Portland State University Opera

‘La Finta Giardiniera’: early blossoms

The young Mozart's relatively obscure comic opera, staged this year by both Portland State University and Portland Opera, showcases emerging singers

Story by ANGELA ALLEN

Photos by JOE CANTRELL

The obscure La Finta Giardiniera (The Fake Gardener) is making its modern-day debut twice in Portland in four months. The opera is Portland State University’s spring presentation (the final show is at 3 pm Sunday, April 28) and Portland Opera stages it in July.

Did Portland’s opera directors have the same dream at the same time?

Or is it the irresistible W.A. Mozart? The composer was 18 — younger than many of these student performers— when he wrote the opera, which premiered in 1775 in Munich. Even if the opera lacks a moral typical of his later pieces like Cosi, Don Giovanni and Figaro, its music hints at the Mozart to come. Guiseppe Petrosellini gets credit for the libretto though there is some controversy around who actually wrote it. Much of it is so repetitive that in the PSU production, subtitles disappear for stretches of time because the characters repeat the same thing over and over.

The Act One opening ensemble: Life, and song, and costumes are abloom.

With its helter-skelter plot, mixed identities, and operatic exaggerations – these characters wear their hearts deeply inscribed on their long sleeves—La Finta, a fun “buffa” piece—is rarely performed, but it provides a good vehicle for young voices and energetic actors. Four couples, plus a mayor, go in and out of love and at times, go stark raving mad, or slightly nuts. The plentiful roles are distributed evenly, so the opera is well suited to such a student production as PSU’s, and in the case of Portland Opera, to up-and-coming resident artists.

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Building Mozart’s garden

PSU Opera's designers and artisans create a world onstage for the comic "La Finta Giardiniera." Joe Cantrell tells the tale in photographs.

Photographs by JOE CANTRELL

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was 18 years old when his opera La Finta Giardiniera (The Pretend, or Fake, Gardener) debuted at the Salvatortheater in Munich in 1775. When it opens Friday evening at Lincoln Performance Hall in Portland it’ll feature a cast almost as young, made up of singers in the elite Portland State University Opera program. Under the artistic leadership of onetime New York City Opera star Christine Meadows, PSU Opera has become known for its high-quality, relatively low-cost, professionally designed productions.

The latter is definitely true in the case of La Finta Giardiniera, which is double-cast in seven major roles (“the students have grown incredibly through the experience of preparing Finta,” Meadows says) and will have four performances, April 19, 20, 26, and 28. Its design team is stellar: set by Carey Wong, lighting by Peter West, lavish period costumes by Hadley Yoder, wigs and hair (a major task for this period comic opera) by Jessica Carr and Randy Graff respectively, props by Sumi Wu.

Maeve Stier as the servant Serpetta, surrounded by painterly foliage.

Wong’s ravishing set is dominated in many scenes by a landscape painted on its walls and inspired by Wooded Landscape with a Peasant Resting, a bucolic painting by Mozart’s near-contemporary Thomas Gainsborough, perhaps best-known for his portrait The Blue Boy. Other scenes take place in a cave, providing a sharp contrast in mood between bright and colorful and dark and forboding.

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PSU Opera’s ‘Cinderella’: sweet and silly in the salon

University’s production of Pauline Viardot’s operetta is a fairy tale within a play, set to music

by ANGELA ALLEN

Cinderella is no stranger to the stage. Portland State University’s Cinderella is far from Gioachino Rossini’s 1817 Cenerentola or Jules Massenet’s 1899 version. Neither is it a by-the-book replica of the childhood fairy tale where a pretty downtrodden girl seeks her step-family’s love and that of a prince – and lucks out because the shoe fits!

Instead, Pauline Viardot’s 1904 Cinderella, an operetta not an opera, is a bit of a spoof on that fairy tale, a story within a story. PSU Opera’s production, which runs through Dec. 10 at Lincoln Studio Theater in PSU’s Lincoln Hall, is set in the flamboyant Viardot’s illustrious Parisian cultural salon.

Maeve Stier and Luke Smith sing a heartfelt duet in PSU’s production of Pauline Viardot’s operetta, “Cinderella.”

