Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Anna Bolena/Lyric Opera of Chicago

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Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Opera impresarios must find themselves at a singular disadvantage in an era when audiences can drive to their local multiplex and watch opera singers up close, live and sweating, every unique figure and unhappy pore on display. As opera companies who want to stay alive desperately paddle upstream, casting decisions must be terrorizing. Should they present a cast that can deliver the vocal goods to the closest expectations of the composer, no matter their appearance or acting ability? Should they move in the opposite direction, and cast singers who can manage the roles, potentially be heard, look the part, and act it well? Or should they mix it up, beg and borrow, hedge their bets, and offer what is perhaps characterized best as the hodgepodge? Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of “Anna Bolena” tells the story of an opera production that took the latter route, and is consequently less than the sum of its parts.

Jamie Barton, Lyric’s Jane Seymour (who won both the main and song prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the Year competition), is the genuine old-school goods; her singing is limpid in tone, perfect in projection, and vocally effulgent throughout the registers. Barton harkens back to the age when the voice was all that mattered. But while Barton affords us a youthful simplicity as Seymour, she doesn’t connect with the side of the character that actually wants to succeed Bolena as Consort, at all cost. Further, based strictly upon what the media feeds us (and without an amazingly apparent sexual mystique), Barton’s solid figure seems an unlikely attraction for a narcissistic King who can (and does) have whoever he lays eyes upon. Read the rest of this entry »

Songs With Your Supper: The New Chicago “Opera On Tap” Promises More Arias, Commitment and Beer

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Holly Flack at Heartland Cafe

By Aaron Hunt

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of attending the first outing of the new incarnation of Chicago’s “Opera on Tap” chapter, “Introducing…Opera on Tap!” at the Heartland Café. Opera singers walked around the tables singing arias that fit the “introduction” theme of the evening, usually entrance arias for a character in an opera, weaving around the solicitous Heartland waitstaff serving food and beverages, singing directly to the audience, and sometimes pulling people from their seats to use as scene partners. Myron Silberstein provided expert piano accompaniment. It was a relaxed, fun atmosphere and very interactive. The evening was divided into sets, and during the intervals one of the singers would circulate with fishbowls, allowing the audience to make donations. It was clear that everyone from the singers to the waiters was having a terrific time. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Rape of Lucretia/Chicago Fringe Opera

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Britten Lucretia 3

RECOMMENDED

If you are a newcomer to Benjamin Britten’s masterpiece “The Rape of Lucretia,” and aren’t familiar with the semi-legend told by Roman writers and remembered in paintings of naked, Rubenesque ladies fighting off swarthy, leering soldiers, make sure you attend Chicago Fringe Opera’s contemporary re-envisioning. If you know and love the opera as given traditionally, swallow hard twice, open your mind, and go anyway.

With a mission statement that calls for productions of American and English vocal works revisited and refurbished, CFO opens a neon door for a generation that grew up on television’s “CSI” and “NCIS” to pass through and connect to the material. Their first outing proves their ability to make good on their promise, and to attract a new audience to an operatic production which doesn’t feel remote to them. The night I saw the show the seats were packed with a youthful gathering that held their breath throughout, and then applauded and yelled during the curtain call like they were at a football game. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Porgy and Bess/Lyric Opera of Chicago

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Photo: Todd Rosenberg/Lyric Opera of Chicago

Photo: Todd Rosenberg/Lyric Opera of Chicago

RECOMMENDED

From the orchestral bubbles at the top of the show—piccolos piping and xylophones pounding—there can be no doubt that you’re in for an evening of Gershwin. The brothers George and Ira found inspiration in DuBose Heyward’s novel “Porgy,” and the music-half of the team had his chance to prove himself to the classical music world as a “real” composer. The lush melodies and deeply human lyrics of the songs, I mean arias, are exactly what one would expect to hear, if rangier, and requiring substantial vocal training. But the jagged recitatives in between, while proving George’s understanding of the classical oeuvre of his time, rest uneasily in the score.

