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Review: Summerfest's 'Shining Brow' an impressive achievement

| Friday, July 12, 2013, 12:30 a.m.
Mark Abramowitz
James Flora (left) portrays Louis Sullivan and Kevin Kees is Frank Lloyd Wright in 'Shining Brow.'
Mark Abramowitz
Jonathan Eaton, artistic and general director of Opera Theater SummerFest, at the Twentieth Century Club in Oakland.

A great building may need a solid foundation, but people often achieve greatness with feet of clay.

The beautiful and moving opera “Shining Brow,” which Summerfest presented July 11, looks beyond the brilliance of Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture to the messiness of his personal life.

The first regional performance of composer Daron Hagen's opera was given by Summerfest in June at Fallingwater, the famous house Wright built in Fayette County for Edgar Kaufmann. The July 11 performance in the Beaux Arts Ballroom of The Twentieth Century Club in Oakland was the Pittsburgh premiere.

“Shining Brow” is a very impressive achievement by Hagen and librettist Paul Muldoon. The words and music are each exceptionally smart, direct but also rich in allusions to literature and music. Hagen's music is wonderfully theatrical, with a vast array of musical styles and ready to turn on a dime. Some of it, such as a barbershop quartet, is evocative of the time of the story's action, the beginning of the 20th century.

It is a witty score, but for all its intelligence is also emotionally telling.

“Shining Brow” was presented in a chamber version commissioned by Summerfest. Hagen had already produced a smaller orchestration of his full score, but the instrumentation of the Summerfest version is reduced to seven players.

The composer shortened the opera for this version, from 2 12 hours to 70 minutes. Grand opera scenes with chorus were cut, along with many other trims.

The result is an almost-entirely intimate opera that conveys the heart of the story. The Prologue is an awkward scene between Wright and his mentor Louis Sullivan, from whom he has “purloined” an aesthetic perspective and a client. Wright then takes the wife of Sullivan's former client, Edwin Cheney. Wright refers to these actions as “borrowing,” the way he quotes others' words.

Baritone Kevin Kees was a charismatic presence as Wright. While some may be allergic to his vibrato, Kees sang with good projection, resonance and line. His characterization was equally well-drawn — a person full of himself, relentlessly selling himself and with more than a whiff of a con man. Except that he really was a genius.

Summerfest's artistic director Jonathan Eaton directed the production, making excellent use of limited space and achieving just the right degree of nuances in the acting. Everyone sits close enough to the performers to see the singers' eyes convey their thoughts and feelings.

Lara Lynn Cotrill was superb as Marriah Cheney. Eager to be intoxicated by Wright's larger-than-life presentation of himself, she finds when she has him that Wright neglects her for his work. Cotrill sang especially beautifully in the aria in Scene 4 of this version, in which she lives through her conflicted emotions.

Tenor James Flora captured Sullivan's weariness and disappointment with Wright with both expressive vocal nuances and body language. At the end of the opera, when Sullivan tells Wright he's not a borrower but a thief, Flora finds exactly the right degree of strength to convey someone who is as fed up and disappointed as angry.

Edwin Cheney, the most important of the secondary roles, was well-portrayed by Dimitrie Lazich. Kara Cornell as Catherine Wright made the most of her time on stage, especially in the brief but powerful argument with her husband in Scene 2.

Conductor Robert Frankenberry led a confident and sensitive performance, but he came to this production with an extra perspective. Frankenberry is the tenor playing Sullivan on the commercial recording of the full version of “Shining Brow,” with JoAnn Falletta conducting the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus.

The small ensemble of Summerfest instrumentalists played well, including a beautiful violin solo by Roger Zahab.

“Shining Brow” will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. July 19 at The Twentieth Century Club, 4201 Bigelow Blvd., Oakland. Admission is $20 to $40.

Details: 412-326-9687 or otsummerfest.org

Mark Kanny is the classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at mkanny@tribweb.com.

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