Strong cast, beautiful music help make ‘Smoke’ a substantial entertainment |
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Life just doesn’t work out for the characters of “Summer and Smoke,” but everything comes together brilliantly in Opera Theater of Pittsburgh’s current production of the opera by Lee Hoiby.

The production is placed in a relatively intimate setting that serves the nature of the Tennessee Williams’ play, which was so beautifully turned into a libretto by Lanford Wilson. The duplex ballroom of the old William Penn Snyder Mansion on the North Side includes a balcony that is used both dramatically and for a cubicle housing a chamber orchestra. Conductor Brent McMunn’s directions were conveyed to the singers by television screens behind the audience.

Hoiby’s “Summer and Smoke” is a masterpiece that employs a beautiful musical language to serve psychologically insightful characterization. His musical generosity is not limited to his frustrated heroine, but encompasses all of his characters. Of course, Williams’ mordent portrayal of the wacky mother is not muted, nor is the caricature of Southern small-town pretentiousness.

Laura Knoop Very stars as Alma Winemiller, whom we encounter as a girl in flashbacks at the beginning and end of the work. Her unrequited love — fueling both disappointment and hope — for John Buchanan is the centerline of the drama. She has a big-league voice, but controlled it well in the small room so that it sounded natural rather than repressed. Her acting, too, was beautifully gauged to the nearness of the audience.

Sean Anderson was also persuasive as John, conceited and caddish especially in the first act, but equally convincing as less selfish emotions emerge.

But there was no weak link in the cast: Corine Tuttle-Salon was a hoot as the nutty mom; Cristina Nassif and Diba Alvi were excellent as John’s requited love interests; and Raymond Blackwell (formerly a pianist with Pittsburgh Opera) nicely arch as the traveling salesman.

The Stater family took three roles in this production: Brent Stater was strong to the point of apt scariness as Alma’s father, Rev. Winemuller; his wife, Molly Stater, was a superb loudmouth in an arts discussion group; and daughter Lydia was poised as the girl Alma.

McMunn was a magnificent conductor, indicating just the right nuances with an exceptionally clear beat. The orchestration was reduced beyond what the composer had removed from his 1971 score for a revival a decade later. There were only single strings, like chamber music, but the group of Carnegie Mellon University graduate students produced astonishingly lush sounds, with strong rhythms and excellent intonation. The winds and brass were excellent too, with an electronic keyboard providing impressions of other instruments.

This performance will be repeated at 8 p.m. Friday, 8:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at 850 Ridge Ave., North Side. Details: (412) 294-3353.

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