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s current production corrects this seeming unbalance with the imperative of theatrical connection to the text. With the “lines” between “numbers” half sung/half spoken, the words ring true, matching the lyrics, and the pitches ring on the ear as naturalistic. In keeping with this focus, the commitment to the marvelous characterizations is gut-deep, and wrenching. Director Francesca Zambello must be held responsible for this magic, along with a cast of fine professionals who both look as we might expect to see these characters, and attach to them and to each other like glue. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Il Trovatore/Lyric Opera of Chicago

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Yonghoon Lee and Stephanie Blythe/Photo: Robert Kusel

Yonghoon Lee and Stephanie Blythe/Photo: Robert Kusel

RECOMMENDED

Not all opera roles are created equal, and neither are all opera singers. But singers will be offered roles for which they might type physically, and may accept them for greater career exposure and larger fees even though their vocal equipment doesn’t match the composer’s demands. Matters become cloudier when the singer can manage particular sections of the role, but is given away as inadequate in others. Tragedy strikes when a young singer moves into repertoire in a role for which they may never truly be right, or too early in their career for the choice to be healthy; the result is usually a shortened career. As regards the four principal singers in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of “Il Trovatore,” if the game is boys-against-girls, the boys won’t be taking home the trophy, and perhaps should have chosen a different sport altogether.

Yet there is much to commend here. Stage designer Charles Edwards’ revolving triptych allows for quick, smooth scene changes, and the horrors suggested by lumps of charred bodies hanging from poles never ceases to unnerve. The orchestra pours out Verdi’s rich textures, supporting the singers rather than challenging. Nick Sandys’ fight choreography, upon which Lyric has come quite rightly to depend, is thrilling. I have never heard the men’s chorus sound as attuned. In one passage, their text requires a string of sibilants that could easily have resulted in unfortunate hissing. Yet every sound is given exactly the right measure. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Capriccio/Lyric Opera of Chicago

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RECOMMENDED

Loaded with the star power of soprano Renée Fleming, propelled by music director and conductor Sir Andrew Davis’ unique understanding of the score, and set in the 1920’s framework of John Cox’s controversial production, Lyric Opera of Chicago’s revisitation of Richard Strauss’ “conversation piece” “Capriccio” must be considered in light of its weight as an event that crosses boundaries and begs alliances. Critically argued both for—for its fresh sense of comedy and perception of character—and against as mocking not merely the subject matter but the composer himself, Cox’s direction (here realized by Peter McClintock) was last seen at Lyric twenty years ago with Sir Andrew himself at the orchestral helm; the final jewel in this outing’s headband is provided by Fleming, known to many non-opera goers as a singer of popular song, jazz and the National Anthem.

No newcomer to the role, or to this production itself, Fleming sounds as fresh of voice as ever, and never provokes her instrument to war against the unforgiving acoustics of the hall. If the fake fur around the sleeves of her first gown left both Fleming and her fellows searching for her hands, and if its turquoise shade clashed biliously with the greens of some set pieces, Fleming looked every inch the girlish, early widowed wisp, moving gracefully about the somewhat confusing set, with its period-appropriate furnishings scattered in front of the drawing-room backdrop of a different century. A natural actor and giving scene partner, Fleming never stinted the text. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Don Giovanni/Lyric Opera

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Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

RECOMMENDED

As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago decades ago, a friend suggested I take a class called “The Political Plays and Prefaces of George Bernard Shaw” because it was an easy A and, as a bonus, a great course. Not only did it live up to its billing, but it sparked my nascent devotion to the works of Shaw and a deep respect for his intellect. And one of the things I never forgot from our classroom discussion of “Man and Superman” was that Shaw considered Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” the greatest work of art ever created. No small praise from one of the greatest playwrights in history.

For no good reason, it took me decades to see the work myself, allowing that superlative to age untested in my memory, albeit leavened by the more measured expectations that a lifetime of arts consumption affords. Nevertheless, when Lyric Opera announced it as this year’s season opener, Shaw’s enthusiasm was the first thing I thought about. The second was that a director whose work I’ve admired at the Goodman Theatre where he’s artistic director, Robert Falls, was at the helm, ensuring an interpretation unlikely to get stuck in an unduly reverential treatment, like a musty old museum relic.

And so it does not. Falls’ work at the Goodman always seems to “go big” in both design and ambition; here on the Lyric’s far larger stage and cavernous auditorium, he has found an arena where his scale generates not a spark of friction of conflict with its confines. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Mozart’s The Magic Flute: Impempe Yomlingo/Isango Ensemble

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RECOMMENDED

“The Magic Flute” is one of those indelible works of art. Even people who do not like opera will perk up when you mention it’s being performed. Its musical refrains such as the Queen of the Night’s aria and Papageno’s duet with Papagena have imprinted themselves on the popular consciousness. When you see the “Magic Flute” for the first time you think to yourself, “Oh, that’s what that’s from.”

