Monday, April 21, 2014

Two Wines from Grapes You May Not Heard of

La Battistina Gavi: Photo Credit Bill Rockwell
    One of the things that makes wine such an interesting subject is the vast catalogue of makers, styles, regions, growing conditions and grape varieties to choose from. Sometimes it seems as if you can have a different bottle of wine each day for the rest of your life without repeating.
    Recently, I had the chance to open two bottles of wine made from grape varieties that were new to me. The first, a 2013  La Battistina Gavi is made from the Cortese grape, grown primarily in the southeastern corner of the Piedmonte section of Northern Italy in and around the town of Gavi where it had a documented use as a wine grape since 1659.
    Overall, the grape resembles Pinot Grigio's flavor profile, but with a bit more acid, a lighter color and a greater depth of fruit. I found the aroma more on the vegetative side something akin to broccoli, carrot and asparagus, but the first taste accents included apple, pear, tangerine and pineapple with a fairly long and faintly sweet  finish. Not overly complex, the wine sometimes referred to as "The Chablis of Italy," is nicely balanced, refreshing and good match for seafood or simply sipping by itself.
    The La Battistina is made from 100% Cortese grapse, which allows the true, unadulterated flavors of the grape to shine. Alcohol is 12% and the suggested retail cost is around $16


Bodega Franco-Espanolas Royal: Photo Credit Bill Rockwell
    My second new find was the Viura grape, also called Macabeo, which is grown in the Rioja region  of northeastern Spain and constitutes 90% of Rioja's white wine production. Again the maker, Bodega Franco-Espanolas uses 100% Viura grapes to make this meant-to-be-drunk young wine with  a slightly tart finish.
    Noted wine writer Jancis Robinson calls Viura "The Cinderella Grape," saying in 2010 that over the past few years she'd "been increasingly impressed by wines made from a grape that is hardly ever written about."
    Again, I discovered vegetative qualities like rhubarb and green beans  on the nose and fruit like apple, apricot, cantaloupe and lemon on the palate.  The Viura's light body and crisp taste makes it refreshingly apt for the summer months, either as an aperitif or as an accompaniment to  fresh fish, oysters, calamari, clams, mussels and lobster.
    More like a Sauvignon Blanc than a Chardonnay, the 2012 Royal has a pale straw color, a light to moderate body and 12% alcohol and is a bargain at $10.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Talented Actress Takes Flight in "Grounded"

Kelly McAndrew in "Grounded" Photo Credit Kristi Jan Hoover
 Dressed in a green flight suit and standing on a lighted cube roughly two feet off the ground and five feet square, actress Kelly McAndrew does the impossible in a City Theatre production of "Grounded."
With no props and little in the way of scenic devices and moving no more than a few inches around her raised dais, she manages, in 80 minutes or so, not only to relate an interesting swatch of the life of a female Air Force pilot but also to conjure cogent images of her singular tale. They include  everything from a raucous bar in which she shares brews with her comrades to the domestic life she shares with her husband and young daughter to the exhilaration she feels when flying her F-16.
At first we see her as an unmarried woman invigorated by the thrill, the challenge,  the speed and the danger of piloting a fighter jet over enemy territory. Although enamored by the blue as she calls the ethereal world she inhabits thousands of feet above the Earth’s surface, her fate takes a sudden turn when she meets a rare man able to accept her gender-bending position of power.
Marriage to the gent soon leads to pink, the color of the result of a test for pregnancy that catapults her out of the cockpit (intense G forces on a jet can induce an abortion and therefore a woman pilot with child is taboo by Air Force regulations) and into the role of a homemaker. While her adjustment to temporary domesticity is made easier by the thought of becoming a mother, she soon itches for her previous life powering a military aircraft through the sky.
Later reassignment brings on yet another color - gray, the color of images on a monitor she’s assigned to watch hours on end linked to the cameras on a drone flying thousands of miles away somewhere over the Near East. At first resistant to her new responsibilities on a base near Las Vegas where she sits in a trailer and stares at the monitor, she eventually rediscovers a bit of her former power fixes when she pushes the button that releases fire power on enemy targets on the ground.
Weeks on the job, however, begin to take their toll: her family life begins to deteriorate and her emotional life is assaulted by the sheer grind of the daily routine and images of the carnage she inflicts.
McAndrew does a magnificent job showing the subtle changes in personality her character undergoes. Abetted by playwright George Brant’s pithy, earthy monologue, she maneuvers in the center of the theater-in-the-round, playing her solo role to all four sides with a tale that’s both topical on a global scale and poignantly personal. Confined to her small platform, she manages to evoke a much larger landscape, one that’s animated and action-packed.
The arc of her experience begins on a near ecstatic note but then travels a gauntlet of emotion and change that makes for a thrilling evening of theater. This one character play certainly throws new insight onto the subject of drones, but through the lens of this talented actress, it also shows how this latest development of technological warfare affects lives on a human scale - both here and abroad.
"Grounded" is at the City Theatre through May 4. Phone 412-431-2489.

