St. Louis: Winner and Still Champion

The new work by jazz great Terence Blanchard (music) and playwright Michael
Cristofer (libretto) has all the elements to make a fine opera: a flawed but
towering hero, a story with larger-than-life issues, a first class staging,
contemporary appeal, and a uniquely imaginative score that is immediate and

James Robinson has staged Champion with all of his customary visual
bravura balanced by insightful exploration of the complex central character,
real life boxer Emile Griffith. The pugilist critically injured an opponent
during a televised match in 1962 and it altered his life. The story is offered
in ten scenes (or ‘rounds’) book-ended by the present day man who is in
assisted living and suffering from dementia.

The creators have divided the title role between three actors: Arthur
Woodley as the retired Emile Griffith, Aubrey Allicock as the young champion,
and Jordan Jones as the boy Emile. All are excellent. If Mr. Allicock proves to
be the evening’s breakout star, Mr. Woodley is unquestionably the show’s

Woodley received the most sustained, vociferous ovation of the festival for
a Herculean performance that combined beautifully delineated phrases, flawless
coloring of the text, orchestra-riding power in arching outbursts, and a
well-rounded embodiment of the troubled, fading, rather gentle giant. Arthur
Woodley has unequivocally defined the role for future interpreters

No less impressive was the amiable, self-assured performance by Mr.
Allicock, as notable for his uninhibited physical commitment as it was for his
uniformly suave singing. His mellow bass sound and forward placement fell
pleasantly on the ear. More than any other soloist, Aubrey selectively emulated
a more pop delivery, dropping the focus out of the mask. This lent variety to
the style but I am not sure it was necessary to the success of the score. But
never you mind, I predict Aubrey Allicock’c career may take off like a

Young Mr. Jordan had far less to sing, but he made a strong impression, his
boy soprano pure and present. International mezzo Denyce Graves predictably
made a potent contribution to the evening’s success as the fighter’s
mother. As ever, Ms. Graves looked glamorous and gifted us with smokey-hued,
effusive tone, especially in the lower and mid-range. In the highest stretches,
the singer husbanded her resources effectively but one or two extreme notes
were touched on rather than floated. She scored big with one of the opera’s
best set pieces, a long lament that found her voice soaring and plunging over
the bare accompaniment of a pizzicato bass, to mesmerizing effect

Champion_20.gif(L to R) Denyce Graves as Emelda Griffith, Robert Orth as Howie Albert, Aubrey Allicock as Young Emile Griffith, and members of the company of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

Established contralto Meredith Arwady made the most of a featured role as
owner of a drag bar, and her meaty voice lustily encompassed a bluesy ‘hot
mama’ number. In look and delivery she seemed to be channeling Broadway’s
Debra Monk. Young artist Chabrelle Williams made a notable impression as the
boxer’s wife, her limpid, vibrant soprano utilized with pristine polish.
Brian Arreola’s lean, well-schooled tenor and his impassioned way with
several high-flying phrases were perfectly matched to the role of the
sympathetic care-giver Luis. Roberth Orth brought his wealth of experience to
bear as the trainer, and he sang with real fire and commitment

In dual roles, Victor Ryan Robinson infused his high tenor with real
personality as the taunting, doomed opponent; and sang with aching beauty in
the final confrontation as the victim’s son. In the important role of the
young man in the bar who awakens Emile’s homosexual feelings, Lorenzo Miguel
Garcia made each phrase count

At a time when most companies seem clinically afraid to program new works,
OTSL seems afraid not to. It is deeply ingrained in their
mission. Since 1976 they have offered twenty-three world premieres, an equal
number of American premieres and major revivals of seven American operas, an
awesome record by any standard.

The organization has mounted this new piece without stinting, to include
providing a colorful multi-set design from Allen Moyer. The uses of levels, the
star reveal for Ms. Graves in a vintage car, the seedily sequined bar, the
fanciful hat factory, and the very theatrical evocation of the boxing ring,
were deftly balanced with the reality of the hero’s current institutional
‘prison.’ The effective sliding panels were also used to accommodate Greg
Emetaz’s eye-catching video and still projections. Christopher Akerlind’s
tight specials served the concept well, and James Schuette out-did himself with
character specific costumes that contributed colorful period commentary.

Mr. Cristofer’s libretto sometimes spends more time in spoken dialogue
than it may need to, and it occasionally strains a little hard to be vulgar,
but he has given the composer a wonderful format with his episodic approach,
fluid timelines, and layering of characters. Mr. Blanchard has responded with a
score that has echoes of everything from Harry Connick’s Broadway work to
Shostakovich to Adams, but despite discerning a few fleeting influences, the
score remains true to Blanchard’s unique sound.

