Thursday, July 24, 2014

Rosé - Often Overlooked But Now Catching on

Chateau de Berne Rose Casts an Elegant Golden Hue Photo Credit Bill Rockwell

For years, I’ve been touting (and enjoying) the pleasures and virtues of rosé wine.  This from someone who puts White Zinfandel, all too often sweet and syrupy, at the very bottom of my list of drinkable wines.
American wine drinkers familiar with White Zinfandel probably equate rosés with the sweet, pinkish wines that originally came out of California in the 1970s and still do. But Old World wine consumers know that rosés can be bone dry, palatable and pleasantly flavorful.
Rosés are made with red grapes, but instead of letting the skins rest among the pressed juices for a prolonged period, they’re removed before they impart a deep red color to the juice (usually for a few hours up to several days), leaving behind a wine that can vary in color from pale pink to nearly red. As a rule, the longer the skins sit on the juice, the deeper the color.
Rosés have an often overlooked advantage in that they’re very versatile. They’re a perfect marriage to barbecue, they lighten up any picnic and are a good pick for entrees like chicken, pork, seafood and dessert or just sipping on its own. Inexpensive to produce, they are usually equally inexpensive on the wine store shelf as well. Another advantage is that they don’t need to age and are ready to drink soon after bottling.
Rosés have the advantages of both red and white wines and occupy the middle ground between these two wine types. While less intense and robust than reds, they have more body and depth than whites.
Recently I came across a dry rosé from Provence, the region most often equated with the heartland of rosé wines, although they are now also made in places as far flung as Chile, South Africa, California and New Zealand.
Chateau de Berne has been making wine since at least 1750 and currently tends 292 acres of vines in Provence between the Mediterranean and Verdon Canyon. The Chateau’s 2013 rosé, made with 50% Cinsault and 50% Grenache, comes in an unusually shaped square bottle in which the wine has a tint of golden color. The vintage is very dry and reminds me of a Sauvignon Blanc.
The 2013 vintage earned a 90 score and a Publisher’s Pick from the Wine Enthusiast and 89 points from the Win Spectator. It was also a finalist in the Ultimate Wine Challenge with 90 points.
Pale salmon in color and with 13.5% alcohol, the rosé’s flavors are very subtle and delicate with insinuations of citrus, apple and peach. Chilled, the Chateau de Berne rosé is a wonderful summer treat that can also be enjoyed year-round. Suggested retail price is $19.99.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

"Ariadne" - The Essence of Divine Music

Robert Frankenberry and Elizabeth Baldwin in "Ariadne on Naxos" Photo Credit Patti Brahim
    It’s all too infrequent that a work of art is able to grab you so strongly that the emotional intensity it engenders sets of a set of electrical impulses that rise through the chakras of the spinal column and exit the head creating  a sense of rapture. When the experience does occur, it’s quite salient and downright pleasurable.
One such experience bowled me over again during Friday evening’s opera performance of "Ariadne on Naxos" currently getting a staging by the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh. Ironically, it came in Act Two after I’d been only ho-hummed by the opening first half comic shenanigans that sets up the subsequent blissful musical conjurations penned by Richard Strauss, a composer Canadian pianist Glenn Gould cited as "the greatest musical figure" of the 20th Century.
Without sounding too New Age in my references to chakras, I was quite unprepared for the evening’s musical magic. With close to 200 live operas, maybe more, to my credit, "Ariadne" was not one I’d seen before. I went into the theater on Friday an "Ariadne" virgin and came out spent, aesthetically speaking.
Size does matter, and, in the case of this production, small and intimate wins out over large and grandiose. It’s amazing what can be done on a space-limited stage and with minimal set resources but with a fine cast of singers and a scaled down, but lush-sounding and expressive orchestra under the masterful baton of conductor Brent McMunn.
The evening’s biggest asset was Strauss and his post-Wagnerian sensibility that somehow manages, in "Ariadne," to wed comedia dell’arte slapstick with high art aesthetics in an improbable but intriguing plot. Just as the sound track of a top rated horror film can keep the adrenaline flowing with stressful angst over a prolonged period, Strauss’ music for "Ariadne’ has the opposite effect - an exalted immersion in a cloud of beauty and tranquillity that has more emotional curative power than ten sessions with a shrink.
As the title character, Elizabeth Baldwin sang with  a confident vocal opulence and played both the parts of the abandoned lover of Act Two and the haughty opera diva of the prologue with convincing realism. As Bacchus, the god who transforms her lachrymose desolation into a new reason to live, tenor Robert Frankenberry had the vocal fire to spark to the musical mix into lofty territory, and Erika Hennings, cast in the breeches role of the Composer, sings with idealistic fervor that captures the aesthetic aspirations of the naively visionary artist.

