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: 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 »

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 »

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