George Manahan drew sensitive playing from the pit, but the score seems to
use the instrumentalists more as a buoyant cushion of harmonies and propulsive
percussion that an equal partnership (the orchestration was developed in part
by Howard Drossin). With further performances, I would suspect there may be
some tweaking and shaping, but as it stands the opera already has legs and
memorable numbers, witness a remarkable quartet in Act Two. And the
heart-wrenching final moments as Emile recalled his opening thoughts about his
missing shoe. Yes, it lives up to its advance press: OTSL has a hit on its

KISS_1.gif(L to R) Garrett Sorenson as Luk·ö and Corinne Winters as Vendulka

Smetana’s The Kiss also delivered the goods in a wholly different
genre. It is hard to imagine why this lovely composition has had so little
traction outside of the Czech Republic, for it offers as much effervescent fun
as Bartered Bride with two stellar roles for soprano and tenor, and
supporting turns with intriguing music that afford entertaining opportunities.

Okay, okay, so the plot is slight. The heroine, Vendulka, agrees to marry a
widower Lukas, but refuses to kiss him before the wedding. And then, two acts
later, she relents. But during those two acts, that act of defiance sparks
pages and pages of fun stuff, with evocative orchestral writing (like the
sunrise) that are equal to Smetana’s best. Director Michael Gieleta’s
ingenious staging mined all of the dramatic (or more to the point, comic)
possibilities in the rather uncomplicated tale

James Macnamara’s lean set design featured floor-to-ceiling panels of
vertical wooden planks with various dimensions and textures, and a floor
covered by a verdant green Astroturf, a stylized suggestion of the Czech
countryside. With the addition of a few well-crafted set pieces (to include
some goofy over-sized sunflowers), the environment was fanciful and functional.
Mr. Akerlind’s skillful lighting with its gobos and washes added another
level of refinement, and Fabio Toblini’s lovingly rendered folk costumes
pushed the physical production up yet another notch to a resounding visual
success. It should be reported that throughout the festival, Tom Watson made
significant contributions with his distinctive hair and elaborate make-up

Anthony Barrese drew particularly fine playing from his St. Louis Symphony
musicians who reveled in the richness and lyrical detail of Smetana’s
writing. At times there were even potent suggestions of Wagner, such as in the
superlative sustained “sun” passages. Maestro Barrese’s assured reading
winningly rendered all of the sprightly folk elements, and he shaped the
performance with stylistic acumen

KISS_9.gif(Center, L to R) Garrett Sorenson as Luk·ö, Matthew Burns as Palouk˝ Otec, Matthew Worth as Tomeö and members of the company in Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

As Vendulka, Corinne Winters soundly demonstrated that she has made good on
all the wonderful promise she displayed in seasons past. Ms. Winters struck
just the right balance between the girl’s stubbornness and the soft core that
it conceals. Her singing above the staff was laser-perfect, thrilling in its
lustrous intensity. Her substantial soprano also speaks well in the lower
ranges where a hint of darkness ensures good projection, though occasionally at
the cost of the diverse palette of colors she has at her command in the upper
half of her instrument. In all respects, this was a decisive performance

Garrett Sorenson’s Lukas more than held his own against this adamant
kiss-denier. He has a boyishly appealing demeanor and a hefty tenor of gleam
and thrust. His technique is secure and free, and when he pours out the sound
there is ample stentorian power on display. But Mr. Sorenson also did some
ravishing, tormented phrases that he underplayed with moving results. Indeed,
his overall excellence made me wonder (hope?): is a superb Peter
possibly in our midst?

Matthew Worth’s refined baritone has been on display at any number of the
nation’s high profile assignments recently and with good reason: his bright,
fresh baritone, virile and buzzy in lower patches, sails easily up to tenor
territory seemingly at will. As Tomes, he cuts a fine figure, relaxed and
appealing. Gerdine Artist Charles Z. Owens showed off a bass of real quality as
the “old” smuggler Matous, and he was wisely allowed to use his lean young
frame, perfect comic timing, and puppy dog energy to enliven the proceedings.
Nor was Elizabeth Barton the right age for Vendulka’s “aunt” Martinka,
but Ms. Barton’s plummy, generous mezzo compensated nicely. Emily
Duncan-Brown as the servant Barce only had one big aria, but she sang it for
all it was worth and her silvery lyric delivery was enchanting. Matthew
Burns’ incisive bass and concentrated delivery brought an electric charge to
his every scene as the crotchety father. Robert Ainsley’s choral preparation
was full-throated and meticulous. The smugglers’ “all clear” chorus was a
model of diction and control

Pirates_8.gif(L to R) Deanna Breiwick as Mabel, Matthew Plenk as Frederic, and members of the chorus in Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

I would be hard pressed to imagine a livelier, more colorful, better sung
(and played) Pirates of Penzance than the thoroughly delightful
production inhabiting the stage of the Loretto-Hilton. The invigorating pace,
the unbridled good spirits, and the spot-on comic delivery threatened to
permanently impose a broad grin on my face.

