Divas please at Opera Theater's Summerfest

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Two Pittsburgh divas pleased local fans in the opening weekend of Opera Theater’s three-week-long Summerfest. Performing in the 20th Century Club in Oakland, Marianne Cornetti inaugurated the events Thursday evening with a recital that included opera arias accompanied on the piano by Brent McMunn, followed by lighter music on the second half. A night later, Anna Singer took on the title role in Lehar’s “The Merry Widow,” the first of this season’s three full-length staged productions. All three are comedies, and all are performed in English. In each case, the featured artist gave of her best, and left the enthusiastic audiences satisfied and eager for more.

One of Pittsburgh’s most beloved opera personalities, Ms. Cornetti, who has sung in most of the world’s great opera houses, showered vocal opulence and high drama onto the arias. In two arias of Azucena from Verdi’s “Il Trovatore,” she relived one of her most successful roles, depicting with face and voice the horrors of the gypsy watching her mother condemned and burned at the stake. The singer took a forward look toward Opera Theater’s “Merry Widow,” with an outgoing rendition of the “Vilia” song; and a backward glance with her encore – “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” – associated with the late Pittsburgh mezzo Beatice Krebs, who sang it on “The Sound of Music’s” first national tour in 1961-63.

Most interesting was “Suicidio!” from Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda.” Having made most of her career as a mezzo-soprano, this most interesting and enterprising singer is now exploring dramatic soprano repertory, and her “Gioconda” aria was indeed thrilling. We should look forward to hearing more of her in the higher range to come.

“The Merry Widow” is a 1905 confection for the older set, and Opera Theater’s production was thoroughly engaging. Much of the credit must go to the inventive staging of Mo Zhou, supported by Bernard McDonald’s spirited conducting. All the visuals were, in fact, praiseworthy, notably Marie Yokoyama’s utilitarian sets and Cindy Albert’s colorful costumes.

Ms. Singer, whose speaking voice on WQED-FM is as familiar to Pittsburghers as is her accomplished singing, is a magnetic personality who holds focus every moment she’s on the stage. From her first entrance as the titular Hanna Glawari, the soprano exuded glamor and personal magnetism. Her “Vilia” was predictably stylish and expressive, quite different from Ms Cornetti’s rendition of the previous evening. Ms. Singer’s take was introspective, telling the tale of the seductive witch of the woods with seemingly innocent wonder, using her voice with variety of coloration to convey the simulated emotions.

It was in her duets with the dashing Danilo of Dimitrie Lazich, however, that Ms. Singer did her best work. Together, these two very likable performers had a palpable chemistry, whether in their manifold protestations of love, or their final romantic declarations in the opera's most familiar melody. For his part, Mr. Lazich used his appealing high baritone (in what was originally a tenor role) with solid technique and sensitivity to the words, his excellent vocalism enhanced by a handsome presence and easy stage demeanor.

As the story’s secondary couple, Gail Novak Mosites made an attractive, light-voiced Valencienne, while tenor Joseph Brent was an unkempt Camille with splendid high notes albeit a bumpy technique getting up to them.

It was an inspired idea to insert a French song by Satie – “La diva de l’empire” – as a campy showcase interlude for young Belgian countertenor Guillaume Houcke.

The supporting players, derived from the young artist program and Opera Theater staff, ran the gamut vocally, but they worked superbly as an ensemble. Equally admirable was the sizable chorus, augmented by the Oakland Girls Choir and 19 (female) child dancers.

Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor.

First Published July 13, 2014 12:00 AM

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