Viardot, by the way, was a real person, though relatively unknown for her musical work. She entertained such cultural heavyweights as Frederic Chopin, Clara Schumann and Henry James, and was the muse and likely lover of Ivan Turgenev.

Pauline Viardot

Sung in English, with translation by Rachel Harris, Viardot’s chamber operatta is intentionally light, frothy and funny. It has enough roles for this new crop of PSU singers to keep us amused through the 90-minute one-act performance, preceded by a salon-like “greeting” where the cast ushers the audience to their seats in the intimate, 84-seat Lincoln Studio Theater and chats up some of them. Viardot wrote the operetta to be performed by her students at her music salon, and PSU’s crew added a further warm-up of “opera charades,” musical chairs, a dance and songs by Viardot and other women composers of the time like Clara Schumann and Nadia Boulanger, as they might have at the salon.

Then “Madame Viardot” hands out parts to her students to perform her Cinderella. Viardot gives herself the Fairy Godmother role, and Megan Uhrinak, a graduate student, sings the part convincingly. Her solid acting and singing help to hold the show together.

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‘Suor Angelica’ & ‘Gianni Schicchi’ review: tearful tragedy and family farce

Portland State University Opera’s spring Puccini double-bill strikes a fine and fun balance

by ANGELA ALLEN

PSU Opera always surprises me with the high quality of its productions and the skill of its young singers, many of them undergraduates. This is not professional opera (though advisors and directors are professionals), but it can reach impressive heights, and does in this double bill of two very different, very short Giacomo Puccini one-acts.

The first is a sentimental tragedy that takes place in a convent’s courtyard; the second is a better known opera buffo crowded into a Florentine bedroom. The operas, each about 40 minutes, are expansive and efficient: They provide numerous roles for up-and-coming singers and designer Carey Wong’s clever set is deployed for both operas – an outside setting for Suor Angelica and an inside one for Gianni Schicci.

Sung in Italian with English supertitles, the performance continues April 25-30 at PSU’s Lincoln Performance Hall.

Saori Erickson in PSU’s ‘Suor Angelica.’

Puccini wrote the operas with librettist Giovacchino Forzano in 1917-1918 and they were first performed with a third, Il Tabarro, at the Met in 1918. Like many opera composers, Puccini has a thing for vulnerable tragic heroines (think Cio-Cio San in Butterfly, La Boheme’s Mimi, etc.) and for sucking us into their dilemmas. But so what? Opera is about excess.

Sister Angelica was shuttled off to the convent seven years earlier for having an illegitimate child. Her haughty aunt, the Princess, sung and acted with requisite harshness by mezzo Grace Skinner, visits the convent and tells Angelica that her son has died. Devastated, Sister Angelica decides to kill herself – and does. At the end, there is a scene with Giotto-tinged-blue skies, floating clouds, and a Madonna in swirling white garb. The Madonna greets Angelica, and Angelica’s son joins her as she enters the pearly gates.

OK. It’s corny. It’s Puccini with a penchant for the syrupy, the over-the-top dramatic, the hopeless moments tinged with hope. But that’s our beloved Puccini.

As Sister Angelica, soprano Saori Erickson throws every inch of herself into Suor Angelica’s only aria, “Senza Mamma,” a fierce lament and love song to her dead child, Erickson makes the final part of the opera soar and fill Lincoln Hall with the help of a very competent student orchestra led by Ken Selden.

Erickson is a gifted singer mentored by professional soprano Pamela South, who has sung her share of Puccini roles with major opera companies. South’s other high-profile pupil of the night, soprano Hope McCaffrey, sings Lauretta in Gianni, the evening’s second opera. She shows her pipes and poise with the oft sung “O Mio Babbino Caro.” McCaffrey sings a bold and touching rendition of the popular aria, but her small role doesn’t dominate Gianni as Sister Angelica does the first tragic opera.

South is doing something right. These women seem to be going places. In 2016, Erickson won the “audience favorite” award at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and several others over recent years.

PSU Opera’s ‘Gianni Schicci.’

