Saturday, December 9, 2017

PSU Opera recreates a Parisian salon and blends poignancy with humor in “Cendrillon”

Maeve Stier and Luke Smith
With charming ingenuity, Portland State Opera created the atmosphere of a fin de siecle Parisian salon and topped it off with fine and spirited production on Friday evening (December 1) of Pauline Viardot’s “Cendrillon” (“Cinderella”). The cozy confines of the Lincoln Studio Theater was the perfect place for the cast of young singers to engage and enchant a full house with a rare operetta that probably had never before been performed in Portland. Directed by Brenda Nuckton with an arrangement for piano trio by Chuck Dillard, the singers delivered an outstanding performance that put a smile on the faces of the audience.

Viardot (1821-1910) was a famous mezzo-soprano who studied singing with her mother, piano with Franz Liszt, and composition with Antoine Reicha. She enjoyed a successful career in Europe and Russia and set up a renown intellectual salon in Paris, hosting the eminent composers and writers of the day from Berlioz and Chopin to Dickens and Turgenev. In her later years, Viardot taught singing and composed around 200 songs and a number of operettas. Her “Cendrillon,” which she wrote in 1894, is an elegant and witty retelling of "Cinderella."
Maeve Stier and Megan Uhrinak
Dressed in period costume, PSU Opera’s singers invited the audience into the studio theater with its stage set as Viardot’s Parisian salon. One of the singers witty announced that the space was renamed the “Potato Theater where a single potato can be a veritable feast” and encouraged listeners to donate to the PSU food pantry. That worked perfectly with the Cinderella story later in the show, because Cinderella was generous with the poor.

The salon continued in the spirit of a variety show. Cellist Hasan Abualhaj gave an outstanding performance of the Prelude to Bach’s Cello Suit No. 1 in G major. This was followed by a series of charades in which the audience guessed which opera was pantomimed (“Tosca,” “The Barber of Seville,” “Carmen,” and “Romeo and Juliet”). An elegant dance featuring two PSU students and a game musical chairs involving to participants from the audience then led to Madame Viardot (Megan Uhrinak) handing out sheets of music for an impromptu performance of “Cendrillon” to her salon guests.
Jereme Wilkie
As the scores were gradually discarded, the operetta unfolded, magically drawing everyone into the Cinderella story. Led by the splendid singing and acting of Maeve Stier in the title role, the entire cast gave an outstanding performance. Sisters Magelonne (Rebecca Yakos) and Armelinde (Kaitlyn Lawrence) were convincingly haughty, and Baron Pictordu (Jonathan Roberts) had just the right degree of superficiality and arrogance. The dashing and perfect Prince (Luke Smith) was countered by the swagger of Barigoule who wonderfully got carried away venturing into a row of audience members. The Fiary Godmother (Uhrinak) delivered her lines with a wink and a nod, and Footman (Eric Olson) made sure that everything was served up with a dash of élan.

At one point, the freeze-frame action added a touch of poignancy, but that was balanced with excellent humor throughout the production, including a reverse-dance sequence, disco-mirror-ball projections, stuffed mice instead of horses, and toy lizards for footmen. Excellent diction by the singers conveyed the text, in English, very clearly so that no projected titles were needed, and the piano trio (pianist Dillard, violinist Jonathan Gray, and cellist Abualhaj) accompanied the singers with great sensitivity.

The production of “Cendrillon” once again proved that Christine Meadows, director of PSU Opera, has an uncanny ability to find works that match up very well with each new crop of students in the PSU Opera program. She has the magic wand!

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