Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Opera or Musical? The Eclectic Sound World of Ricky Ian Gordon

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Norfolk, Virginia - March 26, 2011: Ricky Ian Gordon, 55, the ubiquitous composer at Harrison's Opera House in Norfolk, Virginia on Saturday, March 26, 2011 where he is preparing for his latest opera, "Rappahannock County". Its worldwide premier is on April 12 in Norfolk.

Ricky Ian Gordon

By Dennis Polkow

Composer Ricky Ian Gordon has written instrumental music over the years, but “there’s no getting around it,” he admits, “I’m most excited by the voice. My mother was a singer, I was her accompanist and a lot of what making music is about to me is my relationship with my mother. Also, when I was eight years old, I became obsessed with opera. But then, I was also obsessed with Joni Mitchell and the Beatles: I was obsessed with words through music. I’m less inclined to go to a symphonic concert than I am to go to the opera. I’m a man of the theater.”

Gordon was writing musical theater pieces early on, “When I thought that musical theater was going in a particular direction. At one point when I was a kid, ‘The Consul’ was done on Broadway. ‘Porgy and Bess’ was done on Broadway—not the recent version that Audra McDonald did, but the actual opera was done on Broadway. Stephen Sondheim’s shows had full orchestras when they originally premiered and were very musically sophisticated. If you listen to Audra McDonald’s first CD, ‘Way Back to Paradise,’ I think it gives you a sense of where we as composers thought the musical theater was going. But that didn’t happen.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Coffin in Egypt/Chicago Opera Theater

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Frederica von Stade/Photo: Liz Loren

RECOMMENDED

The mythical line between opera and musical theater further fades with Chicago Opera Theater’s mounting of “A Coffin in Egypt.” Is it really an opera, as advertised? The composer, Ricky Ian Gordon, and Leonard Foglia, librettist and director, (who based his libretto on American dramatist Horton Foote’s play) have enjoyed storied Broadway careers. The scenic and costume designer Riccardo Hernandez, and lighting designer Brian Nason are Broadway veterans.

The performers address each other face-to-face, turning upstage, rather than cheating out toward the audience. The portrayals are natural, not exaggerated in body language or counterfeit emotion. “Coffin” contains spoken dialogue. This allows the singing to flow out of narrative that can no longer be expressed with mere words. Isn’t this the type of writing that made “Oklahoma” a success? Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Trouble in Tahiti/Chicago Fringe Opera

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RECOMMENDED

Pass through the ornate 1918 façade of the Chopin Theatre, bounce down a few generously carpeted stairs, and you’ll find yourself in the gregarious Pregnant Buffalo Lounge. Chicago Fringe Opera’s evening begins at the bar. For their program called “Voices in the Dark,” CFO immediately weaves a spell with low lighting and sultry jazz music, accompanied by a fine jazz trio, maestro Codrut Birsan at the piano.

When it’s time to swill down those drinks, the trio becomes an orchestra, and you’ll head into the Studio Theatre’s black box for their production of Leonard Bernstein’s “Trouble in Tahiti.”

Premiered in 1952, Bernstein’s darkest opera flexed his jazz muscles, while exercising his distinctive sense for a detached, melancholy vocal line. For the only time in his career, Bernstein wrote the libretto himself. A scathing judgment of disconnected Capitalism, the piece unjustly became the stuff of university mountings, with its small cast and technical simplicity. Read the rest of this entry »

Lend Us a Tenor: Brandon Jovanovich Books an Unusual “Passage”

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Brandon Jovanovich/Photo: Kristen Hoebermann

Brandon Jovanovich has played heroic tenor roles here and around the world but this month is revealing two other sides of himself: playing the role of Walter, a German diplomat and husband of a former Auschwitz guard in “The Passenger,” the rediscovered Holocaust opera by Mieczyslaw Weinberg at Lyric Opera, and singing diverse material of his own choosing on Harris Theater’s final “Beyond the Aria” recital of the season with soprano Amber Wagner and Ryan Center baritone Will Liverman on March 10.

“It’s a heck of a piece,” says Jovanovich of “The Passenger” in his Lyric dressing room, with scores for oratorios he is also working on visible on the piano. “There is a lot of jazz in it, some swing, there’s some funk happening there. There is some dissonance but it is also transparent in a lot of spots. It’s important to let the music speak for itself and not work against it. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Passenger/Lyric Opera of Chicago

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Photo: Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow

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The question on my mind as I listened to the second act of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s opera “The Passenger” at the Lyric Opera Tuesday night was: Am I listening to great musical art?

The answer, unfortunately, was “no.” I say unfortunately because I had hoped for much more. The state of Holocaust education in this country remains dire after sixty-five years of public agonizing. A great work of art can change that listless, dutiful, fitful, guilty public half-resolve to get down to brass tacks on racism. “The Passenger” is the work of an enormously knowledgeable, sincere, very clever, inventive, imaginative artist. But great music?

“The Passenger” falls short for two reasons. One, its subject matter. Two, its subject matter. What do I mean? First, the Holocaust defies Music. It is a true enormity, a breath-bereaving, disgusting, obscene crime of such evil intensity, vastness and finality as to stultify all creative musical thought whatsoever. Second, Weinberg’s undeniable musical genius was not suited to the painting of unrelieved darkness and nihilism—the end of public and private faith, belief and hope forever. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Property/Lyric Unlimited

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Jill Grove and James Maddalena/Photo: Robert Kusel

Jill Grove and James Maddalena/Photo: Robert Kusel

RECOMMENDED

The theme of familial loss, with the potential for reconnection and affirmation, is universal, crossing boundaries of place and creed. As Lyric Opera of Chicago presents the holocaust opera “The Passenger,” their cultural outreach program, Lyric Unlimited, is producing the world premiere of Wlad Marhulets’ klezmer opera “The Property,” which follows the journey of a family displaced by the atrocities of WWII, as they search to reclaim their past, and pronounce their secrets.