Kelly McAndrew in "Grounded" Photo Credit Kristi Jan Hoover

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre to Stage "Don Quixote"

Yung Li in "Don Quixote" Photo Credit Randy Choura

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre will conclude its 2013-14 season with the classic ballet “Don Quixote.”  Inspired by the novel by Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes. the production will feature elaborate sets, bold costumes, classical choreography with a Spanish flair and live  musical accompaniment by the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Orchestra.

Originally created in 1869 for its debut at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow and choreographed by  Marius Petipa, “Don Quixote” has thrilled audiences by its complex choreography, balletic bravado and virtuoso variations created by Petipa, considered the father of  classical ballet.”

For the PBT production, Hannah Carter will be seen dancing one of the flower girl variations and provides insights into this remarkable artistic endeavor. Media  relations manager Meghan McNamara provided additional input.

Q: Hannah, How long has it been since PBT mounted a production of the work? I understand that the wedding scene is considered one of the most technically-demanding sequences in classical ballet?  What elements make it so challenging?

A: PBT last performed Don Quixote in October 2007. This is a technically demanding ballet that requires the highest amount of energy, from start to finish. Everyone is waiting for the final Act III pas de deux, and the dancers still have to make it exciting even though they are tired from all of the dancing they do in the previous acts. The pas de deux requires quite a few balances from Kitri, which if you get it right can look amazing, and you may be able to do it perfectly, but once you’re on stage you are dealing with nerves and the pressure of the audience too, so that can make things harder. At the end of the pas de deux during the coda, Kitri must do 32 fouettes – fast turns on one leg – while holding a fan. Some dancers find that fouettes come naturally to them while others struggle to have the strength to stay up for 32. Either way,it is at the end of the ballet, and the focus is just on you. The rest of the cast stands on the stage at the time and wants the pas de deux to go as well as the principals, so there is always a great atmosphere. 

Q: Since the title character, Don Quixote, is male, does the ballet focus more on the male dancers than most other ballets? I assume the knight errant is on stage most of the time, so is his part one of the most crucial and fundamental to the work?

A: Because of the masculinity and Spanish flair, the male dancers definitely have more to do in this ballet then Swan Lake, for example. The virtuoso movements and high jumps are exciting to watch, and, personally, one of my favorite dances is by the Act I Toreadors, six male corps dancers, which is unusual to have in a classic. Don Quixote is essential to the story, but is not heavily involved onstage the whole time – his is more of a character role and less of a dancing role. Don Quixote's quest for his long-lost love, Dulcinea, keeps you engaged in the storyline and crops up throughout the ballet. I like to think that his love for Dulcinea is portrayed through Kitri and Basilio's love for each other. 

Q: Could you tell us a little about the flower girl variation that will put you in the spotlight?

A: I’m very excited to be dancing this variation. For one, it will be the first variation I will perform on stage, but I also love the choreography. It is not actually the one I would originally lean toward between the two variations, because it is the “jumping variation,” and I wouldn't say that is the strongest aspect of my dancing. But I have loved the challenge and did prefer this one out of the two.

Q: Since the novel and story line is set in Spain, does the music and choreography have a Spanish flavor? Does the choreography allude to say Spanish flamenco or other Spanish folk dances?

