Since October 17, Pittsburgh Opera has managed to give six live performances of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, in a condensed version “updated” to the period of the last global pandemic of 1918-19. The production couldn’t be on the scale of the grand shows that usually open the seasons at the Benedum, but we are far from living in “usual” times. Nothing was left to chance, so far as safety precautions were concerned, down to the detail of asking the small groups of ticket-holders to stagger their arrivals and departures from the George R. White Studio at the company’s headquarter in the Strip District. Even the singers wore masks, and managed to sing remarkably well.
Pittsburgh Opera’s Resident Artist Program has always provided performing experience to exceptionally gifted young singers – far more apply for spots than the company can possibly accommodate, and only a very select few get the chance to gain recognition in large parts and small. It’s a pity that this year’s group, virtually all brand new, should have their chances dampened to such an extent, but the fact that the company has been able to provide any “live” theater experience at all in these days is rather astonishing. Those responsible for keeping the performances as risk-free as possible are to be congratulated, for they left no stone unturned.
Antony Walker conducted the reduced orchestra with his customary skill and enthusiasm. A much “larger” sound than expected was the result, and what a delightful surprise it was, indeed, since the opera was composed, as all were in Mozart’s day, with the intent of the instrumentalists and vocalists shining in tandem. Mozart’s music doesn’t suffer from the confines of a smaller performance venue. Theaters were considerably smaller in the eighteenth century than the average opera house of today, and the orchestration flowed melodiously from behind the action with an effectiveness that was all that could be reasonably desired.
An even greater surprise was supplied by the vocalists, for the most part unruffled by their facial coverings; but it was impossible to keep the singing, especially in the recitative passages, totally free of an occasional muffled tone. As mentioned, nearly all were newcomers, with only tenor Angel Romero and baritone Yazid Gray being familiar from last season’s excellent Alcina production – although the extent of Mr. Gray’s part in that Händel opera made him practically unheard until now. Mr. Romero sang the role of Ferrando with pleasing tone, and the same polished phrasing he displayed when last heard in January. Mr. Gray, as Guglielmo, sang with a baritone voice of fine quality and warmth. As Don Alfonso, Jeremy Harr displayed his resonant, appealing bass for the first time, singing with finesse and in an engaging style.
The female singers were all new, and all are excellent acquisitions to the company. Madeline Ehlinger, as Fiordiligi, proved to be the possessor of a silvery pure soprano of sizeable range, and she made an excellent first impression. Maire Therese Carmack, as Dorabella, sang with a velvety mezzo-soprano tone that was quite lovely. Veronique Filloux sang the soprano role of Despina delightfully, even in the passages requiring her to disguise her voice with a Papagena-like squeal. All three, like the men, proved to be excellent ensemble singers, and their voices in the concerted passages blended beautifully. Deprived of facial expression, the entire cast acted their parts with a necessary emphasis on physical action that was effectively well done and never over the top.
The entire production staff deserves hearty kudos for making the best of the resources and circumstances that were thrust upon them with comparatively little time for planning and preparation. Chris Cox, Director of Marketing and Communications for Pittsburgh Opera, in answering a few questions I had, was as optimistic in the face of adversity as circumstances allowed. “All six performances were sold out,” he told me, “so from a ticketing perspective it was as successful as possible. The audiences were immensely appreciative. Many people told us it was their first time out since March, and how much they’d missed attending live performances.”
“The livestream attracted a large number of viewers, who spanned not just the country but in many cases it was watched from overseas,” he said regarding the very unique October 23 performance. “We are leaving the livestream up on our Facebook page and YouTube channel through November 6, so for folks who haven’t had a chance to watch it yet, there’s still time.” If you’d like to watch and listen to that particular performance, visit YouTube while the stream is still available.
Pittsburgh Opera will next present David T. Little’s Soldier Songs in December, using the same safety protocols as those used for the production just closed. Originally commissioned by the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, which premiered the work in 2006, Soldier Songs will be the second “one man” show presented by the company in recent years.
The Creative Team for Così fan tutte –
Conductor, Antony Walker; Stage Director, Crystal Manich; Set Designer, BinhAn Nguyen; Costume Designer, Jason Bray; Lighting Designer, Cindy Limauro; Wig & Make-up Designer, Nicole Pagano; Stage Manager, Cindy Knight; Assistant Conductor, Glenn Lewis; Director of Musical Studies, Mark Trawka; Associate Coach/Pianist, James Lesniak; Assistant Stage Director, Kaley Karis Smith; Lighting Coordinator, Todd Nonn; Assistant Stage Manager, Alex W. Seidel
David Bachman Photography for Pittsburgh Opera