Superb mini-operas convey heartfelt grief
Opera review

Love and loss -- more specifically, the loss of one's beloved -- were the issues and inspiration for a pair of hour-long song-cycles by Ricky Ian Gordon, presented by Pittsburgh Opera Saturday evening at the company's splendid new office-rehearsal-performance facility in the Strip District. The works are outpourings of grief over the death of Gordon's life partner, Jeffrey Grossi, who succumbed to complications of AIDS in 1996. As staged, simply but effectively by Crystal Manich, each became a mini-opera, all the more emotionally charged by the presence of the composer in the second row of the small auditorium.

Gordon's full-scaled opera, "The Grapes of Wrath," will open at Benedum Center Nov. 15. The successful Carnegie Mellon graduate is being celebrated by several local events, of which this was perhaps the most intimate and personal.

In the first of the two works, "Orpheus and Euridice," Gordon -- who wrote the words as well -- changes the Greek legend to make the hero a reed player (clarinetist) rather than a singer with a lyre. Lanky, sandy-haired Michael Wayne Dee, a talented Carnegie Mellon sophomore, played with great facility, and portrayed the hero with a geeky charm that made his encounters with Euridice and the underworld gods credible and compelling.

The only singer is a soprano who alternates between the roles of Euridice and narrator, an assignment carried out with clear sound and diction by Deborah Selig, a second-year Opera Center participant. Underpinning all this was the superbly nuanced, technically brilliant pianism of Scott Dunn.

Even more poignant was the more recent "Green Sneakers" for baritone and string quartet (again CMU students). The single singer -- round-voiced Jesse Blumberg, who will have a lead in the big opera production -- represents Gordon himself, and the events described are not mythical but real. The sneakers are a present from the composer to his mortally ill lover. The shoes remained in their bedroom closet after Jeffrey's death.

Gordon's musical style is post-modern (tonal and non-dissonant) and crossover (tinted with Broadway and pop), which gives the work immediacy and makes each audience member a participant in the tragedy. There was less physical action than in the "Orpheus," but more overt sadness and desolation, as well as an intricate oneness of words and music that is, after all, the essence of both opera and song.
- Robert Croan, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 03, 2008