The Dream Team responsible for so fully realizing this G&S confection
was led by the accomplished director-choreographer Se·n Curran. Mr. Curran
built on the resounding successes he has given us in past seasons (most
especially a vivacious Daughter of the Regiment) and he now knows the
venue inside out. His blocking took full advantage of the thrust configuration
and his inventive comic touches landed with breezy regularity.

If the choreography of Act One’s finale suddenly abandoned character-based
movement and morphed into (well-executed) Broadway jazz squares, and if the
stage business nearing the end of Two descended into almost relentless
busy-ness, what the hell, tell that to the belly laughing audience who ate it
all up with a spoon. Se·n knew what he was doing, and what he was doing was
very very crowd-pleasing. By the time Queen Victoria herself made an
unscheduled appearance, we willingly followed him anywhere he led

James Schuette’s vibrant setting was at first all warm gold tones set off
by accents of blue squares, backed by stylized waves, and featuring a sort of
pop-up-book pirate ship of various rolling components. And all this was set off
by a lavish gold proscenium arch with rich red drape, and topped by a skull and
crossbones crest for a perfect establishment of time, place, and performance
style. For the second act, a star curtain proved an effective backdrop for a
Hollywood-esque graveyard that was a clever environment to suggest ancestors,
heritage, and comically ominous plot development. Mr. Schuette excelled even
more with his glorious period costumes, properly lavish for the high born,
prankish for the pirates, and aptly Keystone-ish for the Kops

Pirates_2.gif (L to R) Maria Zifchak as Ruth, Matthew Plenk as Frederic, and Bradley Smoak as the Pirate King

Tom Watson arguably did his best work here, which is to say some of the best
wig and make-up work in the business. The young ladies were impeccable coiffed,
the pirates suitably scruffy, and Ruth’s transformation was telling and
visually engaging. Christopher Akerlind’s lighting was so effective as to
seem effortless

In the pit young conductor Ryan McAdams kept everything bubbling and
effervescent, never letting the mood descend into overt sentimentality. Maestro
McAdams controlled his large forces with skill (as in the sublime amassed
choral passages, thank you again Mr. Ainsley), and kept a tight rein on the
numerous stretches of perilous patter

If his current over-the-top performance is any indication, Bradley Smoak
could own the part of the Pirate King. His vocal accomplishments certainly set
the standard for polished singing of the role, and he uses his good looks and
lanky physique to superb comic effect. There is not a “take” that goes
amiss, not a twitch of his sword that is not well-considered, and his
light-footed traversal of Mr. Curran’s dance steps was assured and appealing.
Has any King besides Bradley ever executed high kicks like a seasoned hoofer?
Mr. Smoak dominated the stage with a performance of consummate wit, inspired
clowning, resonant singing, and star power to spare.

No other role in the piece affords quite the some over-sized opportunity,
but that didn’t stop the rest of the cast from making mighty impressions.
Matthew Plenk was a model Frederic, strapping, boyish, and possessed of a
meaty, pliable tenor that could not only caress a phrase with warmly sublime
tone, but could also summon up reserves of clarion power to make it quite
believable that he could literally bowl young ladies over as the staging
suggests. Deanna Breiwick was cute as a button as Mabel, and her honeyed
soprano was up to all the role’s technical demands as she dispatched the
tricky parodies of operatic coloratura with precision and ease

Pagliacci_6.gifKelly Kaduce as Nedda and Tim Mix as Tonio

Seasoned performer Maria Zifchak was luxury casting as the
anything-but-matronly Ruth, her ripe mezzo enlivening and enriching the part
beyond its usual interpretation. The success of General Stanley usually rises
or falls on the enunciation of the rapid-fire text to his world famous patter
song, and Hugh Russell’s nimble delivery did not disappoint. His wiry,
fidgety persona and pleasing baritone did much to flesh out a well-rounded
character. Jason Eck used his solid stature to good advantage as a determined
Police Sergeant, and he showed off a fresh, sterling vocal production that was
more baritone than bass. Mr. Eck shone in the middle to high registers, but the
awkward writing in the extreme lows of the range were a bit less impressive