Gianni is crowded and crazy with a big cast who portrays the disorganized family of the dying Buoso, a rich uncle of this greedy brood. The handsome Rinuccio (tenor Alex Trull) cooks up the plan to introduce the arrivist Gianni Schicchi to his family to solve the problems with the uncle’s will – Buoso has left everything to the friars – if he, Rinuccio, is allowed to marry Gianni’s daughter, the lovely Lauretta. When the arrivist arrives, he puts everything in motion, replacing the uncle on his deathbed and dictating a new will to the notary, where of course, Gianni ends up with the cream of the wealth.

The zany family’s antics zigzag over the stage and they’re funny, especially those of Shainy Manuel who sings bawdy bewigged redhead Zita. She wriggles her red-ruffled rear at the audience at crucial moments; she has excellent timing.

The music and libretto are sublimely matched in hilariousness, and baritone Darian Hutchinson, who sings Gianni with flair, puts the glue into this opera. Hutchinson graduates this spring from PSU’s music program; this is his sixth PSU role (he sang Figaro and the mayor in Doctor Miracle, among others). He has a future in opera if he wants to grab it.

The ensemble singing is roaring fun with each of the cast members staying in distinctive character. Some critics claim that Puccini lost an opportunity when he never produced a full-length comic opera with such an excellent piece like Gianni showcasing his proclivity for the ridiculous.

Be sure you stick around for both operas. PSU’s singers, instrumentalists and music faculty should feel pretty proud about producing this level of Puccini.

Portland State University Opera’s ‘Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi’ continues at 7:30 p.m. April 25, 28 and 29 and at 3 p.m. on April 30 at Lincoln Performance Hall, 1620 SW Park Ave. Portland.  Tickets are $30 adults, $27 seniors and $15 students at the PSU box office in Lincoln Hall, online, or call the PSU Box Office: 503-725-3307.

Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She is a published poet and photographer and teaches creative and journalistic writing to Portland-area students. Her web site is angelaallenwrites.com.  

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Portland State Opera review: Tasty amuse-bouches

PSU double bill menu features a pair of frothy, lightweight comedies

By ANGELA ALLEN

Double-billed with Georges Bizet’s silly Dr. Miracle, Bon Appetit is the more delicious of the one-acts cooked up this month by Portland State University Opera. It’s an indisputable hoot about Julia Child making a real-life “gateau chocolat.” The show plays through Dec. 13 at PSU’s Lincoln Hall’s 84-seat Studio Theater, a small space to contain such a lot of laughs – but it works.

How can anyone not love and re-love the endearing French chef saying/singing, “I love a good dry wine with my chocolate!” as she nonchalantly slathers icing over her cake.

A pair of food related one act operas are on the menu this weekend at Portland State. Photo: John Rudoff.

A pair of food related one act operas are on the menu this weekend at Portland State. Photo: John Rudoff.

The gawky Child, known as much for bringing French cuisine to middle America as she is for dropping a roast on air and recommencing her recipe with aplomb, is easy to make fun of, but she’s not easy to do right. Mezzo-soprano Christine Meadows, longtime PSU opera director, channels Julia seamlessly from helmet hair and pearls (and a clean towel at her waist) to her lilting phrasing. Presenting her cake, she sings/yodels: “It is nicer than a soufflé because it doesn’t fall!” in a crescendo of exuberance. The audience howled.

Meadows juggles real butter and cream, pans, wine and esprit as she sings Lee Hoiby’s opera that premiered at the Kennedy Center in 1989. The late American composer based the libretto on two episodes of The French Chef, Child’s public TV cooking show that ran from 1963-1973. Mark Shulgasser reworked the episodes for the opera, and for this production Meadows and stage director Kristine McIntyre watched numerous hours of Child “performing” her unpredictable food magic on the cooking program. All the effort shows.

Meadows, whose prodigious memory allows her to sing, talk and bake for the mini-opera’s entire 20 minute duration, gets down and dirty in this role. If you sit in the front row, expect a few splatters of cream and batter. Julia is not a particularly anal-retentive cook. She admits “this can really be quite a mess!” as she tosses her used measuring cups and bowls on the stage. Though generally suited to more elegant roles, Meadows makes the most of Julia’s iconic “je ne said quoi” habits. She captures Child’s love of life and food.

