Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

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: Parsifal/Lyric Opera

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Photo by Todd Rosenberg

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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 »

Review: Ariadne auf Naxos/Lyric Opera

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Amber Wagner, Brandon Jovanovich/Photo: Dan Rest

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During the recently ended Bill Mason era at Lyric Opera, the philosophy was that works of Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss had to alternate for attention to contain costs of the huge orchestra needed for these works. This year, however, the Strauss opera presented, “Ariadne auf Naxos,” employs a chamber orchestra, yet nonetheless was left to stand as the single season ambassador to represent the vast canvas of German Romanticism.

This production was originally mounted for soprano Deborah Voigt, who had sung the role here in 1998 and was to have sung this revival, “Ariadne” being one of her signature roles. However, soon after a Chicago Symphony concert over the summer spotlighting Strauss and Wagner roles associated with her where Voigt was having obvious vocal trouble, she abruptly withdrew from these performances with a statement that she was “focusing increasingly on dramatic soprano roles and thus has decided to drop the part from [her] repertory for the time being.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Boris Godunov/Lyric Opera

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Ferruccio Furlanetto/Photo: Dan Rest

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“Boris Godunov” is making a return appearance to Lyric Opera for the first time in some seventeen years, a long time to go without hearing the crown jewel of Russian opera. What is needed to make it work is a bass extraordinaire who doesn’t come around all that often. Lyric had to wait its turn to obtain the services of Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto, who is making his Lyric debut with this role.

One could quibble about the size and color of the voice, which is not the dark timbre often associated with classic performances of the tortured czar. But the nuances of Furlanetto’s characterization are profound and the shading of his voice expressive of the myriad of moods that need to be conveyed. Making a splendid contrast with Furlanetto is the darker sound of Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli as Pimen. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Lucia di Lammermoor/Lyric Opera

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Susanna Phillips/Photo: Dan Rest

It is telling that in a series of promotional videos that Lyric Opera music director Sir Andrew Davis and creative consultant Renée Fleming made to promote the new season, Davis admits that he is not partial to the bel canto repertoire before he nonetheless waxes on about the melodic appeal of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.”

The strategy for the company’s new production of “Lucia” is to depend on the vision of a former Lucia, Catherine Malfitano, to direct, apparently with the hope that the drama she once brought to the role—the actual singing of it was never her strength—would somehow translate to another portrayal and to an entire production. Would that it were so.

Instead, the end result comes off as a bewildering affair, marked by portrayals that seem detached as to what their specific character—to say nothing of anyone else’s—is doing in this opera. Read the rest of this entry »