Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Capriccio/Lyric Opera of Chicago

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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

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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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“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

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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

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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 »

Review: The Sound of Music/Lyric Opera

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Billy Zane and Jenn Gambatese/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Billy Zane and Jenn Gambatese/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

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The second entry in Lyric Opera’s five-year traversal of the blockbuster entries of the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon fares far better than last year’s inaugural entry “Oklahoma!,” to be sure. Leaving aside questions of why Lyric, already struggling to present a wide diversity of operatic repertoire, should be focusing its limited resources on populist musical theater that is already widely performed and available in other local venues—to say nothing of why Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first work should be followed by their last—the fact remains that the company’s new production of “The Sound of Music” is one of the best new productions of any work done by Lyric in a long while.

To begin with, Broadway veteran Jenn Gambatese as Maria places her own stamp on a role that was originally created for Mary Martin, by then an elderly music-theater matron whose iconic status seeped over into her portrayal. She also managed to sidestep the immense shadow of the all-too-practically-perfect-in-every-way movie incarnation of Julie Andrews in her first film after winning an Oscar as another nanny, “Mary Poppins.”

Gambatese plays Maria as what she was, a naïve young girl who is going through the motions of attempting to find meaning in an empty life, whether fitting in at a convent, or in a household of children barely much older and sometimes much wiser, than she is. Most Marias make a journey of self-discovery, but Gambatese keeps the character’s naiveté out front throughout the show, adding refreshing credibility to the proceedings. She is no opera singer, to be sure, but no matter: she has a delightful show voice that fits Maria’s character and songs like a glove. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: La clemenza di Tito/Lyric Opera

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Matthew Polenzani and Joyce DiDonato/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Matthew Polenzani and Joyce DiDonato/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Mozart’s penultimate opera, “La clemenza di Tito” (“The Clemency of Titus”), is finally coming into its own. A work overflowing with the mature Mozart at his very best, “clemenza” was completed and premiered less than three months before his death at the height of his creative genius.

“The Magic Flute,” which was soon to follow, would become one of the most performed operas in the repertoire, but not “clemenza.” Like the “Requiem” that would also soon follow but which the composer left incomplete due to his sudden death at the age of thirty-five, “clemenza” is not 100 percent Mozart, but for a very different reason: Mozart took the work as a commission and farmed out the recitative sections to a student.  This, taken with the fact that the form of the work is the older, more serious and sterile opera seria meant that “clemenza” never quite found a place in the standard repertory the way other Mozart operas had, despite its many glorious musical moments.

The advent of a modern performing edition (the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe) and the efforts of the late French director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle began to restore the opera’s reputation. Indeed, it was not until 1989 that Lyric presented “clemenza” for the first time, and it has taken a quarter of a century for the work to make its return. Scottish director Sir David McVicar, whose imaginative new staging of Dvorak’s “Rusalka” is running in repertory with his version of “clemenza” that is being staged by his assistant Marie Lambert, has set out to streamline the action of the opera, which concerns an assassination plot against the Roman emperor Titus with ancillary relationships. McVicar has managed to remain true to the music while making a more cohesive narrative. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Queenie Pie/Chicago Opera Theater

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Karen Marie Richardson/Photo: Liz Lauren

Karen Marie Richardson/Photo: Liz Lauren

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Walking through the cinderblock, cement and steel pipes of the parking structure and into the stark modern lobby of The Harris Theater at Millennium Park, I couldn’t help but be reminded that I wasn’t at my Daddy’s Opera House. Chicago Opera Theater opened its fortieth Anniversary Season, serving the greater community as both an addition and an answer to our famed Lyric Opera of Chicago, with a production of “Queenie Pie,” jazz-great Duke Ellington’s unfinished, flawed, but compelling “street opera.” Calling their 2014 season “Illusions and Delusions,” COT continues to exhibit its ambition to bring both a new audience to opera, and to present an alternative to Chicago’s already established opera-loving constituency, by offering a season completely devoid of any of the standard operatic repertoire. Past attempts to mix both expected and unexpected fare notwithstanding, general director Andreas Mitisek, who began his steerage of COT in June 2012, appears determined to sail into new and under-examined compositional waters. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Die Fledermaus/Lyric Opera

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Bo Skovhus and Daniela Fally

Bo Skovhus and Daniela Fally

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In Vienna, and all over the world, the New Year rings in with productions of Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus.” How appropriate, then, that Lyric Opera is reviving this most popular of operettas for the holidays. The current production comes off as authentically Viennese, directed with great nuance by E. Loren Meeker that bubbles with as much sparkling effervescence as the champagne whose virtues are so celebrated in Strauss’ frothy concoction.

Making a stellar American debut, Austrian soprano Daniela Fally as the chambermaid Adele is charming, funny and sings the role gloriously. She has the audience almost literally eating out of her hand from her first notes.

Also making her American debut and singing her first-ever Rosalinde, German soprano Juliane Banse musters all of the sophistication and humor needed and has a beautiful tone, but appears to lack the vocal agility needed for this role. On opening night, her voice came in under pitch for the finale of Act I and her Act II csárdás was a comedic triumph but a vocal disappointment as she was stiff and vocally inflexible and opted out of the final high note completely. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: La traviata/Lyric Opera

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Marina Rebeka/Photo by Todd Rosenberg

Marina Rebeka/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

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The Verdi bicentennial celebration continues at Lyric Opera with a new production of “La traviata,” Verdi’s most popular middle-period work. As was the case with the new “Parsifal” running concurrently, a stage director with little opera-directing experience was brought in with, alas, similar lackluster results.

Despite having presented “traviata” fourteen times in the company’s nearly sixty-year history—including Maria Callas having made her American debut in the role at Lyric in its opening season—this is the first time, we are told, that Lyric is presenting a complete “traviata.” Go figure.

Act I begins contemplatively enough, Violetta shown in profile preparing herself for her big party while the prelude is still being heard before the scrim is lifted to reveal an odd —by operatic standards—small party in front of a semi-circular background. Read the rest of this entry »