It is not easy to present some of the most adventurous theater in town when you are an opera company, but Pittsburgh Opera keeps doing it. The company’s 2022-23 season mixes a couple of all-time crowd pleasers, The Marriage of Figaro and Il Trovatore, with four operas that will be seen (and heard) for the first time here. Two of these are works revived from the repertoire: Handel’s florid Ariodante—popular once, then long forgotten—and Dvořák’s folk-tale-based Rusalka. The season closes with a pair of contemporary operas inspired by true events, the chilling Denis & Katya and the revolutionary African-American opera We Shall Not Be Moved.
Season subscription packages are now on sale at the Pittsburgh Opera website. Here are capsule previews of the operas in order of their run dates.
Anton Dvořák’s Rusalka (September 17 – 25) has been called an operatic precursor of Disney’s The Little Mermaid but let’s not go there. The 1901 opera is haunting, at times humorous, and a recent production at New York’s Metropolitan Opera was reviewed as a “shockingly dark, sexy drama.” In Slavic folk legends, rusalka is a generic term for a female water sprite. These creatures are said to be dangerously seductive, sometimes luring young men to their deaths. The opera’s title character—as interpreted in the libretto by Czech poet Jaroslav Kvapil—does not have such malice in mind, although her infatuation with a human leads to a tangled web of dire consequences. Rusalka will be sung in Czech, with English supertitles, at Benedum Center.
Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro plays at the Benedum November 5 – 13. As longtime fans know well, this is a saucy and suspenseful comic opera in which the valet Figaro and his bride-to-be, Susanna, must outwit the scheming Count Almaviva who has designs on the latter. Figaro was Mozart’s first collaboration with the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, a man well versed in amorous intrigue: Da Ponte was a Catholic priest who’d been banished from Venice for his own escapades in that department. He and Mozart would later conspire to write Don Giovanni, presented in a stunning production by Pittsburgh Opera in 2019. Any newcomers to opera who enjoyed that one should find a merry counterpoint in The Marriage of Figaro.
Handel’s Ariodante (January 21 – 29, 2023) will be presented in the Pittsburgh CAPA School Theater. German composer George Frideric Handel spent most of his career in England, where he produced great works including the Messiah oratorio, sung in English to passages from the King James Bible. By contrast, Ariodante is set in medieval Scotland but is sung in Italian. (Perhaps because persnickety London opera-goers of the 1700s believed that if it wasn’t Italian, it wasn’t opera.) Ariodante is an opera seria concerning a Scottish prince who, somewhat like Shakespeare’s Othello, is tricked into thinking his true love has been unfaithful. Unfortunately the opera became a one-hit wonder, neglected for centuries after its 1735 premiere. In recent times Ariodante has gained new appreciation for its soaring music, spectacular arias, and enchanting dance sequences.
Pittsburgh Opera returns to Benedum Center to present Verdi’s Il Trovatore from March 25 – April 2, 2023. A big stage is needed for this big opera, which has memorable scenes such as the Anvil Chorus. Although Verdi composed Il Trovatore during a time of personal turmoil—and had to find a new writer to finish the libretto, after librettist Salvadore Cammarano died in mid-project—the opera’s score has been lauded for powerfully evoking the emotions in each twist of a complex story. That story is a tragic tale of vengeance and ill-fated love amid strife between a warlord and a rebel army. Il Trovatore was a smashing success when it opened in Rome in 1853, and has remained a fixture of the repertoire ever since.
The season will close with two cutting-edge contemporary works, a chamber opera and a mainstage production, running on nearly parallel schedules. Both deal with themes of alienation and violence, albeit from very different angles.
Denis & Katya (May 6 – 20, 2023) is a two-person opera dramatizing the true story of Russian teenagers Denis Muravyov and Katya Vlasova. In 2016 they skipped school, ran away together and holed up in a vacant summer home where, among other things, they found firearms. Jauntily calling themselves Bonnie and Clyde, they livestreamed on social media from inside the house until dying in a standoff with police. The opera, by British composer Philip Venables and librettist Ted Huffman, uses the two singers in multiple roles along with mixed media to re-trace the chain of events. It is said to be riveting. Denis & Katya premiered at Opera Philadelphia in 2019 and will play here at Pittsburgh Opera’s Bitz Opera Factory.
We Shall Not Be Moved (May 13 – 21, 2023) wraps up the season. This opera is set in a West Philadelphia neighborhood where members of the activist organization MOVE once lived communally. After a tense confrontation with authorities in 1985, police firebombed the house, killing six MOVE members and five of their children. We Shall Not Be Moved imagines a group of homeless teens, sometime later, moving into an abandoned structure at the same location and communing with ghosts of the youth who died. The score, by composer Daniel Bernard Roumain, combines classical strains with those of blues and jazz. The libretto is by spoken-word poet and theater artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and the original 2017 production was directed by renowned choreographer and dancer Bill T. Jones. We Shall Not Be Moved is slated for its Pittsburgh premiere at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center.
Other Pittsburgh Opera programming includes the popular, and free, Brown Bag Opera concerts; and the annual Diamond Horseshoe Ball, Fashion Show, and Maecenas Ball events.
The upcoming season at Pittsburgh Opera is the company’s 84th. It is among the oldest major opera companies in the United States, having remained vital with the type of eclectic programming soon to be on display in 2022-23.
Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer, covers theater for Entertainment Central.