Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

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: 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: Capriccio/Lyric Opera of Chicago

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A

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: La clemenza di Tito/Lyric Opera

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RECOMMENDED

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: Parsifal/Lyric Opera

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Photo by Todd Rosenberg

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

RECOMMENDED

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: Rigoletto/Lyric Opera

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Photo: Dan Rest

Photo: Dan Rest

RECOMMENDED

Verdi’s “Rigoletto” is so popular and done so often that it has become a festering ground for avant-garde directorial concepts that more often than not are bizarrely superimposed over Verdi’s intentions. The Met’s current production, for instance, sets the opera in a Las Vegas casino.

This unit-set production, originally presented in 2006 as a traditional “back to basics” enterprise attempting to in part compensate for a 2000 Christopher Alden production that was off the charts, does an effective job of reminding us why “Rigoletto” remains the beloved work that it is. It has been somewhat rethought by director Stephen Barlow, who is making his Lyric Opera debut. Read the rest of this entry »

A Triumph For Art: Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” Returns to Lyric Opera

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Photo: Dan Rest

Photo: Dan Rest

By Dennis Polkow

The gargantuan music dramas of Richard Wagner are by and large a world inhabited by gods and heroes ruled by magic and fantasy. The one exception is “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” Wagner’s single comedy and most life-affirming work that deals with real, down-to-earth people, ordinary citizens who support and maintain the arts.

This is an idea that Wagner had as far back as 1845 when he wrote down most of his own original scenario for “Meistersinger,” but he set it aside for years, only returning when he stalled in his work on the “Ring” cycle after Act I and Act II of “Siegfried.” Wagner would compose “Tristan und Isolde”—which would revolutionize music and develop the expansive chromaticism that he needed to complete the “Ring”—and returned to “Meistersinger” in the intervening years, finishing the piece in 1867. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Werther/Lyric Opera

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Matthew Polenzani and Sophie Koch in Lyric Opera’s Werther photo: Dan Rest

RECOMMENDED

How rarely is Massenet’s “Werther,” the work many consider the crown jewel of French Romantic opera, done at Lyric Opera? Well, only twice prior in the company’s near sixty years of existence, the last time in the late 1970s, so definitely not a good idea to miss it this time around, unless your calendar for 2045 is wide open.

Huge pity that the staging of this new production sets aside the original’s intentions and instead overlays a matrix of extramusical pseudo-psychological associations not only at odds with the narrative and the music—no small feat—but more often than not, directly competing against both, to say nothing of common sense, for attention.

Also not helping is a cluttered, inelegant and cold set design that also stands in direct contrast to the lusciousness of the music. Under such less-than-ideal presentation circumstances, one wonders why Lyric did not just save some money and decide to present “Werther” in concert form.

That leaves us with the music, which thankfully is in superb hands here. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Simon Boccanegra/Lyric Opera

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Thomas Hampson, Ferruccio Furlanetto/Photo: Dan Rest

RECOMMENDED

The Doge of Genoa is back. He doesn’t come around very often, so if you want an audience with him, now is a good time to do so or you may end up having to wait another decade and a half or so to catch him again. Even at a house with as Italian-centered a repertoire as Lyric Opera, Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” is a relative rarity. Lyric’s lack of confidence that “Simon” can give its audiences a complete Verdi fix is evidenced by the fact that it is actually the first of two Verdi operas to be presented this season.

“Simon” should be heard every so often and certainly needs no apologies musically even if the tortured libretto might have sunk the work forever after its disastrous premiere had it not been for its reworking by Arrigo Boito years later. Verdi’s publisher had organized a meeting between Verdi and Boito concerning “Simon” in the hopes that if they could work well together, the pair might go on to collaborate on an operatic adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Othello.” The rest, as they say, is history. Neither Verdi’s “Otello” or “Falstaff,” the crowning glories of his career and of Italian opera, might have come into being had Boito and Verdi not been able to work effectively on revising “Simon.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Magic Flute/Lyric Opera

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Charles Castronovo/Photo: Dan Rest

RECOMMENDED

The perfect Mozart opera? Most would pick “The Marriage of Figaro,” some “Don Giovanni,” perhaps a handful even “Così fan tutte,” all Mozart collaborations with brilliant librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. And yet, for comedy, fantasy and intrigue, “The Magic Flute” has to top the list. A product of those much romanticized last months of his short life, this is Mozart at his most witty, his most charming and at the full height of his soon-to-be-silenced miraculous musical powers.

The memorable August Everding production that Lyric Opera is still using dates back to the mid-1980s and has frankly had more revivals than I can count with casts of various quality levels. After a quarter of a century of use here and elsewhere, apparently some of the pieces could barely be repainted and lighting had to be adjusted to compensate for the age of some of the scenery. If so, this is never obvious in the current revival. Read the rest of this entry »

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