Adapted from Rutu Modan’s graphic novel by librettist Stephanie Fleischmann and director Eric Einhorn, the story follows a grandmother who has just lost her son, and a granddaughter who has just lost her father, as they travel to Warsaw to repossess the apartment where the grandmother lived as a child. The women discover themselves at cross-purposes, floundering in a sea of memory and longing. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Thérèse Raquin/Chicago Opera Theater

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Mary Ann Stewart, Matthew DiBattista and Edward Parks/Photo: Liz Lauren

Mary Ann Stewart, Matthew DiBattista and Edward Parks/Photo: Liz Lauren

RECOMMENDED

Chicago Opera Theater’s “Thérèse Raquin” is the all-around finest production I have had the pleasure to enjoy in any 2014/2015 season, including those at The Met and Lyric Opera of Chicago. Composer Tobias Picker’s score transcends a compositional legacy that reaches back from Elliott Carter to Nadia Boulanger, revealing the expected atonality and rhythmic complexities while overlaying the soaring melodies that one might anticipate from Barber, Menotti or even Douglas Moore. Conductor Andreas Mitisek’s sensitive yet authoritative reading invites rather than insists; his orchestra answers with affectionate precision.

The source material is Émile Zola’s novel of the same name, a study in theatrical naturalism, revealing human capacity for pure animalistic sex and murder. But this operatic interpretation turns the story on its head. Picker’s heart-wrenching music, combined with director Ken Cazan’s quiet, insightful direction, Alan E. Muraoka’s sparse scenery and David Martin Jacques’ shimmering, simmering blues of near-nightfall and sinister bodies of water take us to surprising places. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Tannhäuser/Lyric Opera of Chicago

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Photo: Todd Rosenberg

John Relyea/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

If you’ve a hankering for the orgiastic feast of a sumptuously designed, dramatically staged, organically acted, and gloriously sung evening of Wagner to warm the frozen tundra of your Chicago soul this winter, Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Tannhäuser offers a heaping platter of one of those elements.

Sir Andrew Davis and the Lyric’s orchestra have never been more unified in understanding and purpose, generating surprising colors and textures that translate as newly discovered. Chorus master Michael Black’s troops, along with the extra reinforcements necessary for a Wagnerian foray, are in fine vocal fettle, most of them having learned the imperative trick of singing and moving while catching the conductor out of the corner of the eye rather than employing the direct stare. Essaying the title role, Johan Botha proves once again his ascendency as the preeminent Wagnerian tenor throat of our time, and Amber Wagner’s fresh-voiced Elisabeth is sufficiently substantial to soar over the complexities of Wagner’s orchestrations, while also supplying bel canto line and phrasing, and a distinctive color; there is a sensual smoke in the lower and middle register, and the top voice blossoms effortlessly. And now those who believe a production of a Wagner opera is music-music-music may take these offerings for their main course, and be satisfied. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Tosca/Lyric Opera of Chicago

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Evgeny Nikitin and Brian Jagde/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Evgeny Nikitin and Brian Jagde/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

RECOMMENDED

Puccini’s score for “Tosca” is chock-full of thrilling moments. The crashing opening chords introduce us to Angelotti, whose escape from prison drives the plot. We don’t wait long for Cavaradossi’s throbbing ode to his love, “Recondita armonia.” Tosca’s calls of “Mario! Mario!” are heard from offstage, and by then we are completely beguiled, awaiting the “Te Deum” that ends Act I, as bone-shaking and brain-numbing as any rock concert.

In Lyric’s production, the less familiar music of Act I is enlightened by soprano Tatiana Serjan’s Tosca and tenor Brian Jagde’s Cavaradossi. They chase each other up and down scaffolding, play-fighting like children, and then suddenly confessing love that cannot be moved. Both are attractive, consummate actors, and bring a freshness to their portrayals.

Serjan’s soprano seemed more lyrical than might be expected for Tosca. She has enjoyed repeated success in this role, and ventures into the dramatic soprano repertoire. Her “Vissi d’arte” is a thing of loveliness and pain, beautifully spun. Perhaps I would have been able to appreciate this voice more fully if conductor Dmitri Jurowski, making his Lyric debut, had not indulged himself with our fine orchestra to the point that I frequently could not hear her. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Merry Widow/Light Opera Works

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The Merry Widow

Oh, ho, ho. It appears that a holiday-season association is developing between Christmas, the time of wretched excess, and the comic operetta warhorse “The Merry Widow.”

I hope I’m wrong. I trust this trend will fizzle. I don’t need another reason to despise our national festival of heedless, reckless consumption, maddeningly cheerful Christmas elevator music, gluttony, drunkenness, depression, fake bonhomie and 10,000 repetitions in five weeks of the six mortal minutes of “The Little Drummer Boy.”

So it was with trepidation that I made my way to the Cahn Auditorium in Evanston to hear Franz Lehár’s tribute to the ideals, the spirit of the Parisian flâneur. That spirit is a clumsy sniggering schoolboy furtiveness about sex, a panicky fear of the female body, a shocking selfishness, a disgusting avarice, and limitless male vanity and obliviousness. These qualities should have by now sunk “The Merry Widow” forever.

The Cahn is the perfect size for “The Merry Widow.” When the New York City Opera staged “Widow” in 1996, the acting of the singers never rose above broad, noisy, vulgar caricature. Why? Because these stages are too large for operetta (“little opera”). The cavernous setting demands violent gesticulation, not gestures. Changes of expression never make it over the footlights. Subtle changes in stance or posture escape notice. Read the rest of this entry »

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