David Taylor Little’s New Book Shines in Winter Opera’s 17th Season Finale

By C.B. Adams

What passed for a naughty narrative in 1910 would hardly raise an eyebrow (or much interest) in 2024, so it’s a good thing that David Taylor Little wrote a new book for Victor Herbert’s once-popular “Naughty Marietta.” Winter Opera staged this now-charming operetta on March 1 and 3, ending its 17th season with a delightful blend of wit, whimsy and musical allure.

In a lighthearted operetta like “Naughty Marietta,” the best parts are the songs. With Little’s retooling of the story and under the direction of John Stephens, the songs, including “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life,” “Neath a Southern Moon,” “Tramp! Tramp! Tramp! (Along the Highway) “and “Falling in Love with Someone” really had the chance to shine.

All the songs benefited from the lively performance by the orchestra, conducted by Mark Ferrell. Choreographer Rachel Bodl added to the experience with lively dance numbers that enhanced the production’s charm.

Brittany Hebel. Photo by Peter Wochniak.

Any fans of “Young Frankenstein” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie” probably recognized “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life,” which was repurposed in those films.

For “Naughty Marietta,” Winter Opera assembled a remarkable cast, including soprano Brittany Hebel who sparkled in the title role of Marietta, a spirited Italian Contessa who finds herself embroiled in a love triangle and a rebellion.

Hebel’s voice was rich and expressive, perfectly capturing the emotional depth of her character. Her performance of the “Italian Street Song” was a highlight and showcased her vocal agility and dramatic flair.

Opposite Hebel was tenor Zachary Devin as Captain Warrington, the gallant hero who captures Marietta’s heart. Devin’s warm tenor and affable charm made him a perfect match for Hebel, and their duets were a joy to experience.

Michael Colman brought a menacing presence to the role of Etienne, the villainous son of the Governor. Colman’s rich bass-baritone was well-suited to the role. His “You Marry a Marionette” was a highlight of his performance and of the entire show.

Mezzo-soprano Melanie Ashkar delivered another standout performance as Adah, a woman wronged by Etienne. Her rendition of “Under the Southern Moon” was hauntingly beautiful and showcased her rich, sultry voice. The supporting cast was equally strong, including Schapman as the bumbling Simon, Gary Moss as the comic puppeteer, Rudolfo, and Grace Yukiko Fisher as the lovelorn Lizette.

Grace Yukiko Fisher and Marc Schapman. Photo by Peter Wochniak

Under scene design by Scott Loebl, “Naughty Mariette” was perfectly scaled for the stage at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center. In their heyday, operettas were known for their elaborate costumes and sets, and Winter Opera’s creative team further that tradition.

Loebl’s set design was beautiful and practical, including the standout Act II scene at Rudolfo’s puppet shop. Jen Blum-Tatara’s costumes were appropriately colorful and evocative of 18th-century New Orleans.

Winter Opera’s production of “Naughty Marietta” was a delightful romp that showcased the best of the operetta form in general and the best of this reborn operetta. With a talented cast, beautiful production design and unforgettable music, Winter Opera has set a high bar for itself in the coming years.

Winter Opera’s “Naughty Marietta” was performed at Kirkwood Performing Arts Center March 1 and 3.

Ensemble performs “Naughty Marietta.” Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL.

By CB Adams

Waiting for Winter Opera’s production of “Don Giovanni,” I was reminded of the forward to Milton Cross’ “Complete Stories of the Great Operas,” in which he begins, “This is a book of stories – the stories of the great and enduring operas…Some of them have become so familiar that I return to them each year, almost as one returns each season to the Christmas story.” Just a week or so before Thanksgiving and the holiday season, Winter Opera’s timing for a production of “Don Giovanni” seemed perfect for a return – Christmas-like – to one of opera’s (and Mozart’s) great and (and greatly rendered) stories.

Before the opening notes of the overture, it was clear that this production would hew closely to a traditional interpretation (kudos to stage director John Stephens) of this work with an understated, yet architecturally appropriate, set (kudos to Scott Loebl, scenic designer). There were the requisite Corinthian columns, graceful arches and stone fountain – providing the neutral setting for the intricate, sublime story to follow.

As the orchestra began the overture to the three-hour performance to come (under the confident and sure baton of conductor Scott Schoonover), I was reminded of how these early, foreboding chords – repeated in the last act – symbolize the fate that awaits Don Giovanni.

Photo by ProPhotoSTL

I was reminded, too, of that Mozart’s original title was “Il Dissoluto Punito, Ossia il Don Giovanni” (“The Rake Punished, or Don Giovanni”). From the opening, this production faithfully unfurls the looping story of Don Giovanni as well as explores the dynamics of power, control and fate – with its major events presented at the beginning and searing conclusion. 

The dynamic, muscular-voiced Robert Mellon was a winning Leporello, the Don’s youthful, sometimes blustery servant. Mellon brought his character’s famous register aria – “Madamino, il catalogo è questo” – confidently and humorously to life.

One of the strengths of Winter Opera’s production is its treatment of women in the story. Gina Galati’s portrayal of Donna Elvira was exceptional, especially her affecting, poignant phrasing in “Mi tradì quell’alma ingrata.”

Raphaella Medina provided a sweet-voiced and beguiling Zerlina, especially during “Batti, batti o bel Masetto,” a love song-aria (with Mark Hosseini as Masetto) beloved for its teasing trills. Medina also paired very well with the strong performance of Jacob Lassetter as Don Giovanni, for a hugely satisfying performance of the duet “La si darem la mano.” Throughout, Lassette’s portrayal demonstrated tremendous range as well as nuance demanded by Mozart’s composition.  

Nathan Whitson’s strong bass more than met the imposing demands of the character Commendatore. His performance was equal parts stentorian, imperious and stone-like (as the singing statue).

The singers were well-adorned, thanks to the costume design by Jen Blum-Tatara and wigs/makeup by Jessica Dana.

Winter Opera’s “Don Giovanni” played at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center on November 17 and 19. The season continues with Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” January 19 and 21, 2024. More information is available at the Winter Opera website.

PhotoProSTL photo