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Review: The Marriage of Figaro/Lyric Opera

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Danielle de Niese, Kyle Ketelsen/Photo: Dan Rest

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Sir Peter Hall’s stellar production of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” has been a regular visitor here since Lyric first premiered it back in 1987. For the first time, however, Hall himself did not make the trip to direct, and so Herbert Kellner took over the reigns, adding much freshness in the process. British conductor and English National Opera music director Edward Gardner was to have made his Lyric debut conducting these performances, but withdrew to be with his wife in England for the birth of their first child. Luckily, Sir Andrew Davis, who made his own Lyric debut with this original production twenty-three years ago, was on hand, and knows this score inside and out. Even the original choreographer, Kenneth von Heidecke, was brought in to stage the infamous wedding-dance scene that, as fans of “Amadeus” may recall, caused a stir with the emperor’s court because dance in opera had been banned. Of course, that was the least of the emperor’s problems with a work that was revolutionary in every sense, from its subject matter of servants besting aristocrats to Mozart’s musical treatment, which set in place a new musical-theater template that has lasted into our own day.

Cast lists that have sung this production read like a “who’s who” of the greatest singers of their respective generations, and this time around is no exception: this is as fine a “Figaro” as could be assembled anywhere in the world these days. Even so, what particularly distinguishes this incarnation is how well the cast blends together the distinct vocal sonorities that Mozart so carefully laid out as well as the superb acting of cast members in even the smallest of roles. Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen makes a dashing Figaro who is not the usual glib hothead; Ketelson not only sings the role with aplomb, but brings depth to an often one-dimensional character. Soprano Danielle de Niese, the reigning Mozart soprano extraordinaire, is a sexy Susanna who not only sings rapturously but who brings layers of meaning to her every action. Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiechien brings smoothness of tone to the Count, and keeps him from becoming the usual buffoon, which makes all that happens to him so much more meaningful. Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato makes a charming and energetic Cherubino, even if there are times you would like a darker timbre; Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli nearly steals the opening act with his booming portrayal of Bartolo that also serves as one of the most effective bottom ends to Mozart’s glorious ensembles that you could hope to encounter.

Part of the top end, however, was noticeably weak, as supplied by German soprano Anne Schwanewilms whom, we were told, was suffering from a bronchial infection. Rather than allow her cover to go on, Schwanewilms insisted on performing, and the result was disastrous as she literally lost her voice mid-aria in Act III. She persisted on, but given that this had also happened earlier in the week, this is a classic case study in the harsh realities of cancellations and why they are sometimes necessary in the opera world. (Lyric so often pins entire productions on star power that it is extremely intolerant of cancellations and notoriously fired Luciano Pavarotti two decades ago for too many of them.)  Imagine a Shakespearian actor who becomes hoarse and breaks character in the climax of a beloved soliloquy and you have a sense of how destructive a moment this was.  Schwanewilms pointed to her chest and shrugged her shoulders as if, “What else can I do?” (You use the cover and recover: that’s what they are there for.) In Europe, the boos and the thrown fruit would have created chaos, but here, the audience politely applauded as if to reward her fortitude.  (Dennis Polkow)

“The Marriage of Figaro” plays at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker, (312)332-2244, through March 27.

One Response to “Review: The Marriage of Figaro/Lyric Opera”

  1. Dennis Polkow Says:

    This press release was issued by Lyric Opera this afternoon:

    German soprano Anne Schwanewilms has withdrawn from eight remaining performances in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s current revival of The Marriage of Figaro Feb. 28-Mar. 27 due to a stubborn bronchial infection, and has returned home on her doctor’s advice, Lyric’s general director William Mason announced today.

    Schwanewilms sang the role of Countess Almaviva in the Mozart masterpiece for the opening performance Feb. 28 and subsequent performances Mar. 3 and 6.

    American soprano Amanda Majeski portrays the Countess at Lyric Tues., Mar. 6 and Fri., Mar. 12. She is a first year member of the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center at Lyric Opera of Chicago, and is scheduled to portray the Countess at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis this summer.

