Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Opera Theatre of St. Louis Honored at St. Louis Theater Circle Awards

Founding members of the St. Louis Theater Circle
Monday night marked the first St. Louis Theater Circle Awards. The mission of the St. Louis Theater Circle is simple: To honor St. Louis professional theater. While various reviewers may also cover touring shows at The Fox and the Peabody Opera House as well as selected community and college productions, the Theater Circle Awards are designed to focus attention on dozens of area theater companies which showcase the artistic efforts of actors, directors and technical artists in the metropolitan area. Other cities around the country, such as Phoenix, San Diego, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington D.C., honor their own local theatrical productions with similar awards programs.

Opera Theatre of St. Louis's production of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd picked up two awards in the Musical Theater category.  Stephen Lord was named Outstanding Music Director (a tie with F. Wade Russo for Sunday in the Park with George at The Rep) and Rod Gilfrey was named Outstanding Actor (also a tie, this time with Ron Bohmer of Sunday in the Park With George).  This was the first time an opera company has been named in a theater awards program.  I see it as a vindication of Opera Theatre's dedication to presenting opera as both a musical and theatrical form.

Congratulations to all of last night's honorees.  For a complete list, see my recent post on the Stage Left blog.

Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic at 88.1 KDHX.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Review of Winter Opera's "Tosca"

Tosca Ensemble and Children's Chorus
Baritone Nelson Martinez as Scarpia
Photo © Ron Lindsey
Winter Opera has closed their current season with a musically splendid and visually satisfying production of Puccini’s 1900 political melodrama Tosca. Acting and some casting choices did not always strike me as ideal, but the company sang beautifully, the orchestra sounded solid, and the sets and costumes were, given the group’s small budget, quite lavish.

It was, in short, quite a feather in the cap of the organization I’m starting to regard as The Little Opera Company That Could.

Anyone who thinks that there's anything new about the phenomenon of public figures hiding their profane desires under a blanket of bogus piety needs to consider Tosca. The villain of the opera, Baron Scarpia, is a classic example of how morality and respect for order can become a false front for lust, violence, and falsehood. Scarpia also provides us one of the great moments of Italian opera in the final scene of Act I as he plots the seduction and betrayal of Tosca while the crowd celebrates High Mass. It's a spectacular scene, and one of the best examples of dramatic irony in operatic literature.

Winter Opera’s staging of that scene was an illustration of this production’s strengths. The stage was quickly and efficiently filled with members of the adult and children’s chorus, the 19-piece orchestra played its collective heart out, and the act came to an appropriately dramatic conclusion. There was even a genuine Catholic cleric (Msgr. Borcic) to play the Cardinal.

The principals in this production all had fine, strong voices that were solid throughout their ranges.

Baritone Nelson Martinez was a terrific Scarpia. He’s a physically large actor who made his size an integral part of his portrayal, emphasizing Scarpia’s boundless lust for physical pleasure. He was on solid textual ground there; Scarpia’s opening aria in Act II is nothing if not a glutton’s version of Iago’s “Credo” in Otello. When Tosca ventilates him with his own dinner knife at the end of that act, it’s one of the most satisfying bits of bloody justice in Italian opera.

Soprano Stella Zambalis got Tosca’s intensity and delivered a first-class “Visi d’arte,” but seemed to lack the strong sexual presence that would make Scarpia's obsession for her credible. It didn’t help that the lighting darkened her nasolabial folds, which made her look older than Tosca ought to be. This isn’t the first time I’ve noticed less than ideal lighting on that stage; it’s something Winter Opera might want to take a look at.

Tenor Alex Richardson was vocally an exceptional Cavaradossi. I didn’t find his acting quite as convincing, but when he and Ms. Zambalis were both soaring through their love scenes I found it easy to forgive any theatrical failings.

I was also impressed with Nathan Whitson’s Angelotti, Chloe Haynes’s charming offstage Act III Shepherd, and director Mark Freiman’s fussy Sacristan. The Sacristan’s character is the only bit of comic relief in the opera’s otherwise grim verismo mix of passion, deceit, and violence, so a strong performance here is always welcome.

