Review | When should a story become an opera? Pittsburgh premiere of ‘In a Grove’ is outstanding

By Jeremy Reynolds

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


There's more to opera than memorable tunes and histrionic sopranos leaping to their death.

With today's plethora of possible mediums for any given story — film, TV, theater, etc. — an opera needs to present a compelling case for why it's being told as an opera as opposed to a more accessible format. There needs to be a reason the characters are singing, a reason that the score plays an integral role in the drama for a work to be successful.


"In a Grove," Pittsburgh Opera's latest production and a world premiere, does just that with style and finesse. A compact libretto by Stephanie Fleishman pairs beautifully with composer Christopher Cerrone’s taut, tonal score and its electronic effects.


It's an insightful, thought-provoking exploration of the nature of truth.


In short, a truly excellent opera and a terrific premiere.


The plot is simple. A woodcutter has found a body in a grove, a priest reveals he'd encountered the victim earlier, an outlaw sentenced to death admits culpability and recounts his encounter with the victim. The victim's wife, now missing, tells listeners of the same encounter from her perspective. A medium channels the dead man's spirit and he explains his death from his own point of view.


Cerrone uses drones throughout, setting up a tense atmosphere that he punctuates with often monotone vocal lines when characters are narrating, more melodic and lyrical when they're reenacting their memories. When the outlaw tempts the victim into the grove, for example, the music is seductive, lyrical and enchantingly tuneful. As the testimonies progress, the music wraps around to reference itself with subtle but appreciable differences — an electronically increased reverberation effect here, a distorted voice to reflect a faulty memory there.


At Saturday's premiere, conductor Antony Walker led the four singers and a small ensemble in the balcony of Pittsburgh Opera's Strip District 200-seat headquarters, transformed with a narrow strip of stage splitting listeners into two sides. A transparent screen, in turn, split the stage in two, a visual suggestion of a filter that skews, however slightly. Harsh lighting and a smoke machine complete the show's shadowy aesthetic, with director Mary Birnbaum helming a hazy, dream-like interpretation of the opera.


All instruments and singers were amplified. The singers, a trio of Pittsburgh Opera resident artists — early career singers attending a two year residency at the Steel City's company — and countertenor Chuanyuan Liu performed with inspired levels of clarity and nuance, making the most of Cerrone's straightforward vocal writing. Liu and baritone Yazid Gray were particularly effective, the former with a floating, ethereal performance as the medium and the latter in his snarling, manipulative portrayal of the outlaw. Soprano Madeline Ehlinger and tenor Andrew Turner were strong also. The only tiny point that could improve was the quicker-paced fight choreography, which felt out of place and rushed on Saturday.


Fleischmann's libretto preserved the complex ponderings of the original short story by Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa, while Cerrone's score allowed listeners time to ponder and keep up with both the drama and its implications, a unique trait to the pace of opera. In a single short hour, the opera creates its own self-contained sound world. This isn't the first of such feats for this composer, who caught the opera world's imagination with "Invisible Cities," staged in Los Angeles' Union Station and a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in music.


Despite this success, "In a Grove" is his first opera since.


This is exactly the sort of work the opera world should be programming. The field's quest for "relevance" often takes new productions to political grounds. That's not a bad thing, but to my ears, opera isn't an ideal format for handling such issues. It's best suited to broader scale musings and more timeless questions than pushing particular agendas or simply memorializing our times. Los Angeles Opera company co-produced the work with Pittsburgh Opera, and it'll premiere there in a future season. Beyond that, this is a smart, captivating work that deserves additional performances.


This production repeats Tues. at 7 p.m., Fri. at 7:30 p.m., Sun. at 2 p.m., Tues. March 1 at 7 p.m. and Thurs. March 3 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are at pittsburghopera.org.


Read original Pittsburgh Post-Gazette review here.

For more information, click here.