Soprano Emily Richter All But Steals the Show From a Stage Bursting With Talent
By George B. Parous
Pittsburgh Opera continued the roll it’s been on this season with the company’s premiere of George Frideric Handel’s classic Ariodante last evening. First performed in 1735, then left to languish in obscurity for two centuries, the opera was brought back to life in dazzling fashion by a stage full of talent that stretched from the orchestra to the singers; from the stage crew who built the brilliantly designed set to the lighting; from the choreography to the costumes, and to anyone else involved in the production not yet mentioned. Ariodante has enjoyed revivals in the last fifty years or so, and last evening’s performance of this staging certainly must rank with the very best of them. The remaining shows should not be missed, and apparently won’t be.
Ariodante (Jazmine Olwalia)
The set, masterfully designed by Ningning Yang, and brought to life by the exquisite lighting design of Cindy Limauro, is an “in-house” production, built and dressed from the ground up entirely by Pittsburgh Opera. The costumes of Grace Kang are becomingly effective, giving, as they do, the impression of an almost timeless era. The past or future are in the eye of the beholder, but the story’s medieval setting can easily be projected forward as well as backward. The plot, with an anonymous libretto based on a work by Antonio Salvi, is distinctly of secondary importance, as are most in the opera seria genre. It is a mere framework on which to hang one glorious aria after another.
Musically, Ariodante couldn’t be in finer hands. Antony Walker conducted the orchestra in his usual masterful style. The group of about thirty instrumentalists, who played wonderfully, were joined by the talented trio of Chatham Baroque, with Andrew Fouts leading the violins. Distinctly audible were the continuo Patricia Halverson provided with her viola da gamba, Scott Pauley with his theorbo, and Mark Trawka (Pittsburgh Opera’s chorus master) with the harpsichord. The collective sound was beautiful throughout, even if we did hear only about half of Handel’s opera. The original score runs some four hours; audiences in Handel’s day tended to come and go as they pleased, and did so often. As in the uncut original, the production provides for dancers, probably for quite a few, but the three in this show – Tori Casagranda, Savionne Chambers and Julia Wasilewski – made for graceful, charming divertissements in each of the three acts.
Ginevra (Emily Richter) and the King (Evan Lazdowski) receive some unwelcome news
The vocal talent was formidable. There’s no point in not saying outright that Emily Richter, as the Princess Ginevra, created an outstanding sensation. In her largest role to date with Pittsburgh Opera, she astonished with the size and purity of her powerful soprano voice. Her tones rang like a large golden bell, with ample volume and a clarity that was quite overwhelming. Her voice is evenly fine in all registers, and sends the highest fortissimo to the softest pianissimo sailing out over the audience. As Ariodante, mezzo-soprano Jazmine Olwalia sang a role that demonstrates that Handel did not always pen the lion’s share of the music for the title character, but she had plenty to sing just the same. She shows a tendency to warm as a performance progresses, and last night she was singing exquisitely by the opening of the third act.
Dalinda (Julia Swan Laird) is smitten with Polinesso (Chuanyuan Liu)
Making guest appearances in this production, countertenor (or male soprano) Chuanyuan Liu, last heard with the company in In A Grove, sang and acted the part of the “heavy” in a manner so effective that he received a rousing ovation, with some good-natured booing mixed in, at the opera’s conclusion. Daniel O’Hearn, as Lurcanio, gave an excellent display of his pure and true, distinctly timbred tenor voice. He acted the part gracefully, and swung a mean sword, as when he ran through the aforementioned countertenor.
Julia Swan Laird, as Dalinda, added another lovely voice to the cast. She, too, was heard in her largest role to date, and displayed a finely placed, lyrical and purely produced soprano voice. The bass tones of Evan Lazdowski, as the King of Scotland, were possibly the best heard in his voice type in quite a while. His tones are solid, true and of ample volume, and seem to project with the greatest of ease. Possibly his embellishments didn’t come as naturally as they did to most of his co-stars, but they came just the same, with much promise for future endeavors.
Lurcanio (Daniel O’Hearn) offers his faithful hand to Dalinda (Julia Swan Laird)
The ovation at the opera’s conclusion was probably the loudest and longest I’ve ever heard at the CAPA. I wasn’t expecting the production to equal or top Alcina, the last opera done there in January 2020. But it did match it, and in many ways topped it with flying colors. This is one of Pittsburgh Opera’s best efforts to date and should not be missed. The CAPA does not have the seating capacity of the Benedum. Ordinarily this is the point where we’d encourage not missing the show, getting tickets, etc. If you’re quick enough, you might catch one of the small handful of seats for Tuesday night’s performance. Friday and Sunday are sold out. The best you can do is send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to be added to the wait list should cancelations come up.
For complete production details, a full synopsis, additional photography and maybe taking a stab at the three or four tickets available for Tuesday evening, visit Pittsburgh Opera.
The Artistic Team for Ariodante –
Conductor, Antony Walker; Stage Director, Crystal Manich; Set Designer, Ningning Yang; Costume Designer, Grace Kang; Lighting Designer, Cindy Limauro; Wig/Makeup Designer, Nicole Pagano; Choreographer, Michael Pappalardo; Assistant Conductor, Glenn Lewis; Director of Musical Studies, Mark Trawka; Associate Coach/Pianist, James Lesniak; Assistant Stage Director, Haley Stamats; Stage Manager, Monica Soderman; Assistant Stage Manager, Hannah Nathan
David Bachman Photography for Pittsburgh Opera