Jaime Korkos (Edith), Corrie Stallings (Kate), and Katrina Galka (Isabelle)
made solid impressions in their featured moments, acting with real commitment
and defined purpose, and singing with effortless aplomb. Tobias Greenhalgh’s
well-schooled baritone lent fine support as Samuel, and his inspired swaggering
and comic capabilities suggest he himself may be a Pirate King in the making.
The accomplishment of all four of these exceptional young performers once again
makes a potent testament to the depth and success of OTSL’s Gerdine Young
Artist program

The idea of pairing the verismo operas Il Tabarro (Puccini) and
Pagliacci (Leoncavallo) may not be new but it remains a potent
match-up. Both pieces treat stories of ill-fated love triangles that culminate
in sudden violent retribution. It was wise to place the more famous opera
second and doubly wise to seek out experienced vocal practitioners who had the
chops to fulfill the musical demands. Curiously, although director Ron Daniels
stage both works, they seemed to spring from two different sensibilities and
skill setsPagliacci_3.gif(L to R) Tim Mix as Tonio, Kelly Kaduce as Nedda, and Robert Brubaker as Canio

Pagliacci (The Clowns) was a marvel of controlled tension, passions
seething just below the surface, intense encounters, complex character
development, and specificity of actions. Conversely, Il Tabarro (The
Cloak) was generically flat with slight chemistry between the performers, no
discernible heat or subtext supporting the words, and implausible physical
placement such as having Giorgetta and Luigi singing full voice to each other
across the width of the stage when they should have been hissing conspiratorial
comments to each other under their breath in close proximity

Although director Daniels made use of the entire auditorium as a playing
space for both shows, in Pagliacci it was integral, in
Tabarro it felt gratuitous. That he is an accomplished director was
amply evidenced by the highly detailed work in the second piece, making his
intentions in the first seem a puzzling, deliberate choice

The cast was up to their assignments. Emily Pulley has a plush, throbbing,
responsive soprano that is a perfect match for the demands of the unhappy
Giorgetta. While at full throttle she seemed to be intent to fill a house three
times the size of the current venue, she has the means to do it. Her more
conversational passages had equally great presence and import. On other
occasions, I have seen Ms. Pulley delve more deeply into a character, and
Giorgetta is this opera’s most complex personality. In future outings I might
urge her to dig deeper. Tim Mix was a bit young for the role of Michele, both
in vocal personality and maturity. Mr. Mix has a rolling baritone of natural
beauty and pristine production. His instrument is thrillingly even up and down
the range. What he could not quite yet suggest was the world-weariness or
dangerous resolution necessary to inform the drama


On the other hand, Robert Brubaker’s heroic tenor easily encompassed
Luigi’s bitter determination, but could not as easily be convincing when it
came to communicating youthful ardor. Still, he handled the cruelly exposed and
sustained tessitura with reliable professionalism.

The smaller roles were all cast from strength. Matthew DiBattista was a far
less wasted Tinca than usual, his tenor ringing out freely. Thomas Hammons
brought his experience to bear for a well-sung, characterful Talpa. Arguably
the most wholly successful of the principals was Margaret Gawrysiak, whose
traversal of the eccentric Frugola was marked by a focussed, joyfully produced
mezzo that gave much pleasure. The Gerdine Young Artists reliably filled out
the smaller roles, with the sweet-voiced Alexis Aime and Michael Kuhn
especially affecting as the pair of strolling lovers

Riccardo Hernandez devised a commendable set design for the double bill,
using a grainy black and white photo of a barge as a ‘backdrop’ (hung in
the main drape position) for Tabarro fronted by a simple suggestion of
the boat deck on the apron. For the Leoncavallo, he opened the stage up and
filled it with a large marquee sign Circo that at first lay in state
like a relic from the Las Vegas Neon Museum. It spoke volumes about the ruined
lives parading before us and practically, it even served as the fence through
which Silvio comes and, more important, escapes. Mr. Hernandez adds a few set
pieces to complete the improvisatory settings. For the “performance” within
the performance, the Circo gets raised and chaser lights sputter to
life. A rolling stage comes on, and real theatre seats roll in place. Finishing
off the ‘look’ is a huge skewed photo of a rather ominous clown in a
surreal blood red and white blow-up.

