Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: La clemenza di Tito/Lyric Opera

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Matthew Polenzani and Joyce DiDonato/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Matthew Polenzani and Joyce DiDonato/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Mozart’s penultimate opera, “La clemenza di Tito” (“The Clemency of Titus”), is finally coming into its own. A work overflowing with the mature Mozart at his very best, “clemenza” was completed and premiered less than three months before his death at the height of his creative genius.

“The Magic Flute,” which was soon to follow, would become one of the most performed operas in the repertoire, but not “clemenza.” Like the “Requiem” that would also soon follow but which the composer left incomplete due to his sudden death at the age of thirty-five, “clemenza” is not 100 percent Mozart, but for a very different reason: Mozart took the work as a commission and farmed out the recitative sections to a student.  This, taken with the fact that the form of the work is the older, more serious and sterile opera seria meant that “clemenza” never quite found a place in the standard repertory the way other Mozart operas had, despite its many glorious musical moments.

The advent of a modern performing edition (the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe) and the efforts of the late French director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle began to restore the opera’s reputation. Indeed, it was not until 1989 that Lyric presented “clemenza” for the first time, and it has taken a quarter of a century for the work to make its return. Scottish director Sir David McVicar, whose imaginative new staging of Dvorak’s “Rusalka” is running in repertory with his version of “clemenza” that is being staged by his assistant Marie Lambert, has set out to streamline the action of the opera, which concerns an assassination plot against the Roman emperor Titus with ancillary relationships. McVicar has managed to remain true to the music while making a more cohesive narrative. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Queenie Pie/Chicago Opera Theater

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Karen Marie Richardson/Photo: Liz Lauren

Karen Marie Richardson/Photo: Liz Lauren

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Walking through the cinderblock, cement and steel pipes of the parking structure and into the stark modern lobby of The Harris Theater at Millennium Park, I couldn’t help but be reminded that I wasn’t at my Daddy’s Opera House. Chicago Opera Theater opened its fortieth Anniversary Season, serving the greater community as both an addition and an answer to our famed Lyric Opera of Chicago, with a production of “Queenie Pie,” jazz-great Duke Ellington’s unfinished, flawed, but compelling “street opera.” Calling their 2014 season “Illusions and Delusions,” COT continues to exhibit its ambition to bring both a new audience to opera, and to present an alternative to Chicago’s already established opera-loving constituency, by offering a season completely devoid of any of the standard operatic repertoire. Past attempts to mix both expected and unexpected fare notwithstanding, general director Andreas Mitisek, who began his steerage of COT in June 2012, appears determined to sail into new and under-examined compositional waters. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Barber of Seville/Lyric Opera

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Isabel Leonard, Nathan Gunn, Alek Shrader/Photo: Dan Rest

Isabel Leonard, Nathan Gunn, Alek Shrader/Photo: Dan Rest

With a current Lyric Opera season so overstuffed with Italian warhorses, there is always the hope that when a company drags out the same works again and again, that something, anything, will at least provide a new perspective on a work so familiar.

Would that were so with Lyric’s new production of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville.” As is the case with so many of general director Anthony Freud’s aesthetic choices, he likes to take chances, a good thing. But his track record thus far on doing so has been spotty, to say the least, and his habit of bringing in theater directors with no musical acumen to direct operas is already proving tedious. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Die Fledermaus/Lyric Opera

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Bo Skovhus and Daniela Fally

Bo Skovhus and Daniela Fally

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In Vienna, and all over the world, the New Year rings in with productions of Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus.” How appropriate, then, that Lyric Opera is reviving this most popular of operettas for the holidays. The current production comes off as authentically Viennese, directed with great nuance by E. Loren Meeker that bubbles with as much sparkling effervescence as the champagne whose virtues are so celebrated in Strauss’ frothy concoction.

Making a stellar American debut, Austrian soprano Daniela Fally as the chambermaid Adele is charming, funny and sings the role gloriously. She has the audience almost literally eating out of her hand from her first notes.

Also making her American debut and singing her first-ever Rosalinde, German soprano Juliane Banse musters all of the sophistication and humor needed and has a beautiful tone, but appears to lack the vocal agility needed for this role. On opening night, her voice came in under pitch for the finale of Act I and her Act II csárdás was a comedic triumph but a vocal disappointment as she was stiff and vocally inflexible and opted out of the final high note completely. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: La traviata/Lyric Opera

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Marina Rebeka/Photo by Todd Rosenberg

Marina Rebeka/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

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The Verdi bicentennial celebration continues at Lyric Opera with a new production of “La traviata,” Verdi’s most popular middle-period work. As was the case with the new “Parsifal” running concurrently, a stage director with little opera-directing experience was brought in with, alas, similar lackluster results.

