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"I puritani" at the Metropolitan Opera

Written by Elizabeth Bloom on .

Post-Gazette senior editor Robert Croan recently visited New York and sends along this insightful review of the Met's production of "I puritani," by Vincenzo Bellini. Enjoy!

Pretty Yende thrives on short notice in Met's "Puritani" 

By Robert Croan

NEW YORK — Bellini's "I puritani" is an operatic rarity that can only fully make its point when performed by a high-powered cast of four magnetic star singers. For this season's revival, the Metropolitan Opera assembled soprano Diana Damrau, tenor Javier Camarena, baritone Luca Pisaroni and bass Alexey Markov. Except for Ms. Damrau, the lineup is not quite as starry as when this production, by Sandro Sequi, was new in 1976 — Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Sherrill Milnes and James Morris — but it's an impressive assemblage designed to draw aficionados of good singing.

Bel canto opera, essentially the serious works of 19th-century composers Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, relies on the beauties of the human voice above all other elements. Dramatic credibility, the meanings of individual words, even clarity of diction may be sacrificed on the altar of mellifluous melodies and vocal virtuosity. What action there is takes place between the arias and ensembles in longish stretches of recitative — musical declamation tailored to the rhythms of Italian speech. The melodies are incomparably beautiful, however, and with its generally excellent cast, this season's first-night "Puritani" was highly praised by critics and audiences alike.

On Feb. 14, the night I attended, Ms. Damrau cancelled because of illness. Her replacement in the leading role of Elvira was 32-year-old South African soprano Pretty Yende, who did some quite spectacular singing on short notice. Ms. Yende has a substantial sound, capable of fine-spun legato and agile coloratura. While her overall performance lacked the dazzle and nuance associated with the older, more established Damrau, the younger soprano was an attractive figure on stage, and she rode Bellini's vocal hurdles with facility and grace.

South African soprano Pretty Yende stepped in at the last minute at the Met, replacing Diana Damrau (Gregor Hohenberg/Sony Music Entertainment)South African soprano Pretty Yende stepped in at the last minute at the Met, replacing Diana Damrau (Gregor Hohenberg/Sony Music Entertainment)

The standard formal design of Bellini's era was the slow cavatina, with a lyrical melody over a broken chord accompaniment, followed by a fast caballetta in dance rhythm showing off vocal fireworks of all sorts. Elvira's second act mad scene, "Qui la voce," is one of the grandest in the genre, matched only, perhaps, by the better-known mad scene in Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor." Ms. Yende did very well vocally, though she didn't always make the coloratura emotionally meaningful. Still, there's no question that this singer is a star in the making.

Ms. Yende was well partnered in duets and ensembles by Mr. Camerena, who tossed off tenor high Cs and D-flats with limitless security and aplomb. Mr. Pisaroni and Mr. Markov were both vocally accomplished and comfortable on stage, though not quite in the Damrau-Camarena class. Nonetheless, the rousing bartione-bass duet, "Suoni la tromba," brought the second act to an exhilarating conclusion. If none of the principals managed to make much of this work's theatrical elements, that may be at least partly attributed to the nature of the genre and of the opera itself. Revival stage director Sarah Ina Meyers relied too much on the original static choral tableaux, and gave the principals little more than stock operatic gestures and unimaginative movements to work with.

Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor. 

 

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Patricia Racette tackles "Salome" with Pittsburgh Opera

Written by Elizabeth Bloom on .

Pittsburgh Opera's production of "Salome," which I placed on my list of top 10 musical events for the fall, opens at the Benedum Center this weekend. My preview of the opera was published in today's Post-Gazette. 

The casting of soprano Patricia Racette in the title role is a major coup for Pittsburgh Opera. She was going to sing Cio-Cio-San in "Madama Butterfly" here in 2002 but had to withdraw after rehearsals had started. Interestingly enough, that was going to be, essentially, her role debut as Butterfly. She had sung it dozens of times in the late 1980s while with the Merola Opera Program. "But I put it away, so it was going to be the resurfacing of that role in a fully grownup, professional sense," Ms. Racette said.

Coincidentally, Cio-Cio-San is a role with which Ms. Racette would become closely associated, although she retired it last year.