Lighting issues aside, the technical aspects of Winter Opera’s Tosca were quite good. JC Krajicek’s costumes looked great and were appropriate for the characters. Scott Loebl’s sets were equally impressive; his Farnese Palace interior drew applause as soon as the curtain went up. Steven Jarvi, who has just been appointed Resident Conductor at the St. Louis Symphony, led the orchestra in a wonderfully disciplined reading of the score.

Winter Opera remains one of the better practitioners of musical theatre in St. Louis. They also have the distinction of being the only one of our three opera companies to be working in a space that wasn’t retrofitted to present opera—a virtue not to be taken lightly. It will be interesting to see them develop in the future.

Winter Opera’s 2013-2014 season begins November 8 and 10 with Gounod’s Faust. Tickets go on sale on August 1st. For more information: winteroperastl.org.

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

Friday, March 8, 2013

"Tosca" Opens Tonight at Winter Opera Saint Louis

Winter Opera Saint Louis concludes its sixth season with a production of Giacomo Puccini’s tale of corruption, deceit, passion and murder: Tosca.

Scarpia, Rome’s feared chief of police savors the thought of seducing opera diva Floria Tosca, then murdering her rebel lover Mario Cavaradossi…as he listens to Mass. Will Tosca succumb to a fate worse than death to save her lover from a firing squad? The desperate heroine does what she must do in this Puccini classic with a score featuring the operatic gems “Recondita armonia,” “E lucevan le stelle” and “Vissi d’arte.”

Soprano Stella Zambalis as Floria Tosca
Photo © Ron Lindsey
Four artists make their Winter Opera debut. Soprano Stella Zambalis, who has sung at Houston Grand Opera, New York City Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, sings Floria Tosca. Tenor Alex Richardson (artist with Santa Fe Opera, Washington National Opera and Amarillo Opera) sings the role of Mario Cavaradossi. Baritone Nelson Martinez (artist with Baltimore Opera, Miami Lyric Opera and Knoxville Opera) portrays the villainous Scarpia. Bass Nathan Whitson (artist with Birmingham Opera and Lyric Opera of Kansas City) sings the role of Angelotti. Three artists most recently seen in Winter Opera’s The Mikado and The Ballad of Baby Doe also appear in the production: Tenor Anthony Heinemann as police agent Spoletta, Baritone Adam Stefo as Sciarrone, a gendarme, and Baritone Tom W. Sitzler as the Jailor. Treble Chloe Haynes, a veteran of Winter Opera’s children’s chorus, sings the role of a Shepherd Boy. Local professional singers and a children's chorus form the ensemble.

Tosca Ensemble & Children's Chorus
Baritone Nelson Martinez as Scarpia
Photo © Ron Lindsey

Tenor Alex Richardson as Mario Cavaradossi
Photo © Ron Lindsey
After staging and performing in Winter Opera’s 2012 production of La Bohème, Bass Mark Freiman will once again perform double-duty as Stage Director and portray the Sacristan. Winter Opera Music Director Steven Jarvi conducts an orchestra of local professional musicians. Megan Higgins serves as director of the Children's Chorus. Erin Waters Ryan serves as Production Stage Manager and Emily Clinger serves as Assistant Stage Manager. Jennifer Krajicek, costumer of this season’s Mikado and Baby Doe, serves as Costume Designer. Having most recently designed The Ballad of Baby Doe, Scott Loebl and Sean Savoie serve as set designer and lighting designer, respectively. Theresa Loebl serves as Production Manager.

Tosca opens tonight, Friday, March 8th (8pm) and continues Sunday, March 10th (3pm) at the Skip Viragh Center for the Arts at Chaminade College Preparatory School located at 425 S. Lindbergh Blvd. The production is sung in Italian with projected English supertitles. Tickets may be purchased by calling Winter Opera Saint Louis at 314-865-0038 or online at http://winteroperastl.tix.com/ $10 Student Rush Tickets sold at the door; valid student ID required. For further information on the company, its future performances and special events, visit winteroperastl.org.