Despite having presented “traviata” fourteen times in the company’s nearly sixty-year history—including Maria Callas having made her American debut in the role at Lyric in its opening season—this is the first time, we are told, that Lyric is presenting a complete “traviata.” Go figure.

Act I begins contemplatively enough, Violetta shown in profile preparing herself for her big party while the prelude is still being heard before the scrim is lifted to reveal an odd —by operatic standards—small party in front of a semi-circular background. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Parsifal/Lyric Opera

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Photo by Todd Rosenberg

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

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Kudos to Lyric Opera for celebrating the Wagner bicentennial by bringing us Wagner’s last, most glorious and perhaps most controversial work, “Parsifal,” in an all-new production for the occasion.

This is an opera unlike any other: Wagner himself called it a Bühnenweihfestspiel, or consecrated stage work, and specified that it not be performed outside of his own theater in Bayreuth and without applause. These wishes were encouraged by Wagner’s widow Cosima well into the twentieth century although a handful of early concert versions and unauthorized productions managed to appear nonetheless.

In the case of Lyric Opera, “Parsifal” had only been presented twice in the company’s nearly sixty-year history before the current production, which much as Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s contemporary sci-fi production had done in 2002, largely demythologizes the work of its Christian context. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Madama Butterfly/Lyric Opera

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James Valenti and Amanda_Echalaz/Photo by Dan Rest

James Valenti and Amanda Echalaz/Photo: Dan Rest

After more than thirty years, Lyric Opera is finally presenting a new production of “Madama Butterfly.” Well, new to Chicago, anyway: a production that current Lyric general director Anthony Freud commissioned at the Houston Grand Opera in 2010, originally directed there by British director Michael Grandage.

The production, listed as a co-commission of the Houston Grand Opera, the Grand Théâtre de Genève and Lyric Opera, was directed by Grandage in both Houston and Switzerland, but directorial responsibilities have been tossed off to Louisa Muller for the Chicago production.

Hal Prince’s production, first seen here in 1982 and revived several times across the decades, also eventually started coming without Prince, but at least Prince himself directed its initial and earliest incarnations. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Otello/Lyric Opera

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Johan Botha and Ana María Martínez/Photo by Dan Rest

Johan Botha and Ana María Martínez/Photo: Dan Rest

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In a year that celebrates the 200th anniversaries of Wagner and Verdi, how fitting that Lyric Opera should open its season with a work that manages to pay tribute to both.

There was a sixteen-year silence from Verdi between “Aida,” after which he had retired, and “Otello,” where a septuagenarian Verdi once again took up Shakespeare at the urging of collaborator Arrigo Boito for the first time since his youthful setting of “Macbeth,” spectacularly performed recently in concert form by Riccardo Muti at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

In the interim, the already significant influence of Wagner had spread like wildfire throughout the opera world, even to Verdi’s Italy: the fusion of music and drama had become more pronounced, orchestras had expanded and were a greater part of the musical fabric and texture, and set-aside pieces, arias and ensembles had given way to a more unified, contemporary art form that was through-composed without stops and starts from start to finish. Read the rest of this entry »

The Special Relationship: Lyric Opera Hosts The Second City

-News etc., Comedy, Improv/Sketch/Revues, Opera No Comments »

By Johnny Oleksinski

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Right away I knew something was up at the Civic Opera House on January 5. The lights dimmed and the familiar, soothing British brogue of Lyric Opera principal conductor Sir Andrew Davis boomed its usual, prerecorded message prohibiting the use of cellphones in the Ardis Krainik Theatre. So far, so good. Then Davis announced that a vehicle with the license plate “FLEMING DIVA 1″ was blocking Wacker Drive. Wait, what? Moments later, the sprightly omnipresent voice informed us that a wealthy patron’s mink coat checked in the lobby was still alive. Huh? No, this was not opening night of “La bohème” or “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” or even the closing of “Don Pasquale”; this was “The Second City Guide to the Opera,” another exciting product of the fledgling Lyric Unlimited program. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: María de Buenos Aires/Chicago Opera Theater

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Photo: Liz Lauren

Photo: Liz Lauren

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One of the problems with being the new impresario in town who conducts, directs and simultaneously runs another opera company on the West Coast is catching your breath long enough to attain some sense of what has happened here before you arrived. Andreas Mitisek said in spoken remarks at Saturday night’s Chicago Opera Theater opening of “María de Buenos Aires”—in a comic faux fundraising letter from its deceased composer Ástor Piazzolla, no less—that Chicago had waited forty-five years to hear the piece.

COT has tempered this claim somewhat by calling the Mitisek production, which premiered in January at the Long Beach Opera which Mitisek also runs, the Chicago stage premiere. But even that is inaccurate, as the City of Chicago presented the piece as its Summer Opera in 2011. Quite often, those have been concert performances, but in this case, the work was staged. (And violinist Gidon Kremer even brought the piece to Symphony Center in a semi-staged version back in 1998.)
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