“In a Grove” Premieres at Pittsburgh Opera

Music For the Era of Truth Decay Runs Through March 3rd

By George B. Parous

In the year 2525, if man is still alive, if woman can survive, the human race may find that all operas sound and look like Christopher Cerrone’s In a Grove, which had its world premiere Saturday, February 19, at the Bitz Opera Factory in the Strip. The fully amplified, compact music drama has a futuristic sound and feel unique to anything the potential auditor has likely experienced, despite librettist Stephanie Fleischmann telling us the story takes place in the 1920s. Mr. Cerrone has been quoted as believing that 90% of operas shouldn’t be classified as such, with a jump to his belief that contemporary opera has no “internal memory.” If he was basing his percentage on contemporary opera, I would agree, though my definition of internal memory might be different from his and others. If he was referring to opera in general, in an all-inclusive statement that wasn’t clarified, we part company on opinions, unless he later expanded on the subject and I missed the interview. But that’s quite alright. The only thing that counts is the question of whether I would recommend In a Grove to adventurous opera lovers, and the answer would be “yes.” That, and did the first-night audience seem to enjoy the premiere. Again, the answer would have to be yes, and most heartily.

In a Grove is an ambitious work that tackles issues such as living mortals being incapable of knowing the whole truth about everything; the question of to what extent does emotional harm stand next to physical harm, the concept of one person’s lie being another’s version of the truth, and more, all wrapped up in a “whodunit.” The music of the story is electronically enhanced throughout – even the voices of the singers reverberate somewhat hauntingly, while winds whistle and pre-recorded sound effects are set off to ricochet through the fog that envelops the stage setting. Chimes, chants, gunshots and more mix with the instrumental score – and there must be one, because Conductor Antony Walker was in plain view above the runway styled stage that divided the audience. It’s all a great deal to take in on a single hearing, but, if I were asked to return and listen again, I wouldn’t hesitate to say yes.

Leona Raines (Madeline Ehlinger) struggles with The Outlaw Luther Harlow (Yazid Gray)

It’s very possible that the work may not have made the favorable impression it did if the singers had not been of the highest caliber. Madeline Ehlinger may look like an entirely different person from opera to opera, but her voice is unmistakably the same finely tuned, lovely soprano every time. In this work especially, the solidity of her middle and lower registers are on display, but, as always, the voice easily soars with ease in any direction the score points her; without doubt she has been a standout in each new role she takes. In action and facial expressions she lives each part, and she negotiated the gyrations of her dual roles Saturday night with ease and agility.

Tenor Andrew Turner is another Resident Artist of the company who makes a new and more impressive show of his talents with each appearance. He has a pure, ringing voice, decidedly comfortable in its range, and no amount of electronic sound effects, no massively enhanced orchestra, can make a dent in his impeccable diction. Yazid Gray gave a polished performance of his roles, his warm baritone sound rolling through the amplification quite recognizably. Those familiar with his work know he needs no amplification, but what an impression he made on first-time hearers can only be imagined. Since the company has no resident countertenor, Chuanyuan Liu has been engaged for the run of the show, and he, too, made rather a striking first impression.

The Outlaw Luther Harlow (Yazid Gray) and The Medium (Chuanyuan Liu)

Christopher Cerrone is a composer, as the program notes tell us, “internationally acclaimed for compositions characterized by a subtle handling of timbre and resonance, a deep literary fluency, and a flair for multimedia collaborations.” In a Grove is ample proof of this statement, as all points made resonate throughout the opera. His first opera, Invisible Cities, was a 2014 Pulitzer Prize finalist and he’s been nominated for GRAMMY awards on multiple occasions. His Memory Palace has been a part of my massive CD collection for several years now.  That Pittsburgh Opera should stage the first performances of his latest work is a classic example of an all round, world-class collaboration. For many more details about the production than can be provided here, and TICKETS! – visit Pittsburgh Opera.

(Left to right) – Ambrose Raines (Andrew Turner), Leona Raines (Madeline Ehlinger), and The Outlaw Luther Harlow (Yazid Gray)

The Artistic Team for In a Grove

Conductor, Antony Walker; Stage Director, Mary Birnbaum; Assistant Stage Director, Kaley Karis Smith; Set Designer, Mimi Lien; Costume Designer, Oana Botez; Lighting Designer, Yuki Nakase Link; Stage Manager, Alex W. Seidel; Assistant Stage Manager, Hannah Nathan

David Bachman Photography for Pittsburgh Opera   

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