Opera review: 'Brow' a shining drama; 'Music' less successful

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Opera Theater of Pittsburgh has two diverse examples of American musical theater in this year's SummerFest: Daron Hagen's "Shining Brow" -- an operatic telling of scandal and tragedy in the life of architect Frank Lloyd Wright -- and Stephen Sondheim's Broadway classic "A Little Night Music."

"Shining Brow," which opened in Oakland's Twentieth Century Club Thursday evening (following a pre-fest performance last month at Wright's Fallingwater), is by far the better of the current productions. Composed to a literate and poetic libretto by Irish poet Paul Muldoon, the work premiered in 1993 in Madison, Wis., as a full-length two-act opera requiring chorus and large orchestra.

Info box 9/7/2012

Opera Theater SummerFest

Where: Twentieth Century Club, 4201 Bigelow Blvd., Oakland.

Schedule:

• "The Tales of Hoffmann -- Retold" (Offenbach) -- 2:30 p.m. July 21.

• "A Little Night Music" (Sondheim) -- 7:30 p.m. July 20.

• "Shining Brow" (Hagen) -- 7:30 p.m. Friday.

• "The Secret Gardener" (Mozart) -- 2:30 p.m. July 20.

• "Night Caps" mini-operas -- Friday through July 21 after each mainstage opera. At 9:30 p.m. July 20 and 6:30 p.m. July 21, all four short operas will be performed back-to-back.

• Mozart in Concert -- Freya String Quartet 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday.

• "A Little Nightmare Music" (Schickele) with Andrey Nemzer as Salieri and the Freya String Quartet -- 8:30 p.m. Thursday; 5 p.m. July 20.



When: 7 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: Start at $20 ($10 for "Nightmare Music" and "Night Caps"); 412-326-9687 or www.otsummerfest.org.



Where:

SCHEDULE:

• "The Tales of Hoffmann -- Retold" (Offenbach) -- 2:30 p.m. July 21.

• "A Little Night Music" (Sondheim) -- 7:30 p.m. July 20.

• "Shining Brow" (Hagen) -- 7:30 p.m. Friday.

• "The Secret Gardener" (Mozart) -- 2:30 p.m. July 20.

• "Night Caps" mini-operas -- Friday through July 21 after each mainstage opera. At 9:30 p.m. July 20 and 6:30 p.m. July 21, all four short operas will be performed back-to-back.

• Mozart in Concert -- Freya String Quartet 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday.

• "A Little Nightmare Music" (Schickele) with Andrey Nemzer as Salieri and the Freya String Quartet -- 8:30 p.m. Thursday; 5 p.m. July 20.

Tickets: Start at $20 ($10 for "Nightmare Music" and "Night Caps"); 412-326-9687 or www.otsummerfest.org.

For Pittsburgh, Mr. Hagen created a 70-minute, one-act chamber version more practical to the local company's resources. It is deftly conducted by Robert Frankenberry, who sang the tenor role of Wright's teacher, Louis Sullivan, on a recently released Naxos CD recording. On listening to the recorded version, "Shining Brow" seemed overwritten and rambling. The new version, cannily staged by Opera Theater director Jonathan Eaton in one of the building's smaller venues, is dramatically tight and visually compelling.

Mr. Hagen's music style is eclectic, incorporating lush neo-romantic outpourings alongside grating polytonal passages and occasional hints of atonality. He writes very well for the voice, imparting each singer with a musical declamation that fits the character and is appropriate to the meaning of the moment. This was particularly effective in two highly charged trios.

Many passages hark back to the operas of Benjamin Britten, notably the high tenor writing for Sullivan, a part brilliantly rendered by James Flora, with ease in the upper register and equal facility in head voice and full sound from the chest. His music was the most lyrical of any in this opera, and he colored his vocalism to convey the torment and tragedy of an unjustly rejected mentor who turns to alcohol for solace in his old age.

As Wright himself, Kevin Kees made a weaker showing. Dressed up in a ridiculous wig and odd makeup, he looked older than his tutor. His unfocused sound and monochromatic phrasing also diminished the effect. Vocal honors went to Lara Lynn Cottrill as Mamah Cheney, the wife of Wright's client who becomes the architect's mistress. With the looks of a high-fashion model and a voice of size, clarity and wide coloristic range, Ms. Cottrill evolved into a three-dimensional figure who combined vulnerability with strength and tugged at the heartstrings in her every breath and movement.

Other characters in the drama, less fully drawn, were well-taken by Kara Cornell (Wright's wife), Dimitrie Lazich (Mamah's husband) and Anna McTiernan (the maid).

"Night Music," seen Sunday afternoon, was less successful than "Shining Brow." This was partly because the show itself is an engaging but incongruous amalgam of Broadway, Viennese operetta and Italian opera elements, and partly because the classically trained cast only intermittently grasped the style -- or more specifically, that they didn't seem to know at any given moment just which style was meant to be conveyed. Sluggish tempi from conductor Walter Morales and inept delivery of the spoken dialogue didn't help, nor did the hall's reverberant acoustic, which further masked the all-important words -- spoken or sung.

A shining exception was the Broadway-class enactment of Desiree by Anna Singer, whose luscious rendition of "Send in the Clowns" was worth sitting out the tedious stretches that preceded it.

theaterreviews

Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor.


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