Timothy Madden and William Ottow/Photo: Daniel Johanson
By Aaron Hunt
Chicago Summer Opera advertises itself as another of our city’s startup, storefront, non-profit operatic enterprises; its title promises a spoonful of gastronomical respite as Chicago’s opera gluttons starve their way through Chicago’s heat and humidity to the cooling, autumnal beginnings of the seasons of Lyric Opera of Chicago and Chicago Opera Theater. Its offerings must be considered in those terms.
Yet, a closer look at Chicago Summer Opera’s mission statement proves that it is primarily a training ground for young artists. In fact, Chicago Summer Opera’s singers are all “aspiring” opera singers, with no one among their ranks having made an “important” operatic debut, and further examination finds that, with the exception of some performers who may have been granted a scholarship, these young singers are paying tuition for classes in repertoire, acting, audition technique and diction. Each singer is promised a role in one performance of one of the company’s operas at the completion of their season’s tutelage. In the industry, this financial arrangement is called “pay for play,” and incurs all the potential positives and negatives implied. Read the rest of this entry »
I went to Palatine Friday night to hear Rossini’s “Barber of Seville.” Telling myself I had no expectations, I had been hoping for at least a fifteen-piece orchestra of solid musicians. That hope was futile.
The orchestra consisted of one decrepit upright piano played by Jason Carlson, a young Northwestern University faculty member. Unfortunately, Carlson had neglected to do a sound check from the back reaches of the auditorium with singers, while one of his students played the piano. Consequently, the singers were often drowned out by the piano reverberating off the front of the stage.
While the singers were competent Rossini executants they could not contend with the banging and jangling of that infernal upright at the front of the proscenium. It was not exactly Carlson’s fault, but rather the responsibility of director Molly Lyons, who is ex cathedra responsible for tutti. Read the rest of this entry »
David Govertsen, Mary Lutz Govertsen/Photo: Anne Slovin
Who knew the composer Gian Carlo Menotti was a serious, prophetic social critic? Not I. I remember watching his charming fantasy, “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” on black-and-white television as a boy in the 1950s. For decades I avoided looking into his one-act comic operetta, “The Telephone.” Perhaps I should have gotten off the esthetic high horse I was riding to investigate it. Menotti saw—in 1947!—that Americans were device-ridden, tyrannized by the telephone. He showed us obsessed, distracted, driven, controlled by the phone to the point that mutual consideration and conversation, formerly the chief charms of sociability, had died.
Menotti felt the telephone had killed the continuity of existence. Life was now a series of interruptions. Leisure, too, was dead. Politeness, decorum, manners, formality suffered. Casual was king. Yes, it was funny, but it was tragic, too. And Menotti lived long enough to see our sidewalks full of zombies seemingly talking to themselves, eyes fixed downward on a small object in the palm of their hand fifteen inches from their face. Read the rest of this entry »
Frederica von Stade/Photo: Liz Loren
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 »
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 »
Photo: Michael Brosilow
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 »
Jill Grove and James Maddalena/Photo: Robert Kusel
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 »
Mary Ann Stewart, Matthew DiBattista and Edward Parks/Photo: Liz Lauren
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 »
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 »
Evgeny Nikitin and Brian Jagde/Photo: Todd Rosenberg
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 »