Elizabeth Fischborn as Zerbinetta Photo Credit Patti Brahim

The real star of the production turned out to be Elizabeth Fischborn, the pert and frivolous dancing girl, Zerbinetta, in act one that becomes a vocal, charismatic powerhouse in act two. Diminutive in statue but long in talent, Fischborn makes the lengthy, stamina-testing obstacle course of an aria, ‘Grossmachtige Prinzessin, wer verstunde,’ nicht, sung in English as are all OTP productions, seem as effortless as singing a lullaby.
As consoling nymphs, Leigh Tomlinson, Amelia Jardon and Bethany Worrell provided some lovely lyrical harmonies and added a good deal visual flourishes with their almost choreographed movement and gestures and demonstrative facial expressions. As harlequins, Errin Brooks, Eric Lindsey and Benjamin Taylor nourished the opera with a hefty soupcon of slapstick, not to mention accomplished singing. Especially impressive was Taylor’s sonorous baritone and magnetic stage presence that should take this young 26-year old from Baltimore onward to a successful operatic career.
A word must also be said for the fine work of costume designer, Cynthia Albert, who robed the cast in creative costumes not only in "Ariadne" but even more so in "The Merry Widow," another of OTP’s 2014 Summerfest offerings.
On the way out of the theater, I mentioned to artistic director, Jonathan Eaton, who also directed the production, what an emotionally cleansing effect the opera had on me. He seemed pleased and understanding - despite my silly talk of chakras and such.
"Ariadne of Naxos" is at the Twentieth Century Club, 2401 Bigelow Blvd in Pittsburgh’s Oakland section at 2 p.m. on July 20 and at 7:30 p.m. on July 26. Phone 412 326-9687.

Zerbinetta and Players Photo Credit Patti Brahim

Sunday, July 6, 2014

SummerFest 2014 - An Exciting Mix of Musical Entertainment

Adam Hill as Matt (The Boy), Rachel Eve Holmes as Luisa (The Girl) and Sean Cooper as El Gallo in SummerFest's "The Fantasticks" Photo Credit: New Place Collaborations 

    In the short span of 17 days, Pittsburgh audiences can immerse themselves in  a wide range of musical entertainment set in the gorgeous Art Deco ambiance of the Twentieth Century Club in Oakland.
The third annual installment of SummerFest, which runs from July 10 to 27, features three main stage productions, an opera especially written for children, a commissioned opera inspired by the work and life of ecologist pioneer, Rachel Carson, numerous recitals, post-performance cabarets and more.
"Pittsburgh is the home of  the world-renowned Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and SummerFest fills the city’s musical niche in their summer off-season," said Jonathan Eaton, artistic director of  the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, reinvented over the past three years as SummerFest. "Other than the Three Rivers Arts Festival, SummerFest is one of Pittsburgh’s largest festivals of the year."
And large it is with a company of 60 singers, three conductors, three stage directors, an orchestra of 25 professionals and seven pianists. Patrons can immerse themselves in a single weekend and catch almost all of the mainstage productions. Or they can pick and choose their way through nearly three weeks of SummerFest offerings. Either way, big discounts over single ticket purchases are available with the acquisition of a festival passport.
The musical offerings begin with a recital by Butler-born, mezzo-soprano Marianne Cornetti at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, July 10. Ms. Cornetti has sung in many of the opera capitals of Europe as well as the Metropolitan Opera of New York. Her accompanist, Brent McMunn, is in his third SummerFest and also conducts this year’s "Ariadne on Naxos," a rarely performed work by composer Richard Strauss that’s a mix of both slapstick comedy and beautiful music.
Other mainstage productions include Franz Lehar’s "The Merry Widow" and a dance-operatic version of "The Fantasticks," done in collaboration with the Attack Theatre, Pittsburgh's exciting modern dance company in an inventive integration of movement and dance into the tale.
A cabaret, free to ticket holders, takes place following the mainstage performances and gives patrons a chance to listen to the singers entertain in a less formal setting.
Anna Singer in "The Merry Widow". Photo Credit: New Place Collaborations