Tabarro_3.gifRobert Brubaker as Luigi and Emily Pulley as Giorgetta

Several performers did admirable double duty. Mr. Brubaker was back as a
coiled spring of a Canio, and he sang with such searing power and total
commitment that we forgave the phrase or two that frayed a bit under pressure.
Mr. Mix presented an especially well-sung Tonio, although his youthful
characterization was more rambunctious than truly menacing. He did reaffirm my
thinking that this solid talent is a voice to watch. Mr. DiBattista shone even
more brightly as Beppe than he had as Tinca, and his brief Serenade was
lovingly voiced. But the evening’s total triumph belonged to our Nedda

Has anyone ever seen a performance of Pagliacci’s heroine that
could rightly be called a ‘tour de force’? I didn’t think so. Well, now
we have, as the dynamo named Kelly Kaduce swept all before her. That she has a
secure, malleable, soprano voice capable of considerable power as well as
glowing effects goes without saying. But it is also just possible that Ms.
Kaduce is the finest actress on the operatic stage today. There was no
milli-second of her completely thought-out performance that was not informed by
innovative business and deeply internalized motivation. Kelly combined physical
comedy worthy of Lucille Ball, dramatic detailing worthy of Meryl Streep, and
sultry beauty worthy of Angelina Jolie. And she sings, too!

In an era where singers, directors, conductors and productions can often
seem routinely interchangeable on world stages, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
successfully keeps defining “festival opera.”

James Sohre


Emile Griffith, Retired: Arthur Woodley; Luis Griffith: Brian
Arreola; Young Emile, the Champion: Aubrey Allicock; Emelda Griffith: Denyce
Graves; Ring Announcer: Christopher Hutchinson; Howie Albert, Trainer: Roberth
Orth; Kathy Hagan, Bar Owner: Meredith Arwady; Cousin Blanche/Sadie Griffith:
Chabrelle Williams; Little Emile: Jordan Jones; Young Man in a Bar: Lorenzo
Miguel Garcia; Benny “Kid” Paret/Benny, Jr.: Victor Ryan Robertson;
Conductor: George Manahan; Director: James Robinson; Set Design: Allen Moyer;
Costume Design: James Schuette; Video and Projection Design: Greg Emetaz;
Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind; Sound Design: Rusty Wandall; Wig and
Make-Up Design: Tom Watson; Choreographer: Se·n Curran; Chorus Master: Robert

The Kiss

Martinka: Elizabeth Batton; Vendulka: Corinne Winters; Paloucky:
Matthew Burns; Barce: Emily Duncan-Brown; Tomes: Matthew Worth; Lukas: Garrett
Sorenson; Matous: Charles Z. Owens; Straznik: Spencer Viator; Echoes: Summer
Hassan, Nicole Haslett; Conductor: Anthony Barrese; Director: Michael Gieleta;
Set Design: James Macnamara; Costume Design: Fabio Toblini; Lighting Design:
Christopher Akerlind; Wig and Make-Up Design: Tom Watson; Choreographer: Se·n
Curran; Chorus Master: Robert Ainsley

The Pirates of Penzance

Frederic: Matthew Plenk; Pirate King: Bradley Smoak; Samuel: Tobias
Greenhalgh; Ruth: Maria Zifchak; General Stanley: Hugh Russell; Edith: Jamie
Korkos; Kate: Corrie Stallings; Isabel: Katrina Galka; Mabel: Deanna Breiwick;
Police Sergeant: Jason Eck; Conductor: Ryan McAdams; Director and
Choreographer: Se·n Curran; Set and Costume Design: James Schuette; Lighting
Design: Christopher Akerlind; Wig and Make-Up Design: Tom Watson; Chorus
Master: Robert Ainsley

Il Tabarro & Pagliacci

Luigi/Canio: Robert Brubaker; Nedda: Kelly Kaduce; Giorgetta: Emily
Pulley; Michele/Tonio: Tim Mix; Silvio: Troy Cook; Tinca/Beppe: Matthew
DiBattista; Frugola: Margaret Gawrysiak; Talpa: Thomas Hammons; Peasant One:
Lorenzo Garcia; Peasant Two: Samuel Schultz; Song Vendor: Spencer Lang; Lover
One: Alexis Aime; Lover Two: Michael Kuhn; Offstage Soprano: Leela Subramaniam;
Offstage Tenor: Benjamin Werley; Conductor: Ward Stare; Director: Ron Daniels;
Set Design: Riccardo Hernandez; Costume Design: Emily Rebholz; Lighting Design:
Christopher Akerlind; Wig and Make-Up Design: Tom Watson; Choreographer: Se·n
Curran; Chorus Master: Robert Ainsley

image_description=Robert Orth as Howie Albert and Aubrey Allicock as Young Emile Griffith [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis]
product_title=St. Louis: Winner and Still Champion
product_by=A review by James Sohre
product_id=Above: Robert Orth as Howie Albert and Aubrey Allicock as Young Emile Griffith

Photos by Ken Howard courtesy of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis