Arts & Culture

Review: ‘The Grand Duchess’ a worthy finale for Wichita Grand Opera’s season

Cullen Gandy as Fritz and Kaitlyn Costello as the Grand Duchess in Wichita Grand Opera’s production of “The Grand Duchess.”
Cullen Gandy as Fritz and Kaitlyn Costello as the Grand Duchess in Wichita Grand Opera’s production of “The Grand Duchess.” Courtesy of Wichita Grand Opera

With apologies to a beloved children’s story, the Wichita Grand Opera might well be referred to as “The Little Opera Company That Could.” Friday was the opening night of the WGO’s final production for the 2015 season – Jacques Offenbach’s “The Grand Duchess” – and this little-known comic gem did not disappoint.

Offenbach’s operettas inspired and influenced the works of Johann Strauss, Jr. and Arthur Sullivan. So, even though his works are less familiar in the United States, fans of “Die Fledermaus” or “The Pirates of Penzance” will likely find this amusing work familiar territory.

WGO wisely chose to produce “The Grand Duchess” in English with supertitles also in English, since at times the libretto gets quite wordy, and the text flies by. This allowed the comedy to seem fresh, lively, and (for the most part) understandable.

Perhaps one of the best qualities of a typical WGO production is that they hire fine singers who can really sing. This particular operetta requires six highly skilled principal singers who must also be accomplished comic actors, plus an equal number of important secondary roles that call for beautiful voices.

The title role was dazzlingly performed by mezzo-soprano Kaitlyn Costello, who has sung here in recent years in the roles of Berta in “The Barber of Seville” and Cherubino in the “Marriage of Figaro.” Costello’s talents are not limited to the fact that she is fantastic singer; she also has balletic abilities which allow her to do splits while she sings, and comic skills rivaling those of Natalie Dessay.

Another gorgeous voice was that of soprano Alyssa Toepfer in the role of Wanda. Wanda’s love interest, Fritz, was played by tenor Cullen Gandy, whose warm tone and naive boyishness were a great foil for the aggressive pursuits of the Duchess, who sets her sights on him.

Special mention is needed here for William Powers, who played the role of General Boom. Judging from his gray beard, Powers is no spring chicken, but he still sings very well, and his comic abilities had him dancing and bouncing about on stage in ways that made him seem younger than he is. Even his delivery of spoken dialogue was clear, well-articulated, and most importantly, funny. Contrast this with the fact that just three weeks ago we saw him sing the role of King Philip II in Verdi’s “Don Carlo” – a very different character, calling for pathos and rich, elegant singing, which he did with aplomb.

Tenor (and native Kansan) Brian Frutiger returned in the role of Baron Puck, adding his noble, rich voice and amusing acting abilities to the production with good result. Tenor Brian Yeakley, one of the Young Artists in the WGO’s Opera Academy of the Midwest, sang the role of Prince Paul, displaying exciting, ringing high notes, plus a flair for comedy.

Secondary roles were well sung by other WGO Young Artists: baritone Jake Skipworth as Baron Grog, tenor Dylan Moore as Népomuc, soprano Anna Berry as Iza, soprano Andra Erbar as Olga, mezzo-soprano Ashten Linnea Smith as Amelia, and mezzo-soprano Carmenrosa Duarte as Charlotte.

The WGO Orchestra was ably led by conductor Edward Lada, who kept the pace bright and forward moving. The orchestra’s good work was especially apparent in the overture and entr’acte of Act III. The WGO Chorus, prepared by Matthew Schloneger, has continued to improve and enlarge in the last few seasons, and did very respectable work here.

General Director Parvan Bakardiev and Artistic Advisor Margaret Pent deserve kudos for taking the risk of producing two lesser-known works this season – Verdi’s “Don Carlo” and Offenbach’s “The Grand Duchess,” with remarkable success.

Tenor Randolph Lacy is an assistant professor of voice at Wichita State University. He has sung on many stages and has performed with operas and symphonies nationwide, including the Houston Grand Opera, Chamber Opera Chicago and Opera Memphis.

‘The Grand Duchess’

What: Comic opera by Offenbach updated and presented by Wichita Grand Opera

When and Where: 3 p.m. Oct. 18 at Century II Concert Hall; 7:30 p.m. Oct. 17 at the McPherson Opera House

Tickets: $40 to $95, $20 for students for Wichita shows; $27 to $37, $10 for students for McPherson show;, 316-262-8054