    American soprano Nicole Cabell will portray the Countess for the final six performances at Lyric, March 15 through 27. Currently portraying Musetta in the Metropolitan Opera production of La Bohème, Cabell has been graciously released by that company, Mason said.

    “We deeply appreciate Ms. Schwanewilms’ three valiant performances and offer all best wishes for her swift recovery,” said Mason. “We are fortunate that Ms. Majeski, a current member of our Ryan Opera Center and Ms. Schwanewilims’ understudy, is able to step in with confidence.

    “We are additionally grateful that Ms. Cabell, a former member of the Ryan Opera Center who just starred as a brilliant Adina here, is available to sing the final six performances of the Countess, having been graciously released to do so by our friends at the Metropolitan Opera.”

    Nicole Cabell, the 2005 Winner of the BBC Singer of the World Competition in Cardiff and Decca recording artist, is fast becoming one of the most sought-after lyric sopranos of today. Her solo debut album, “Soprano,” was named “Editor’s Choice” by Gramophone magazine and has received high critical acclaim and several prestigious awards: the 2007 Georg Solti Orphée d’Or from the French Académie du Disque Lyrique and an Echo Klassik Award in Germany.

    In June 2009 Cabell made her company and role debut as the Countess with Cincinnati Opera: “She effortlessly projected an aura of resignation with occasional bursts of fire, displaying a voice of richness and enormous beauty. Her deeply felt ‘Dove sono’ was a showstopping moment, in which she conveyed her suffering and hope with believable emotion.” (Cincinnati Enquirer)
    “Cabell’s sensuous, dark soprano voice flowed with ease, delicately delineating the long lines of her two arias while projecting a gently restrained radiant personality weighed down with sorrow.” (Opera News)

    Cabell’s current season includes her recent return to Lyric Opera of Chicago for Adina in L’elisir d’amore, followed by her return to the Metropolitan Opera for Musetta in La Bohème (a role she will also sing at the end of the season for her debut at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires). She will also make her New Orleans Opera debut in one of her favorite roles, Gounod’s Juliette. Earlier this season she made her concert debut with the Cleveland Orchestra and its music director, Franz Welser-Möst as the soprano soloist in Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem; and returned to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 with Markus Stenz. Cabell’s other concert engagements this season include Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, first with the Singapore Symphony and John Nelson, then with the Accademia di Santa Cecilia and Antonio Pappano in Rome. Future engagements include returns in leading roles with the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, plus opera debuts in Cologne, Montreal and Tokyo.

    Amanda Majeski is a first-year Ryan Opera Center member and native of Gurnee, Illinois. She will portray Mozart’s Countess when she returns to Opera Theatre of St. Louis in June. In 2008 Majeski made her professional operatic debut as Lisa/La sonnambula with Michigan Opera Theatre, and in 2009 appeared as Vitellia/La clemenza di Tito at Chicago Opera Theater (debut) and Musetta/La bohème at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (Debut). Before joining the Ryan Opera Center the soprano completed graduate studies at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, where she portrayed Erisbe/L’Ormindo, Magda/La rondine, The Woman with the Cake Box/Postcard from Morocco, Nuria/Ainadamar, the title role/Iolanta, and Elle/La voix humaine. She has participated in San Francisco Opera’s Merola Program (Donna Anna/Don Giovanni), the Gerdine Young Artist Program at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, and the Ravinia Festival’s Steans Institute. Concert engagements include Handel’s Solomon and Messiah (Chicago’s Apollo Chorus), Dvorak’s Te Deum (Elmhurst Symphony), and Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 (Richmond Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center). Majeski has also been featured with the Curtis Symphony, the Chautauqua Institution, and the Peninsula Music Festival. She made her Weill Hall recital debut in 2008 and is active on the roster of the Marilyn Horne Foundation. A winner of the 2009 George London Foundation Awards, Majeski is also a first-prize winner of the 2008 Palm Beach Opera Vocal Competition (Junior Division) and a recipient of a 2007 Sara Tucker Study Grant. She has also received awards from Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, The Bel Canto Foundation of Rhode Island, Chicago NATS, The Bel Canto Foundation of Chicago, and Opera Index. Majeski made her Lyric debut as a Peasant Girl in the current revival of Le nozze di Figaro.

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