A: Absolutely. Throughout the whole of Act I, all of the girls dance with fans and the 'Sequidilla' men have tambourines, and during many of the dances, the cast on the side of the stage are clapping along. There are also a lot of positions the girls stand in with their front foot on point and hands on hips. I would say that the choreography is more on the flamenco side than any other Spanish folk dance, because flamenco can be very classical and that is what is so great about this ballet –  it is 100 percent classical, but with spanish flair.

Q: In this production, the ballet will feature live as opposed to recorded music.  What are the ramifications, if any, posed by this musical option for the dancers? Personally, do you have a preference for live or recorded music? If so, why?

A: I love dancing to live music, and I know that the whole company prefers it when we are dancing with the Orchestra. I think it makes for a more rounded performance when there is live music for the audience and for the performers. Of course, there is the risk of it being too fast or to slow, or someone playing the wrong part, but we have a fantastic conductor, Maestro Charles Barker, and we rehearse before the performances with the orchestra. My favorite moment before a show starts is the sound of the orchestra tuning; it’s like the calm before the storm. 

Q: How true to Cervantes original book does the ballet adhere to and how much of Cervantes humor will we find in the production?

A: The ballet Don Quixote is based on an episode taken from the famous novel Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes Saavreda. The story follows the extravagant Spanish nobleman Alonso Quixana as he seeks adventure under the pseudonym Don Quixote. Along with his sidekick Sancho Panza, Don Quixote bravely sets out to revive chivalry. The novel has long been considered a classic because of its comedic approach to themes of courage, idealism and deception. The ballet portrays episodes of this classic novel. Danced in three acts, “Don Quixote” tells the story of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza as they set out to find Dulcinea, Don Quixote’s version of the ideal woman. In a village, they encounter Kitri, the daughter of  Lorenzo. In the midst of the excitement surrounding Don Quixote’s visit, Kitri runs away with her lover, Basilio, to escape an arranged marriage to the vain nobleman Gamache. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza follow, believing that Kitri is Don Quixote’s Dulcinea. When they find the lovers, however, Don Quixote realizes that Kitri belongs with Basilio. In one of the ballet’s most famous scenes, Don Quixote foolishly attacks a windmill he thinks is endangering his Dulcinea. Lorenzo and Gamache eventually catch up with the runaways and try to force Kitri to marry Gamache. Basilio, her true love, pretends to commit suicide, and Kitri cleverly convinces her father to allow her to wed her lover’s “corpse.”

Q:  The sets and costumes are highlighted as being exceptional. Were they designed in-house? If not where are they from and could you briefly comment on them?

A: The lavish costumes designed by Judanna Lynn contribute to Don Quixote’s vibrant portrayal of past Spanish culture. Colorful flowing fabrics, elaborate feathered hats, and gypsy scarves all add to the impact of the production. For the 2014 production of the ballet, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre is using Houston Ballet’s stage sets and costumes.

Q: Is there anything about the ballet that makes it especially endearing or valued by the dancers? Is it one of those must do ballets of any dance career? If so why?

This is the first time that I will ever perform Don Quixote, and I was so excited when I found out that it was part of our repertoire this season. Everybody knows the music, because the individual dances are so famously performed around the world in gala's or competitions. I would love to perform Kitri in the future, to master the incredible high lifts and jumps, the exciting turns and to perform a character who you don't often see in classical ballet. There has been such an uplifting energy around the whole ballet from the beginning, so much encouragement from the dancers and repetiteurs, and I think it stems from the relaxed happy energy the ballet gives. Everybody is having fun and that’s when a company really gels.

Hannah Carter Photo Credit Nicholas Coppula

 Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre will perform "Don Quixote" at the Benedum Center  April 11 through 13. Phone 412-456-6666.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Pittsburgh Opera’s "La Boheme" a Melodic and Visual Treat