20161103smsOpera06-5Nmon Ford, top, plays Jochanaan, and Patricia Racette plays Salome, in Pittsburgh Opera's production of Richard Strauss' "Salome." The two were photographed at the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning in Oakland on Oct. 24.(Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette)

She is also known for her stints as a host of and performer in the Metropolitan Opera's Live in HD series, which I've written about a few times on this blog. Now a decade old, the program is somewhat controversial, and it is often accused of taking away in-house audiences, among other issues. Ms. Racette's response?

"I like them as a performer, as a host and as someone in this profession," she said. "What people know about the existence of opera now in the United States as opposed to before all this HD stuff is so much more."

She didn't want to weigh in on the issue of ticket sales since it's not her area of expertise, although she understands the incentives for audiences to pay for cheap seats with a good view in a movie theater. "However — and I'm saying this in bold caps — there's nothing like experiencing it live. There's nothing like it," she said.

"You're not seeing it as three-dimensionally as you are in the theater," she said of the movie options. "I hope that would continue being a priority for the public."

But she did raise another important point — that opera can be somewhat subservient to its own traditions, which can hinder the development of new audiences.

"I think it's important to have the public be exposed to different ideas of a way to tell a story and not just the one old-fashioned idea," she said. "We've got to invigorate and reinvigorate this art form to keep it alive. We have to. And I think HD assists and helps in that greatly."

One more thing: A reader alerted me to the fact that the Monroeville Readers Theatre will perform an edited version of Oscar Wilde's "Salome" at 2 p.m. Dec. 3 at the Monroeville Public Library, 4000 Gateway Campus Blvd., Monroeville. A German translation of Wilde's play is the basis for Strauss' libretto. A question-and-answer session will follow.

 

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PSO strike coverage, in one place

Written by Elizabeth Bloom on .

UPDATE (Dec. 5, 2016): The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra strike has concluded. I updated all links through Dec. 4, 2016. 

...

If you've made it to this blog post, you probably already know that the musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra are on strike.

20160930dsMusiciansStrikeLocal02-1Peter Guild of Mt. Lebanon carries a sign asking “What Would Beethoven Say?” on Sept. 30, the first day of the PSO musicians' strike. Mr. Guild has been with the PSO for 18 years. (Post-Gazette/Darrell Sapp)

This work stoppage is a complicated issue, so I thought it would be helpful to gather all of the Post-Gazette's coverage — from news articles to letters to the editors — in one place. I'll do my best to update this page with some frequency, so check back often. Here goes:

News stories

Sept. 2, 2016: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra management, musicians in contract talks

Sept. 4, 2016: Pittsburgh Symphony management, musicians extend contract talks

Sept. 18, 2016: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra musicians, management agree to continue private negotiations

Sept. 30, 2016: PSO musicians go on strike

Oct. 3, 2016: Pittsburgh Symphony cancels performances through Oct. 27 in wake of musicians' strike

Oct. 7, 2016: Brian Regan show at Heinz Hall postponed

Oct. 9, 2016: Musicians say quality at heart of PSO strike 

Oct. 10, 2016: Amid strike, Downtown audience cheers PSO musicians at free concert 

Oct. 17, 2016: PSO cancels concerts through Nov. 18 in wake of musicians' strike

Oct. 19, 2016: Elvis Costello show canceled due to PSO strike

Oct. 20, 2016: PSO management, musicians agree on virtually nothing

Oct. 21, 2016: PSO musicians, management to meet with mediators

Oct. 25, 2016: Peduto, Fitzgerald trying to mediate symphony strike

Nov. 1, 2016: PSO management and musicians are talking to each other, but not to the media

Nov. 1, 2016: Comedian Brian Regan to offer free show at Heinz Hall

Nov. 12, 2016: PSO is fundraising in the midst of a strike by musicians

Nov. 15, 2016: Pittsburgh Symphony cancels concerts through Dec. 5

Nov. 22, 2016: PSO management, musicians nearing deal to end two-month strike

Nov. 23, 2016: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, musicians reach 5-year contract

Dec. 2, 2016: PSO musicians return to thunderous ovation

Dec. 4, 2016:A midnight deal: PSO concerts resume after two-month labor dispute

PSO-strike-1975 1The PSO musicians went on strike once before, in 1975. During that work stoppage, flutist Bernard Goldberg played on the picket line outside Heinz Hall. (Morris Berman/Post-Gazette)

