Longevity and loyalty weave strong bonds, so as the venerable Pittsburgh Savoyards begin their 79th season, it’s clear to one of Pittsburgh’s longest running companies. When it comes to the witty light operas of William Schwenk Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, the group’s repertoire is a grand bridge between opera and contemporary musical theater, along with some fun Pittsburgh angles during 2016-17. The Savoyards continue to impress as the company is almost exclusively fueled by volunteers on all levels.
This October, Savoyard veteran director and actor James Critchfield stages both the G&S short operetta Trial by Jury, which mocks love and British law, and Giacomo Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi (originally placed in Italy) in a familiar setting–our own fair city. The troupe’s new production of Patience (or Bunthorne’s Bride), a G&S satire on the Victorian aesthetic movement that spoofs fans of poets like Oscar Wilde, follows in March.
Guy Russo, musical director since 1998, conducts the productions, featuring the Savoyards’ full orchestra that accompanies each work at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall in Carnegie, PA.
“I think the fact that our group continues to entertain enthusiastic audiences after all of these years is a testimony to the enduring quality of the authors’ work,” says Russo of the rich Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire that fulfills the Savoyards’ mission with at least two events each season.
Critchfield also knows the repertoire well, having performed in nine different Savoyards productions and directed five for the troupe over the past three decades.
The reunited artistic duo believes in the timelessness of the G&S operettas, written in the 19th century but still performed around the world today, and considers them a bridge between opera and musical theatre. Since their debuts at London’s Savoy Theater, these enduring jewels have exude charm and wit that keeps artists like Critchfield and Russo, singers, instrumentalists and audiences coming back more.
Russo agrees that while the context of the works includes the political and cultural foibles of Victorian England (seemingly everyone but the Queen), “there’s also a timelessness about much of the humor, and the music is bright, uplifting, and almost relentlessly tuneful!”
First in the season is “a nice comic pairing,” says Critchfield of this double bill last staged by the Savoyards six years ago. Now, the two works get a Yinzer twist.
“Trial by Jury is a brilliantly written, beloved, fast-paced, witty, short one-act that bubbles with joyful energy,” says Critchfield. “Adding to the fun, we are also placing this production in present-day Pittsburgh.” Critchfield promises entertaining ‘Burgh visual tweaks and many, many lyric changes for a Pittsburgh flavor in Schicchi.
Trial By Jury (1875), the case of a jilted bride, is now set in a Pittsburgh Court with “a transplanted judge from Merry old England,” says Critchfield. “We’ll see a bridal party straight from a Pittsburgh themed wedding that went awry.” He adds some characters to the story, such as the plaintiff’s mother and the defendant’s new fiance to spice up the present-day action.
Gianni Schicchi (1918) was composed by Giacomo Puccini whose grand opera hits La Boheme and Madama Butterfly are well-known to casual opera goers. However the Schicchi aria “O mio babbino caro” is certainly one of the most often sung arias in popular culture.
Puccini’s took inspiration from Dante’s Inferno and the stock characters of the commedia dell’arte form. In Critchfield’s staging, the title character Gianni Schicchi, patterned after the stock harlequin character, will be costumed in a Pittsburgh Penguins jersey as he stirs the comic plot involving the deception and family dynamics.
“The greedy Donati family mourning the passing of their patriarch, Buoso, will be costumed to resemble a Pittsburgh Italian family,” the director shares.
As an actor and singer with a wide range of opera, theater, and solo experience, Critchfield understands the commitment of the volunteer cast and orchestra members who make these shows possible. He’s been Scrooge in no less than 18 Christmas season appearances in Dickens’ classic, among many other roles, with Pittsburgh Musical Theater.
“We have an amazingly talented collection of singers including many with advanced music/vocal degrees,” says Critchfield. In addition to enjoying the chance to collaborate with Critchfield again, Russo says, “some great young talent that has fallen in love with G&S, both in the pit and on the stage.” Double casting for many roles provides even more performance opportunities for singers, while audiences can expect to hear singers who are literally launching their careers with the troupe.
“I enjoy SO many things about it,” says Russo of wielding the conductor’s baton after starting his Savoyards’ journey as a singer as a student. “More than anything it’s getting to work with people who are there because they LOVE it! Also, I’ve met so many talented, big-hearted folks over the years.”
The Pittsburgh Savoyards was founded well before many other intrepid performance presences in the region, with Pittsburgh Opera in its 77th year, Pittsburgh CLO is now 70, and Little Lake Theater is a few years from that milestone. Granted, the Savoyards (and likely a number of other arts organizations) took a few performances off during the Second World War, but however one slices it, the Savoyards have endured and love every note of their repertoire over more than seven decades. Soon, the Savoyards will surpass the age span of Queen Victoria who lived to age 81 and reigned during the original productions of Gilbert and Sullivan’s collaborations.
Once a Savoyard, the clever lyrics and eminently memorable melodies seem to infuse one’s blood. It’s often a lifetime fandom. (In the interest of transparency, this writer knows this first-hand, having sung six seasons with the troupe and always ready to hear more G&S.) So, never mind those who haven’t tried it; “Savoyards” around the world know the uninitiated are missing some of the wittiest words and wildest plot devices devised simply to entertain.
In addition to the 14 comic G&S operas (and others) that rotate through the Savoyards’ repertoire, you can count the reasons to join the Savoyards this season: three productions with probably more than several hundred singers and instrumentalists participating, affordable ticket prices, sincerely comic works performed in full productions with large casts and full orchestra, and a lovely venue that’s just right for these light classics. There’s a lot more singing and laughter ahead, including Patience, which Russo says is his favorite work from the canon.
“It was the first G&S I had ever heard, and I’ve always thought it to be the funniest, and the best score,” admits Russo as he prepares to conduct Patience again.
The Savoyards season opens with seven performances Trial by Jury and Gianni Schicchi, Oct. 6-17, with both pieces performed at each evening or matinee at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall, Carnegie. Early bird discounts are available through Oct. 4. Patience next takes the stage for seven performances, March 3-12. Tickets starting at $25 are on sale via the website at PittsburghSavoyards.org and at the door, with an early bird discount available through Oct. 4. Nonprofits, particularly those with an educational mission, many apply for blocks of complimentary tickets. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 412-734-8476 for details or to get involved.