Janet Coleman plays the difficult piano score and Sarah Mini and Zachary Gaumond hang in there as silent TV studio workers.

Child/Meadows does make a real cake and someone in the front row is the lucky recipient of the finished piece de resistance. (The rest of us eat cake from Fred Meyer in the lobby post-show). You can bet this show took a lot of flour, butter and preparation.

Speaking of the versatile Meadows, she directs the music in the first of the show’s two pieces, Georges Bizet’s Doctor Miracle, which Bizet wrote at 18 (based on a play by Richard Sheridan) and which premiered in 1857. Strains of Carmen? Not yet, but it’s certainly a spoof on the serious operas of the day. The piece is as much goofy theater as light opera.

This is four-person (not including the talented Colin Shepard at the piano) classic farce of mixed identities, thwarted lovers, jokes on the father/mayor (sung by baritone Darian Hutchinson, who held the whole piece together), and a perhaps-poisoned omelet. The omelet takes 11 minutes from serving to eating. This scene is very funny.

Alexander Trull, who plays Laurette’s lover, Silvio, as well as the snake-oil doctor and a one-eyed servant, stole the show with his terrific timing and tenor. Madison Howard played the lovely spoiled Laurette with the difficult soprano part, and Emily Skeen performed Veronique, the slightly befuddled mother and wife. Stage director Brenda Nuckton added some funny dialogue along the way to keep things moving.

Bon Appetit and Dr. Miracle were produced with a minimum of props, fanfare, cast and instrumentation. But they were a blast of French-scented fresh air and as far away from stodgy opera as Bizet – or even the free-spirited Julia – could have hoped to get.

The operas play at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 10 and 11 and at 2 p.m. Dec. 13. Tickets: $24 for the general public; $17 for students and PSU faculty, through the PSU box office or by calling 503-725-3307.

Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She pursues poetry and photography and teaches creative writing in the Portland schools. She once interviewed Julia Child.

in PSU Opera's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream

Alan Smith and Whitney Steele perform in PSU Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: John Rudoff.

by BRUCE BROWNE

If “fear no music” were not already taken, it would be a perfect title for much of what went on this past weekend in Portland choral music. Not only were The Ensemble, Oregon Repertory Singers, and Portland State University Opera unafraid to tackle new, recent and unusual repertoire, they also showed their audiences that there was nothing to fear in the choral and vocal music of our time.

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Puccini’s Lost Valentine

PSU's "La Rondine" revives an operatic rarity

Anna Viemeister as Magda and Zachary Borichevsky as Ruggero in "La Rondine." Photo: Joe Cantrell

Anna Viemeister as Magda and Zachary Borichevsky as Ruggero in “La Rondine.” Photo: Joe Cantrell

By Angela Allen

Everybody knows his “Madame Butterfly,” “La Boheme” and “Tosca,” but why is Giacomo Puccini’s “La Rondine” (“The Swallow”), which opens Friday at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall, so rarely seen or even heard of?

“[“Rondine” allows] “no easy outs,” says starring tenor Zach Borichevsky. “No one dies or threatens to kill anyone, no deus ex machinas save the day at the end. There is no such intervention of fate: The climax rests on the decisions and conscious actions of the lovers.”

“La Rondine” also defies easy categorization, doubling as opera and operetta, light and dark, comedy and tragedy. Puccini-lovers call it a “lost valentine” to yearning, passion and the puzzle of love where pieces don’t quite fit. Smitten sailors, a snotty Parisian poet, kissy kisses, and lonely café women turn up, but the opera – which Puccini changed several times, even inserting a suicide at the end of one of the revisions – refuses to wallow in sentimentality or succumb to one of those typical over-the-top opera plots.

But “Rondine” does offer other Puccini pleasures. Gloriously melodic music (listen for polka and waltz motifs), somewhat silly drama and libretto, and themes of ill-fated love suit the cast of energetic undergraduates, graduate voice students and its two stars, lyric tenor Borichevsky and soprano Anna Viemeister. Their voices combine in sublime duets – not to mention smooches. One kiss lasts at least a minute, giving the chorus plenty of time to comment on the love fest during its duration.

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