Opinion pieces from Post-Gazette staff

Oct. 5, 2016: Brewed On Grant: PSO Strike (editorial cartoon by Rob Rogers)

Oct. 7, 2016: Make music together: PSO, musicians should get back to bargaining (Post-Gazette editorial)

Nov. 16, 2016: Money talks: PSO fundraising during strike cannot hurt (Post-Gazette editorial)

Nov. 29, 2016: Play on: The bitter PSO strike was a reality check (Post-Gazette editorial)

Letters to the editor

Oct. 2, 2016: PSO musicians enrich our city; please back them

Oct. 4, 2016: PSO musicians should face the reality at hand

Oct. 5, 2016: Consider the sacrifices these musicians have made

Oct. 5, 2016: A great symphony orchestra deserves great pay 

Oct. 7, 2016: The PSO musicians' strike is sad but justified 

Oct. 8, 2016: The PSO musicians should be well paid

Oct. 8, 2016: PSO musicians are high-caliber pros, like the Steelers 

Oct. 9, 2016: All Pittsburghers can bask in the glow of the PSO 

Oct. 9, 2016: PSO management and musicians must consider market forces 

Oct. 10, 2016: Pittsburgh Opera also offers world-class performances 

Oct. 12, 2016: Management must meet PSO musicians in the middle

Oct. 13, 2016: PSO musicians deserve better than what led to this strike

Oct. 17, 2016: As subscribers and contributors, we're frustrated with PSO management

Oct. 21, 2016: PSO management has the wrong strategy

Oct. 21, 2016: The PSO needs new marketing

Oct. 26, 2016: Here's hoping the PSO musicians are back on stage soon

Oct. 27, 2016: The PSO management and board are custodians of a jewel

Nov. 1, 2016: The PSO's balancing act: classics vs. new music (for new audiences)

Other coverage

Aug. 8, 2014: The Digs: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's September 1975 strike

Oct. 7, 2016: WESA's The Confluence: Presidential Polling In The Swing States And Striking Musicians

Oct. 9, 2016: KD/PG Sunday edition, Part 1 (TV interview with symphony CEO Melia Tourangeau)

Oct. 9, 2016: KD/PG Sunday edition, Part 2 (TV interview with orchestra committee members Micah Howard and Jeremy Branson)

Oct. 13, 2016: Elizabeth Bloom's Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra strike chat transcript

20161019ng-Symphony3Melia Tourangeau, right, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, walks by as principal oboist Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida and other symphony members walk the picket line outside Heinz Hall on Oct. 19. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

Social media and PSO websites

PSO management websites: www.pittsburghsymphony.org, http://blogs.pittsburghsymphony.org/, http://psoupdate.com/

PSO musicians' websites: http://musiciansofthepso.org/, http://realpsoupdate.com/

Twitter: I (@BloomPG) have been using the hastag #PSOstrike to gather all Post-Gazette coverage and my own Tweets in one place. The musicians (@PSOmusicians) and their supporters generally have been using the hashtag #musiciansofsteel. PSO management is on Twitter @pghsymphony

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/PittsburghSymphonyOrchestra/, https://www.facebook.com/PSOMusicians/

Instagram: @psomusicians@pittsburgh_symphony_orchestra

Thanks for reading,
Liz Bloom ( This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  or 412-263-1750)

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Do the Met's Live in HD broadcasts hurt Pittsburgh Opera?

Written by Elizabeth Bloom on .

The Metropolitan Opera's Live in HD series is 10 years old, offering a natural point to take stock of the legacy of this controversial project. 

LL 2016 01 LAMOUR DE LOIN 02 231-XL photo by kristian schullerThe Met will offer a Live in HD transmission of Kaija Saariaho’s opera "L’Amour de Loin" in December. (Photo: Kristian Schuller) 

The series, which broadcasts live performances from the Metropolitan Opera to movie theaters around the world, was designed to expand opera audiences. But some have wondered whether it has done the opposite: By offering a relatively affordable way to experience a quality opera production up-close, has Live in HD eroded audiences inside the opera house? What's more, the audience for these presentations tends to be older — not necessarily the new viewers the Met was seeking to attract.