 In need of her ex-lover's attention, Musetta (Sari Gruber) noisily complains of a pain in her foot, and scandalously reveals it - and her petticoats - to concerned onlookers.  Credit David Bachman
At its 1896 premiere in Turin, Giacomo Puccini’s "La Boheme" earned a lukewarm reception, one in which critic Carlo Bersezio wrote that the opera "even as it leaves little impression on the minds of the audience, will leave no great trace upon the history of our lyric theater."
What could he have been thinking? Within a few years, the opera spread like wildfire, getting productions in over 40 countries. Last year alone, "La Boheme" enjoyed 471 performances in various theaters and opera houses around the globe.
After sitting through the current Pittsburgh Opera production at the Benedum Center, the opera’s stellar qualities are obvious. Not only does Puccini incorporate gorgeous melodies and stunning harmonies that seem almost inexhaustible over the course of its four act reach, but librettist Luigi Illica structures a agreeable blend of comedy, romance and melodrama acted out by a colorful mix of characters that get to sung some poignantly touching lyrics by Giuseppe Giacosa.
The exceptional teamwork that went into making "La Boheme" a resounding success 118 years ago is also evident in the Pittsburgh Opera’s current staging. The production starts off strong with the rousing energetic theme of the bohemian group of artists that share a garret in mid-19th century Paris.
Played with lucid lushness by the Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra under the baton of Antony Walker, the orchestra gave exceptional musical support throughout the evening to the cast of talented singers that include not only the principals but also the chorus and children’s chorus who excel in the Act Two panoply that takes place on the streets outside the Café Momus.
The opera takes its name from the bohemian lifestyle so often associated with the café society of artists, poets, musicians and writers who endure financial duress in order to pursue their muse. The opening scene is a playful one in which poet Rodolfo and painter Marcello complain about the coldness of their living quarters, and the pair are soon joined by philosopher Colline and later by musician Schaunard, who arrives with food, wine, firewood and money earned after a recent hire.
Things take an amorous turn when the others leave Rodolfo alone while they pursue the pleasures of the streets. Promising to join them soon, he’s interrupted by a knock on the door. It’s Mimi in need of a light for her candle, which has just gone out. Love at first sight, the couple soon ignite an amorous relationship, one of two that  buoys the plot line. The other, a feisty off-again, on-again affair, takes place between Marcello and the voluptuous, though fickle and promiscuous Musetta.
Although they have broken up, Mimi (Leah Crocetto) finds her way back to Rodolfo (Eric Barry) in her dying moments. Credit David Bachman

Making her Pittsburgh Opera debut as Mimi, soprano Leah Crocetto gives a stunning performance that starts with her lovely introductory aria "Mi chiamo Mimi" and continues both vocally and dramatically through to her emotionally heightened end-of-opera denouement.
Tenor Eric Barry, equally impressive as Rodolfo, brings to the stage a self-confident, pristinely clear and bracing voice to which he adds more than competent acting skills.
As Marcello, Troy Cook has a sonorous baritone and a colorful stage presence that’s fun to watch when cavorting with his artsy retinue and especially when pitted against the fiery, conniving and manipulative, Musetta. As the dazzling imperious vamp, soprano Sari Gruber is nothing short of electrifying, vocally, visually and dramatically, especially in her haughty Act Two rendition of "Quando me’n vo’soletto," a melody that’s probably familiar even to those who don’t attend opera.
Phillip Gay as Colline and Dimitrie Lazich as Schaunard add emotional and comedic impact to the production as well as commendable vocal support, especially in a stunning Act Four quartet. Particularly delicious playing dual basso buffo roles of Benoit, the bohemians’ landlord, and Alcindoro, a wealthy older man smitten by Musetta’s charms, Kevin Gavin excites with both his voice and his wonderful way of tickling the funny bone.
To avoid paying rent, he bohemians trick their  landlord Benoit (Kevin Glavin, center) into revealing a marital indiscretion and then throw him out in mock indignation. L-R,  Dimitrie Lazich as Schuaunard; Resident Artist Phillip Gay as Colline; Eric Barry as Rodolfo; Troy Cook as Marcello. Credit David Bachman

Co-stage directors Tomer Zvulun and Helena Binder pull out all the stops in making the Act Two revelry in front of Café Momus a scene to remember, packing the stage with a stilt-walker, a juggler, a parade of live musicians and packs of children following the footsteps of Parpignol (Christopher Toeller), a toy peddler.
Add into the mix, set designer Michael Yeargan’s evocative winter scene on the outskirts of Paris in which snowflakes flutter non-stop through the air and you end up with a "La Boheme" that’s nothing short of a melodic and visual treat.
Pittsburgh Opera’s production of "La Boheme" concludes with two final performances at the Benedum Center at 8 p.m. on April 4 and at 2 p. m. on April 6. Phone 412-456-6666.