Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

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 »

Review: The Passenger/Lyric Opera of Chicago

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Photo: Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

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 »

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 »

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 »

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