REVIEW: Pittsburgh Opera’s “The Rose Elf”

Pittsburgh Opera’s The Rose Elf Wraps Successfully

By George B.Parous

Pittsburgh Opera finished the four-performance run of David Hertzberg‘s The Rose Elf with this afternoon’s matinee. Although the seating capacity of the George R. White Studio, in the renamed Bitz Opera Factory in the Strip, is limited to a couple of hundred people, all performances were sold out. These were the second stagings of the chamber opera, the first being in a Brooklyn cemetery, and knowing the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale from which the work is adapted, I expected symbolism and psychological drama. These two factors, plus the inclination of most contemporary opera composers to avoid the more recognizable operatic idioms, led me to expect little to satisfy a personal taste. And that’s basically what I got from Friday evening’s performance – in the way of music and story. Judging from the audience reactions, that puts me in the minority (which is exactly where “critics” belong) because people either loved the show or were simply glad to be at any show.

Mr. Hertzberg’s music asks a lot from the small instrumental ensemble, which was conducted by James Lesniak. On a first hearing, and without a score, we can assume the instrumentalists and their leader gave the stellar performance they usually do. Mr. Hertzberg displays ability in building his score to a climax; despite somewhat jagged chords and thick tone-twisters, there are occasional thrilling passages for both orchestra and singers. Whether they add up to a coherent whole, I cannot say after a single hearing. There is actually a 2020 recording of the piece available from Meyer Media LLC. Perhaps listening to the music of an opera not best suited to stage performance would provide a more rewarding experience.

The Elf (Madeline Ehlinger) and The Rose (Grace Lopez) watch The Girl (Véronique Filloux) and The Beloved (Andrew Turner)

Everything that possibly could be done for the opera was done and done well. Last season’s enforced confinement to the company headquarters seems to have inspired everyone as to how much can be made of the smaller venue. Set designer Samantha Pollack created visuals that focused attention. Everyone involved in the staging, from costumes, lighting, stage management, from projection to direction, did work that was colorfully effective. KJ Gilmer and Travis Klingler, respectively the costume and wig/makeup designer, created a vision of an elf that was storybook perfection. From scenery to costumes, everything was done “in-house” at the Bitz Opera Factory

The Elf (Madeline Ehlinger) watches as The Brother (Jeremy Harr) interrogates The Girl (Véronique Filloux)

Pittsburgh Opera’s Resident Artist Program has consistently brought before the opera lovers of the area top-notch talent. Last night’s cast was an example of four of the best in one production. Madeline Ehlinger, the Elf, visually was the personification of what most of us expect from our elves. Vocally, as she has proven in the past, her strong soprano, a finely tuned instrument effective in all ranges, is always under her control. The initial staging had a mezzo-soprano in the title role. Not knowing whether the music was “keyed up” to her range, it would not come as a surprise to learn that she sang the music as written, for her lower tones are as solidly focused as her high ones are laden with silver. She acted the part, even in stretches of repose, as well as she sang. Soprano Véronique Filloux (The Girl/Luna) delivered the sterling performance she always does. She has a voice of great strength and beauty, and it’s a safe bet to predict that a colorful future awaits her. She acts as well as she sings. It has been a consistent pleasure to listen to in all of the roles she has sung.

The Elf (Madeline Ehlinger)

Tenor Andrew Turner (The Beloved/Horus) was given more opportunity than in November’s Magic Flute, but not much more. The two male voices are heard briefly in the opera. Nevertheless, he displayed a firm and warmly burnished tenor voice, and his diction is uncommonly excellent. His stage presence displays confidence, and he acted his brief appearances well. We’ll look forward to his upcoming performances this year and the next. As the homicidal Brother, Bass Jeremy Harr was heard for a disappointingly brief period as well. His profoundly deep tones may have resonated for a short time, but they were to excellent advantage and colored his character very effectively. Distinct, crisp diction is always a feature of Mr. Harr’s singing as well. Director Kaley Karis Smith decided to use dancer Grace Lopez to symbolize “The Rose,” rather than a stage prop for The Elf. Ms. Lopez lightly and delicately danced her way through the symbolic rose part better than any symbolic rose I’ve ever seen, and added to the visual effectiveness of the staging.

After the initial production of The Rose Elf in 2018, the Observer wrote that Hertzberg’s creation was “just about everything you want opera to be. The Rose Elf shocked, confounded, disturbed, and, in the end, exalted.” Opera News said it was “a compelling and welcome addition to the operatic canon.” I hope that time proves them right.

There are no more performances, so for a complete synopsis, more information on the production details – and tickets for future productions, visit Pittsburgh Opera.

The Artistic Team for The Rose Elf

Conductor, James Lesniak; Stage Director, Kaley Karis Smith; Set Designer, Samantha Pollack; Costume Designer, KJ Gilmer; Lighting Designer, Todd Nonn; Stage Manager, Alex W. Seidel; Projection Designer, Joe Spinogatti; Wig & Makeup Supervisor, Travis Klingler; Head of Music, Mark Trawka; Fight Choreographer, Peter Kope

David Bachman Photography for Pittsburgh Opera

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