and compelling stage presence. I felt he overplayed Canio’s rage a bit in the famous “Vesti la giubba,” but he perfectly captured the despair of Luigi’s short (but technically challenging) aria in “Tabarro”.

Tenor Matthew DiBattista rounds out the double-cast trio as the stevedore Trinca in “Tabarro” and Beppe/Harlequin in “Pagliacci.” Both are relatively lightweight comic roles and he does well by them.

Soprano Emily Pulley makes an auspicious Opera Theatre debut as Giorgetta, perfectly capturing the character’s longing and conflict with a dark, almost mezzo voice and finely tuned acting. Soprano Kelly Kaduce once again captivated me with her combination of first-rate acting and singing as Nedda/Columbina. I’ve seen her in a wide range of roles over the years and she never has failed to impress.

Bass-baritone Thomas Hammons and mezzo Margaret Gawrysiak provide a moving interlude in “Tabarro” as the stevedore Talpa and his wife Frugola, whose longing for a bucolic escape mirrors that of Giorgetta and Luigi.

Both operas call for a considerable amount of offstage action, which can be a challenge for a space like the Loretto-Hilton center, but Mr. Daniels makes ingenious use of both the wings and the house, with large crowd scenes spilling up the aisles and surrounding the audience. That proves to be especially helpful in “Pagliacci” with its crowd of villagers and children (to say nothing of the silent Greek chorus of clowns added by Mr. Daniels). Even in the more intimate “Tabarro,” though, having the strolling song vendor, organ grinder, and unnamed lovers enter and exit through the house adds to the sense of immediacy.

The scores of both operas are musically rich. Puccini’s is clearly the more impressive and through composed of the two, while Leoncavallo is the more overtly theatrical. Both offer considerable challenges to the players and conductor as well, especially with singers coming in from ”here, there, and everywhere.” In his Opera Theatre debut, Ward Stare—who has done such fine work with the symphony over the years—kept everything humming along beautifully and the orchestra sounded great.

Both operas looked great as well, thanks to set designer Riccardo Hernandez and costume designer Emily Rebholz. “Tabarro” takes place in front of a backdrop showing Michele’s barge. The prow of the boat, the suggestion of the river, and the riverbank are all in black and grey, mirroring the bleak world in which the characters live. Even the titular cloak is black. After intermission, the stage appears to be largely unchanged for the Prologue of “Pagliacci,” but that’s an illusion. As soon as the Prologue ends, the silent chorus of clowns whip dark coverings off the stage, the barge backdrop rises, and suddenly we’re thrust into the gaudy world of the circus where the dominant color is, appropriately, a bloody red and the stage is dominated by a huge image of Pagliaccio on the rear wall.

It’s a smart bit of theatre, as is the entire evening. The musical and dramatic values of this production are all exemplary and I recommend it highly.

Opera Theatre’s compelling double bill of “Il Tabarro” and “I Pagliacci” runs through June 29th in rotating repertory with the rest of the OTSL season. For more information and schedules,

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

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Review of Opera Theatre's "Pirates of Penzance"

The cast of Pirates of Penzance
Photo copyright Ken Howard, 2013
Time was when St. Louis Savoyards could expect an annual Christmas present from Opera Theatre in the form of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta presented at Washington University’s Edison Theatre. Alas, either the present proved too expensive or the school had other plans for the space. These days we have to be content with the occasional production as part of the regular season by Opera Theatre or one of our other local opera companies.

The Pirates of Penzance, the G and S classic that opens the current Opera Theatre season, was last produced as one of those Christmas presents in 1982. This new version, directed and choreographed by OTSL veteran Seán Curran, sometimes gilds the comic lily with excessive and occasionally distracting stage “busy-ness”, but on the whole it’s tremendous fun. The cast are all fine singers and actors, James Schuette’s colorful costumes and pop-up book set—complete with a gilt Victorian false proscenium and red velvet curtains—is a delight, and the orchestra under conductor Ryan McAdams sounds terrific.

The story of Pirates is so well known that you don’t need me to summarize it here. I’ll just note that it’s a typically Gilbertian mix of parody, paradox, and verbal wit that remains hilarious over 130 years after its simultaneous New York and London premieres (an arrangement made necessary by the requirements of British and American copyright law at the time).

Heading this first-rate cast are tenor Matthew Plenk as Frederic, the “slave of duty” of the opera’s subtitle, and soprano Deanna Breiwick (a fine Johanna in Sweeney Todd last season) as Major-General Stanley’s youngest daughter Mabel. Mr. Plenk’s robust voice is almost too big for the role—a fact that Mr. Curran uses for a great visual joke during “Oh, is there not one maiden breast”—but he makes it work. Ms. Breiwick’s seemingly effortless execution of the vocal filigree in “Poor wandering one”, meanwhile, demonstrates why the New York Times once called her a "vocal trapeze artist." And her comic acting skills are solid.

Bass Bradley Smoak once again demonstrates his own impressive vocal and comic abilities (previously only on display in OTSL’s Don Giovanni and Marriage of Figaro) as the Pirate King. Mezzo Maria Zifchak is equally fine as Ruth, “a pirate maid-of-all work.”

Bass-baritone Jason Eck is an excellent Sergeant of Police, although he seems not entirely comfortable with the very bottom notes in “When the felon’s not engaged.” Mezzos Jaime Korkos and Corrie Stallings and soprano Katrina Galka—all Gerdine Young Artists—all have moments to shine as Stanley daughters.

Baritone Hugh Russell, who was such a great Figaro in Barber of Seville seven years ago, shows the same vocal and acting skills in the “principal comedian” role of Major-General Stanley. He seemed to be having a bit of difficulty enunciating all the lyrics of "I am the very model of a modern Major-General" on opening night, but that’s a minor complaint.

Mr. Curran’s choreography, while not elaborate, makes all his performers look good—which is what great choreography should do. His direction is, as I mentioned before, sometimes a bit too busy for its own good but it mostly serves the material well. I will, however, confess to being annoyed that the overture was, for no discernable reason, cut in half. Sullivan’s overtures are mostly little gems, with Pirates being one of the best, and they deserve to be heard as intended. Just because Joseph Papp did it for his 1981 pop/rock adaptation of Pirates doesn’t necessarily make it a good idea.

Opera Theatre may not be presenting a perfect Pirates of Penzance, but it’s an awfully good one, my minor “quibble quaint” not withstanding. It’s well worth seeing and highly recommended. Performances continue through June 29th in rotating repertory with the rest of the OTSL season. For more information and schedules,

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