Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: The Telephone and Hello Out There/Chicago Theatre-Opera

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David Govertsen, Mary Lutz Govertsen/Photo

David Govertsen, Mary Lutz Govertsen/Photo: Anne Slovin

RECOMMENDED

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 »

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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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

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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

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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: 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

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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 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 »

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