Of course the flipside of this is that it’s easy to become inured to its charms. There are so many productions going up all the time that “The Magic Flute” seems to be just woven into the general social contract, as inevitable as streetlights or the 7-Eleven. Even productions that promise some kind of twist in the staging—such as the pretty ludicrous production I saw in college that came with the sleek, black and chrome modernity of a Sharper Image—offer little more than a change of drapery around the same old view.

So when Chicago Shakespeare brings a thing like “Mozart’s The Magic Flute: Impempe Yomlingo” to town, it is really a cause for celebration. Created by South Africa’s Isango Ensemble in association with The Young Vic, “The Magic Flute: Impempe Yomlingo” brings new, full life to a piece that so often feels like a zombie: perambulatory sure, but still unmistakably dead. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Macbeth/Chicago Opera Theater

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macbeth

RECOMMENDED

Shakespeare’s play of the same name came to be called “The Bard’s Opera” because producers would schedule the widely popular piece when revenues were low, giving the players reason to believe that their talents might shortly need to find a new place of expression, striking such fear into their hearts that it was considered bad luck to speak the name of the title character. “Bloch’s Opera” succeeds in a fearlessly visceral way by leaning heavily on the text that shored up the finances of Elizabethan theaters, superstition be as damned as Macbeth himself. Chicago Opera Theater’s production tells the ancient tale in graphic symbolism while using the sort of multimedia gadgetry that allows both a generation steeped in operatic traditions and a newer audience that must be encouraged if the art form is to continue to be riveted.

Given in a series of seven tableaux, with COT’s slightly cut production listed as having a run time of 110 minutes without intermission, Ernest Bloch’s only operatic contribution proves his zeal for the thematic intricacies and rich orchestral scoring of Wagner. Internal melody soars from the pit in reactive counterpoint to the supple vocal lines, both delivered up in instrumental surprises. Bloch’s pulsing orchestral and choral compositions might have prepared us for this singular masterpiece had it followed a lifetime’s work. But the piece was written early in Bloch’s career, premiering in 1910 when he was only thirty years of age. The fact that it is seldom performed, quietly crouching in the shadow of Verdi’s “Green’s Opera,” is a wrong that COT artistic director Andreas Mitisek, conductor Francesco Milioto and Apollo Chorus director Stephen Alltop illuminate. The combined effect of Mitisek’s sexy direction, Milioto’s musical-gumshoe’s instinct for locating and bringing to justice every ounce of romanticism, and Alltop’s unbroken track record for training his chorus to express such varieties of style and color that it rivals any other in the city on this under-appreciated work should cause us all to shake our heads. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Emperor of Atlantis & The Clever One/Chicago Opera Theater

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Andrew Wilkowske and David Govertsen/Photo: Liz Lauren

Andrew Wilkowske and David Govertsen/Photo: Liz Lauren

RECOMMENDED

With a double bill of Viktor Ullmann’s “The Emperor of Atlantis” and Carl Orff’s “The Clever One”—two one-act pieces beautifully matched, with stories revolving around misguided rulers bungling theatrically in the year 1943—Chicago Opera Theater’s director Andreas Mitisek continues to drive the company to explore new directions and dimensions. Ullmann’s opera was penned in the concentration camp of Terezin; a rehearsal heard by the wrong people caused him to be moved to Auschwitz, where it is assumed he died in the gas chamber. Carl Orff, celebrated and living in great comfort in Germany, whether miraculously escaping censure due to political alliances with the Nazis, or sufficiently hiding his resistance work, was given a pass after the war by the American de-nazification authorities. In extraordinarily differing circumstances, these two composers found harmony in their musings about death, life, sufferance, authority and, along with their librettists, either out of interest or necessity, cloaked it all in broad strokes of humor.

Multi-gifted Mitisek, able to pull both directing and conducting out of his basket of tricks, directs the two with ample injections of commedia dell’arte, vaudeville and burlesque. Pantomime, dumb show, mask and puppetry are employed, along with speaking and choral speaking so compositionally integrated that they could have been germane, or have been borrowed by any number of performance traditions. These ample resources do much to lighten the load of an evening that includes the character of Death, imprisoned peasants, and blatantly celebrated misogyny. Read the rest of this entry »