Pittsburgh Opera captures the beauty and magic in David Hertzberg’s The Rose Elf

United StatesUnited States Hertzberg, The Rose Elf: Soloists, Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra / James Lesniak (conductor). Pittsburgh Opera, Bitz Opera Factory, Pittsburgh, 25.1.2022. (RP)

Véronique Filloux (The Girl) & Jeremy Harr (The Brother) © David Bachman

Director – Kaley Karis Smith
Sets – Samantha Pollack
Costumes – KJ Gilmer
Lighting – Todd Nonn
Projections – Joe Spinogatti
Fight Choreographer – Peter Kope

The Elf – Madeline Ehlinger
The Beloved/Hortus – Andrew Turner
The Girl/Luna – Véronique Filloux
The Brother – Jeremy Harr
The Rose – Grace Lopez

Pennsylvania has been good to composer David Hertzberg. He studied at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and was named Composer in Residence for Opera Philadelphia and Music-Theatre Group in 2015, a post he held through the end of the 2017-18 season. His first opera, The Wake World, which won the Music Critics Association of North America’s Best New Opera Award, premiered there in 2017.

Pittsburgh Opera is now presenting his award-winning opera The Rose Elf, for which he wrote both the libretto and the music. The opera garnered universal praise when it premiered in the Catacombs at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery in 2018. (For review, click here.) Hertzberg is currently working on his third opera, Grand Hotel, for The Industry, an incubator for experimental productions that seek to expand the definition of opera in Los Angeles.

Hertzberg based his opera upon Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale of the same name. The Elf finds that all of the blooms on the rose bush where she sleeps are closed for the night, so she goes instead to a honeysuckle tree where she finds two anguished young lovers. Aware that the Brother of the Girl whom he loves disapproves of their engagement, the Beloved tells his fiancée that he will go away.

The Elf hides in a rose blossom that the Girl has given her lover and is almost smothered by the Beloved’s passionate kisses and caresses. She is also witness to his murder by the villainous Brother, who buries his victim’s severed head and body beneath a linden tree. The Elf imparts the tragic news to the Girl in a dream. She unearths her lover’s head and places it in a flower pot with a sprig of jasmine. Watered by her tears, the jasmine grows, but the Girl slowly wastes away and dies, while her Brother is killed by its thorns.

For Pittsburgh Opera, director Kaley Karis Smith and set designer Samantha Pollack have created a garden of delight with large white blossoms suspended from the ceiling and cascades of flowers framing the action. Evocative lighting creates an air of mystery and suspense as rapture evolves into tragedy. The production is basic but effective.

Grace Lopez (The Rose) & Madeline Ehlinger (The Elf) © David Bachman

The cast is drawn from Pittsburgh Opera’s Resident Artists. Soprano Madeline Ehlinger, who is now in her second year with the company, was marvelous as the Elf. Costumed in iridescent silver, Ehlinger moved with the grace of a ballet dancer and produced shimmering, crystalline sounds that were lighter than air. Her every facial expression and gesture were perfectly calibrated to capture a supernatural and more innocent world of nature that contrasted so perfectly with the passion and sorrows of the real world.

Smith introduced a human embodiment of the Rose, enacted by dancer Grace Lopez. Although she never made a sound, Lopez communicated the ecstasy and horror of the doomed lovers through her face and body. She and Ehlinger moved well together, creating much of the magic in the performance.

As the lovers, soprano Véronique Filloux and tenor Andrew Turner sang passionately. Turner, who is in his first season with Pittsburgh Opera, made a fine impression, and Filloux gave another of her compelling performances. Bass Jeremy Harr, with his smooth, resonant bass, was deliciously dastardly as the murderous Brother.

Hertzberg is a genius at creating rich complex sounds and scintillating orchestral colors from a small ensemble. Although he writes beautifully for the voice, many of the visceral thrills of The Rose Elf come from instrumental solos and the swirling sounds in the orchestra. James Lesniak conducted an impassioned reading of the score, and the members of the Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra responded in kind. The performing space is a former factory and, in this configuration, balance was often an issue.

The original production of The Rose Elf left me with several indelible memories. Madeline Ehlinger’s exquisite Elf will long stay with me from this one.

Rick Perdian

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