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

By CB Adams

In his recent review in New York magazine of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of “Fedora,” Justin Davidson snarked, “’Fedora is an opera about décor.” The headline read, “At Least the Sofa Looks Fabulous.” That’s the kind of pronouncement relished by critics and reviewers, myself included (I do love a good snark, when well-deserved.)

In a backdoor sort of way, Davidson’s sentiment evoked an opposite reaction when assessing Winter Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Macbeth” at the Kirkwood Community Center. One of the major strengths of this production, stage directed by John Stephens, is precisely due to the minimal “décor” and sets. This approach, which was definitely not stagy nonchalance, enabled the production to focus on the essential moments in Shakespeare’s tale of power and corruption, Verdi’s score and the performances of the fine cast. The storyline is the thing, and the result was a solidly satisfying experience that served as a potent post-holiday palate cleanser – we all need a little opera, not a little more Christmas.

Calling the setting simple is not to belittle the work of scenic designer Scott Loebl. It’s to  his credit, as well as lighting designer Michael Sullivan’s and technical director Jacob Cange’s, that the mood is so effectively set with appeared at times as a wall of blood, emphasizing the Macbeths’ descent into depravity. The cast members moved through the playing area as though a walk upon Shakespeare’s atmospheric heath.

Photo by Rebecca Haas

One of the risks of production of “Macbeth” in either its theatrical or opera forms, is overplaying the witchiness of the witches. This is not “Wicked” after all. Verdi makes this risk higher turning the play’s three witches into a chorus of witches. But this production makes great, prudent use of this gaggly coven, which sometimes offers comic relief and other times stirring up their portentous predictions. One of the witches contorted her face so dramatically it seemed like an effect that could only be achieve with a mask. Jim Carrey would have been jealous.

The leading roles were performed with uniform excellence by singing actors, several of whom have been in previous Winter Opera productions. The Macbeths, sung by Michael Nansel and Whitney Myers were convincing both singly and as a couple. Myers’ performance as Lady Macbeth offered many insightful moments, marred only by her line “Out, damned spot” through no fault of her own. The line elicited more than few chuckles because its meaning has been ruined after being reduced to an American advertising slogan. Pity.

Nansel as Macbeth also jelled with Nathan Whitson as Banquo. Both used their big, expressive voices to reveal the thoughts and tribulations of their characters. Equally impressive was Jonathan Kaufman as Macduff, especially when confronting (shall I say, laying on) Macbeth.

As with the chorus of witches, the supporting cast was seamless performed and put effective use. The supporting cast included  Willard Moseley as Duncan, Damian Ziarko as Fleanzio, Angel Azzarra as a lady in waiting and Kevin Thomas Smith as Malcolm.

Verdi’s score received a well-balanced, thoughtful and atmospheric performance by the orchestra, directed by Edward Benyas. This was noticeable from the start, during the brooding, foreboding overture.

In the play, Lady Macbeth says, “What’s done cannot be undone.” In the case of Winter Opera’s “Macbeth,” what can’t be undone is a fine production of this Verdi-Shakespeare classic.

Winter Opera presented Verdi’s “Macbeth” on January 20 and 22, at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center.

Photos by Rebecca Haas

Macbeth by Winter Opera. Photo by Rebecca Haas

By C.B. Adams

I have an acquaintance for whom the terms Puccini and opera are synonymous. For him, opera and the Italians define the artform. Although I don’t agree with his limited definition, I can’t deny that the Italians in general and Giacomo Puccini in particular occupy a special space within the opera canon. That’s why Winter Opera’s production of La Rondine, (music by Puccini with librettists Alfred Maria and Heinz Reichert) was a such a solid, comfortable pleasure.

For reasons not worth reiterating, La Rondine (The Swallow) is not considered one of Puccini’s “greatest hits” but, as my acquaintance might say, “Who cares?! It’s Puccini!” I would duly note his fandom and add that we would all be the poorer if La Rondine weren’t performed periodically, despite its modestness. It’s a good Puccini primer, filled with waltzes, melodies, two arias (one perhaps more famous than the entire rest of the opera) and a duet. It further makes Puccini’s higher-profile operas even more impressive by comparison.

The creative team at Winter Opera chose well with La Rondine because it benefits from a tighter production and the stage at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center. Smaller is better for this opera, something that scenic designer Scott Loebl and stage director Erica Gibson understood, even as swapped Puccini’s original setting from France’s Second Empire era to the “roaring” 1920s. Amy Hopkins’ costume designs were perfectly matched to the updated era, as well.

The updated setting, replete with a raised chessboard-like black and white floor, allowed Gibson to move the characters move like pawns throughout the action. Although the motivation’s of Magda, especially her decision to return to her “old life” in the conclusion of the third act, aren’t understandable or compelling by modern sensibilities, this doesn’t detract from this production. “Who cares?! It’s Puccini,” is latent throughout.

Photo by Rebecca Haas

Puccini placed the La Rondine’s famous aria, “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta,” early in Act One. The piece’s soaring phrases offer sopranos the opportunity to impress an audience. In Winter Opera’s production, soprano Karen Kanakis as Magda compellingly sang the aria with her lilting, floating top notes. The piece ends with the “What do riches matter if true happiness blossoms?” Kanakis delivers this question with  such truth and honesty that it sets up the tragedy of the finale, which turns this line from rhetorically hopeful into sadly ironic.

Matching Kanakis’ performance was tenor Nathan Schafer as Ruggero. Schafer overcame some of the weaknesses of the character through his performance’s clarity and warmth. His duets with Magda were some of the best, even as he had to animate Ruggero’s one-dimensionality (as written). Equally strong were Nicholas Huff as Prunier, Lauren Nash Silberstein as Lisette and baritone Jacob Lassetter as Rambaldo – as well as the chorus.

Bubbling beneath the Winter Opera singer was the orchestra, conducted by Scott Schoonover, artistic director of Union Avenue Opera. The modest size of the orchestra was enlarged by the restrained size and good acoustics of the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center. 

Winter Opera is off to a terrific start with La Rondine, leaving only the question of how they will meet or exceed this accomplishment with the rest of the season’s offerings – Verdi’s MacBeth in January and Sigmund Romberg’s The Desert Song in March.

Photo by Rebecca Haas