Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

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


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 »

The Players 2014: The Fifty People Who Really Perform in Chicago

Players 50 4 Comments »

In the foreground, Mike Nussbaum. Continuing in a clockwise circle, Nathan Allen, Charles Newell, Autumn Eckman and Nick Pupillo, Rae Gray and Usman Ally, Alejandro Cerrudo, Ann Filmer, Michael Mahler, Michael Halberstam, Dave Pasquesi, Ayako Kato. In the background, T.J. Jagodowski.

Once was the time, when it came to performing arts, that Chicago was a great place to come from. But thanks to the constant upward trajectory of our community, Chicago is now a great place to come from AND to return to. Every year we see more and more evidence of this, whether it’s the regular homecomings of the likes of Michael Shannon and David Cromer, the Chicago reorientation of international stars like Renee Fleming and Riccardo Muti or the burgeoning national reputations of Tracy Letts and Alejandro Cerrudo, we’ve got quite a perpetual show going on. That means of course, that culling a growing short-list of 300 or so down to the fifty folks who make up this year’s Players, is getting more painful. But we’re crying tears of joy as we do it. What follows are the fifty artists (as opposed to last year’s behind-the-scenesters) in dance, theater, comedy and opera who are making the greatest impact on Chicago stages right now.

Written by Zach Freeman, Brian Hieggelke and Sharon Hoyer, with Mark Roelof Eleveld, Hugh Iglarsh and Robert Eric Shoemaker. Photos by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

Pictured above: In the foreground, Mike Nussbaum. Continuing in a clockwise circle, Nathan Allen, Charles Newell, Autumn Eckman and Nick Pupillo, Rae Gray and Usman Ally, Alejandro Cerrudo, Ann Filmer, Michael Mahler, Michael Halberstam, Dave Pasquesi, Ayako Kato. In the background, T.J. Jagodowski.

All photos were taken at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago.

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Review: Die Fledermaus/Lyric Opera

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Bo Skovhus and Daniela Fally

Bo Skovhus and Daniela Fally


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


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 »

Review: Parsifal/Lyric Opera

Opera, Opera Reviews, Recommended Opera 1 Comment »
Photo by Todd Rosenberg

Photo: Todd Rosenberg


Kudos to Lyric Opera for celebrating the Wagner bicentennial by bringing us Wagner’s last, most glorious and perhaps most controversial work, “Parsifal,” in an all-new production for the occasion.

This is an opera unlike any other: Wagner himself called it a Bühnenweihfestspiel, or consecrated stage work, and specified that it not be performed outside of his own theater in Bayreuth and without applause. These wishes were encouraged by Wagner’s widow Cosima well into the twentieth century although a handful of early concert versions and unauthorized productions managed to appear nonetheless.

In the case of Lyric Opera, “Parsifal” had only been presented twice in the company’s nearly sixty-year history before the current production, which much as Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s contemporary sci-fi production had done in 2002, largely demythologizes the work of its Christian context. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Madama Butterfly/Lyric Opera

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James Valenti and Amanda_Echalaz/Photo by Dan Rest

James Valenti and Amanda Echalaz/Photo: Dan Rest

After more than thirty years, Lyric Opera is finally presenting a new production of “Madama Butterfly.” Well, new to Chicago, anyway: a production that current Lyric general director Anthony Freud commissioned at the Houston Grand Opera in 2010, originally directed there by British director Michael Grandage.

The production, listed as a co-commission of the Houston Grand Opera, the Grand Théâtre de Genève and Lyric Opera, was directed by Grandage in both Houston and Switzerland, but directorial responsibilities have been tossed off to Louisa Muller for the Chicago production.

Hal Prince’s production, first seen here in 1982 and revived several times across the decades, also eventually started coming without Prince, but at least Prince himself directed its initial and earliest incarnations. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Otello/Lyric Opera

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Johan Botha and Ana María Martínez/Photo by Dan Rest

Johan Botha and Ana María Martínez/Photo: Dan Rest


In a year that celebrates the 200th anniversaries of Wagner and Verdi, how fitting that Lyric Opera should open its season with a work that manages to pay tribute to both.

There was a sixteen-year silence from Verdi between “Aida,” after which he had retired, and “Otello,” where a septuagenarian Verdi once again took up Shakespeare at the urging of collaborator Arrigo Boito for the first time since his youthful setting of “Macbeth,” spectacularly performed recently in concert form by Riccardo Muti at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

In the interim, the already significant influence of Wagner had spread like wildfire throughout the opera world, even to Verdi’s Italy: the fusion of music and drama had become more pronounced, orchestras had expanded and were a greater part of the musical fabric and texture, and set-aside pieces, arias and ensembles had given way to a more unified, contemporary art form that was through-composed without stops and starts from start to finish. Read the rest of this entry »

The Special Relationship: Lyric Opera Hosts The Second City

-News etc., Comedy, Improv/Sketch/Revues, Opera No Comments »

By Johnny Oleksinski

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Right away I knew something was up at the Civic Opera House on January 5. The lights dimmed and the familiar, soothing British brogue of Lyric Opera principal conductor Sir Andrew Davis boomed its usual, prerecorded message prohibiting the use of cellphones in the Ardis Krainik Theatre. So far, so good. Then Davis announced that a vehicle with the license plate “FLEMING DIVA 1″ was blocking Wacker Drive. Wait, what? Moments later, the sprightly omnipresent voice informed us that a wealthy patron’s mink coat checked in the lobby was still alive. Huh? No, this was not opening night of “La bohème” or “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” or even the closing of “Don Pasquale”; this was “The Second City Guide to the Opera,” another exciting product of the fledgling Lyric Unlimited program. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Oklahoma!/Lyric Opera

Musicals, Theater, Theater Reviews No Comments »
Ashley Brown & John Cudia/ Photo: Dan Rest

Ashley Brown & John Cudia/Photo: Dan Rest

When Renée Fleming was announced as Lyric Opera’s creative consultant in December of 2010, she related that the company would have an “annual commitment to American musical theater” beginning with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” in non-subscription performances in the spring of 2013. Before that production was even out of the box, Lyric recently announced a five-year R & H initiative.

The justification offered for an opera company already straining to present a diversity of operatic repertoire to focus its limited resources on musical theater that is already widely performed and available in other local venues was, according to Fleming, that such works “emphasize our own strengths and also encourage those who love musicals to give opera a try. With classic musicals, the singing is more closely linked with the type of singing that we do here, and Lyric is poised with such resources to do spectacular productions.” Read the rest of this entry »