A free (with advance reservation) workshop staging of  "A New Kind of Fallout" (working title), inspired by the work and life of Rachel Carson will enable patrons to see an opera in the making. Mr. Eaton expects other workshops to follow before its premier in the 2015 SummerFest at settings like the Pittsburgh Zoo, the Rachel Carson Homestead and the Carrie Furnace in Homestead.
"Carson, as well as the Sierra Club, spearheaded the Green Movement in the U.S. with her book ‘Silent Spring,’ Mr. Eaton said. "She was a Pittsburgh native, and we commissioned two other Pittsburghers - librettist Tammy Ryan, and composer, Gilda Lyons, to write the opera. If opera is to remain a vibrant and relevant art form, it’s necessary for it to address issues that matter to a contemporary audience, such as the environment."
According to Mr. Eaton, two or three opera companies have already expressed an interest in the commissioned work for possible future productions.
For families, "The Jumping of Calaveras County is based on a short story by Mark Twain and written especially for children. Jumping Frog is SummerFest’s first experiment with a production for the youngster set in mind, and Mr. Eaton says, if all goes well, there will be similar ventures down the road.
A unique musical adventure "Happy Hour," takes the audience into the mid set of younger Pittsburghers as they meet up in local bars and interact. In June and July, SummerFest singers sprung "spontaneous" "Happy Hour" arias at various bars in Downtown, Shadyside and Oakland before the work by University of Pittsburgh lecturer Roger Zahab gets its world premier staging at the Twentieth Century Club’s small and intimate 400-seat theater.
At SummerFest, Opera Theater of Pittsburgh (OTP) presents innovative opera in English, producing American works, reinterpretations of older works and new works for the widest possible audience. Management is committed to developing new audiences through innovative and imaginative programming, accessible ticket pricing and singing in English.

L-R Raymond Blackwell, Gail Nowak Mosites and Dmitri Lazich in "The Merry Widow" Photo Credit: New Place Collaborations

OTP’s adventurous programming has included world premieres such as the multi-media dance opera Red Dust at the Andy Warhol Museum, rare Philip Glass operas such as "Sound of a Voice" (invited to tour to the Royal Opera Covent Garden in London) and a great string of Pittsburgh premieres of American operas over the years, including a series of American works based on great plays, such as Hoiby’s "Summer and Smoke" and William Bolcom’s "A View from the Bridge."
Not only does SummerFest enliven Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood, it serves as an economic catalyst for the city.
"Visit Pittsburgh [the city’s tourism promotion agency] is closely involved in the festival and promotes it in cities in a 200 mile radius," Mr. Eaton said. "I feel that SummerFest contributes much to the local economy."
A year ago, OTP launched SummerFest Europe in Belgium, a competition to identify and reward talent from all over the continent. Prize winners from January’s competition are joining SummerFest in Pittsburgh and will sing in both recital and in the mainstage productions.
"SummerFest is an all-encompassing entertainment experience," Mr. Eaton said. "In a single evening, after patrons park their car, they can then have dinner at the Twentieth Century Club, catch the performance, then stay for the cabaret - all in the same venue," Mr. Eaton said. "SummerFest has a lot going for it."
For the complete SummerFest schedule or to buy tickets go to or phone 412-326-9687

Raymond Blackwell, Gail Nowak Mosites, Joseph Brent, Anna Singer and Dmitri Lazich in "The Merry Widow", Photo Credit: New Place Collaborations