The Washington Post's Anne Midgette weighed in on the transmissions and surveyed several opera administrators about Live in HD. Ms. Midgette see issues with the program, even beyond the potential effect it has on ticket sales, such as whether it has placed too high a priority on cinematic detail or whether the technological adjustments afforded by the productions have numbed the artistic risks of producing opera.

I spoke with Christopher Hahn, general director of Pittsburgh Opera, about whether he felt the HD series had eroded the local opera audience. His answer, emphatically, was "absolutely not," and he feels the program could in fact enrich Pittsburghers' operagoing experience and knowledge.

"In our specific position in Pittsburgh, I absolutely believe it has no impact on the audience," he said.

Mr. Hahn has not actually attended a Live in HD broadcast himself because he generally catches several of the productions in New York and (rightfully) prefers seeing operas in the flesh. But he views the transmissions as an opportunity for Pittsburghers, on the one hand, to experience repertoire and productions they typically can't get at the Benedum Center and, on the other hand, to be exposed to Met performers they actually might see in Pittsburgh (e.g., Lisette Oropesa, who appeared with Pittsburgh Opera most recently in the company's 2015 production of "Daughter of the Regiment").

"It's very important for our audience to know what a wonderful 'Lulu' looks and sounds like," he said, referring to the Alban Berg opera that was broadcast on the series in 2015.

In his view, Live in HD runs the risk of cannibalizing ticket sales for smaller opera companies that may not have the resources to put on high-quality productions. On the other end of the spectrum, it also could hurt the Met's own in-house audience. But a "major regional opera company" like Pittsburgh Opera, he believes, is safe from those factors.

He acknowledged the cinema presentations have some advantages for older patrons. Those who might have trouble making it to the Benedum at night will find the ease of navigating a cinema on a Saturday afternoon attractive. But while Pittsburgh Opera has lost patrons who can't manage those late-night trips into Downtown Pittsburgh anymore, Mr. Hahn does not know of anyone who gave up tickets specifically because of the Met's transmissions.

Personally, I think a lot of folks are scapegoating the HD series. Sure, it hasn't built the new audiences the Met had hoped for, but as others in those articles mentioned, there plenty of wide-ranging cultural forces that have affected ticket sales at opera companies. As I've previously stated, I appreciate the opportunity to see operas (such as William Kentridge's visually arresting "Lulu") that aren't likely to appear in Pittsburgh anytime soon. 

What do you think about Live in HD? Good for opera, bad for opera, or somewhere in between? Feel free to comment below or send me an email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  to share your thoughts.  

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Pittsburgh Opera receives grant from Pennsylvania

Written by Elizabeth Bloom on .

Happy Fourth of July! The holiday weekend brought welcome news to Pittsburgh Opera, which has received a hefty grant from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

The Strip District company was awarded a $350,000 state grant to support its 2016-17 season, which includes the world premiere of Daniel Sonenberg's "The Summer King." The opera centers on the life of former Negro Leagues star Josh Gibson, who spent most of his career in Pittsburgh.

Democratic Rep. Adam Ravenstahl of Allegheny County announced the grant, which was approved by the Commonwealth Financing Authority, on Friday. 

"Funding for the grants stems from the Pennsylvania Gaming Economic Development and Tourism Fund Program, which was established to fund community and economic development projects in Allegheny County through revenue generated from all casinos," according to a press release.

The company generally receives some funding — about $165,000 — from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, but Friday's announcement marked the first time it received this particular grant, general director Christopher Hahn said. Producing a world premiere adds to the already steep sticker price of the operatic art form, so the company made this request specifically for "The Summer King," he said.

"The costs of this season are a larger because of the world premiere," Mr. Hahn said. "We're very grateful indeed, and it allows us to expand into our outreach to the sporting community and the African-American community in ways we wouldn't previously be able to do."

Performances of "The Summer King" take place April 29-May 7, 2017, at the Benedum Center.

"The grant provides vital funding for the opera company's four mainstage productions on tap this fall and next spring," Mr. Ravenstahl said in the release. "It helps pay for everything from center rentals and wardrobe to paying the highly skilled professionals — conductors, orchestra, stage crews — who make the season so highly anticipated." 

 

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