Review: Porgy and Bess (Court Theatre Chicago)

     
     

We loves you, Porgy and Bess!

     
     

Harriet Nzinga Plumpp

    
Court Theatre presents
   
   
Porgy and Bess
   
Written by George Gerwin, Ira Gershwin,
and Dorothy and
DuBose Heyward
Directed by Charles Newell
Music direction, new orchestrations by Doug Peck
at
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis (map)
through July 3  |  tickets: $10-$55  |  more info 

Reviewed by Barry Eitel 

On first glance, Porgy and Bess looks like the tale of a perpetual sucker. The crippled beggar Porgy, living in an impoverished South Carolina hamlet, falls for Bess, the most shunned woman in town, a coquette who runs with a jealous meathead. Due to Porgy being the only person who’ll let her stay at his house, the mismatched pair gets together, yet the woman retains a wandering eye. But Porgy puts up with all, even when she runs to New York when he’s out of town. Instead of throwing up his hands, he takes up his crutch and starts the journey north.

Alexis J. Rogers and Todd M. KrygerHowever, as Charles Newell’s excellent production at Court makes clear, there’s something astoundingly human about this tale. George Gershwin’s magnum opus showcases love and forgiveness in its treatment of Porgy and Bess’ relationship. Titular characters aside, the opera also delves into how a community copes with hardship. Even when those hardships are as insidious and gigantic as racism, poverty, and natural disaster.

Out of the millions of debates spurred by this show, easily one of the stupidest is if it should be classified as an opera or musical. Newell and music director Doug Peck took the best of both genres. I’d say the show is about 90% singing, keeping many of Gershwin’s recitatives. But they aren’t afraid to throw in a few spoken lines when a character needs to drop a truth bomb without the flourish of music. Newell also chopped down the supporting townsfolk of Catfish Row, so the stage isn’t flooded with actors with one line roles. It also makes the whole strong ensemble memorable.

Newell’s envisioning of this controversial tale adds a vibrancy and immediacy to the octogenarian opera. John Culbert’s off-white set invokes a weathered Carolina beach house, which goes well with Jacqueline Firkins’ breezy white costumes. Stark as it may seem, the design has its fare share of breathtaking surprises. Peck also tweaks the arrangements to great effect, adding some great traditional Gullah drum breaks as well as haunting stripped down acapella numbers.

While initially shunned, Porgy and Bess has seen lots of love from opera houses around the world (including a production at the Lyric in 2008). These productions promise grandiose sets and superstar vocals, with the plot lagging behind as an afterthought. That’s not the case here, where the plot (based on DuBose Heyward’s 1926 novel) is the main selling point. With Newell’s minimalist take, nearly all of the storytelling responsibility falls to the cast. They deliver with aplomb, searching the story’s intricacies and themes alongside us in the audience. I already had chills when Harriet Nzinga Plumpp warbled the first few notes of “Summertime.”

 

Rogers and Jones - V Kryger - V Plumpp and Newland - V

Todd M. Kryger’s hulking performance as Porgy is just the right blend of majesty and vulnerability, and Alexis J. Rogers correctly portrays a Bess torn by love and lust. But the real jewel here is the supporting cast. Bethany Thomas as the pious Serena steals the show with her wickedly expressive singing style. She shreds right through the heart of “My Man’s Gone Now.” Sean Blake’s slick Sporting Life, the neighborhood dope dealer, is a similar delight. His rendition of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” drips with fun—it’s clear he’s having a great time up there.

Court boasts that this production is scrubbed clean of the racist smudges that have dogged Porgy and Bess from its opening night in 1935. I don’t know if I completely agree with that—much of the music still leans towards Europe instead of Africa. But Porgy and Bess is an American treasure, a spunky musical journey that combines stodgy Old World opera with the uniquely American creations of jazz, gospel, and blues. Newell’s production is a treasure in itself, grabbing this overly-familiar piece (“Summertime” is one of the most covered pop song in the world) and thrusting it into relevance.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  
Bethany Thomas and Brian Alwyn-Newland Joelle Lamarre, Bethany Thomas, Wydetta Carter, Todd Kryger, Alexis Rogers
   
   

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Review: HE/SHE (Chicago Opera Theater)

  
  

A stark stage filled with robust emotion

  
  
Joseph Kaiser in Chicago Opera Theater's "HE/SHE". Photo by Liz Lauren. Jennifer Johnson Cano in Chicago Opera Theater's "HE/SHE". Photo by Liz Lauren.
  
  
Chicago Opera Theater presents
  
HE/SHE
  
Music by Robert Schuman and Leos Janáček
at Harris Theater, Millennium Park (map)
through May 8  |  tickets: $25-$75  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh 

Act One

  

Act Two

        
     Frauenliebe und Leben     The Diary of One Who Disappeared
            by Robert Schuman                             by Leos Janáček
         

Reviewed by Katy Walsh 

She loves him.  He loves her.  A woman and man express the spectrum of emotions for loving the wrong person.  Chicago Opera Theater concludes its 2011 Spring Season with HE/SHE, a operatic tribute to obsessive loveDeviating from a traditional show, Chicago Opera Theater presents a concert experience.  In the first half, a mezzo-soprano sings in German Frauenliebe und Leben by Robert Schumann.  Following the intermission, a tenor sings in Czech The Diary of One Who Disappeared by Leos Janáček.  The combination proves an intriguing and entertaining gender sing-off. It’s not just another he-sang/she-sang side of the same Jennifer Johnson Cano in story.  The pieces are totally separate but connected through the misery of mutual unrequited love.  HE/SHE passionately sings his/her heart out for the love of her/him.  

After the stunning spectacles of Death and the Powers (our review ★★★) and Medea (review ★★★★); the simplicity of the HE/SHE set-up startles initially: a piano; he or she.  There is no elaborate scenery, costumes or chorus.  The orchestra pit is empty.  It has a no-thrills send-off feel.  When the music starts, the stark stage fills up with robust emotion.  Jennifer Johnson Cano sings exquisitely the story of her man.  Cano shares the relational joys and pain with a controlled ‘this must be a dream’ desperation.  Cano poignantly sings about ‘staring into an empty world.‘  Her sadness permeates the audience with lingering despair.  It’s a powerful contrast to Joseph Kaiser.  Kaiser commandingly sings with a fury of intensity. An animated Kaiser thunders about the bewitching powers of a gypsy.  His emotional rant engages through to a climatic finale.  Brandy Lynn Hawkins (gypsy) and the off-stage voices of Lelia Bowie, Hannah Dixon and Megan Rose Williams aid the storytelling with sweet, haunting melodies.

For both segments, the back of the stage turns into a full-length movie screen.  Traditionally, supertitles are projected in snippets above the stage.  For HE/SHE, the supertitles become illustrations of the emotion.  For Frauenliebe und Leben, the supertitles are romantic, handwritten script.  They gradually appear and disappear in a montage of old fashion photographs.  The black and white photos beautifully Jennifer Johnson Cano in Chicago Opera Theater's "HE/SHE". Photo by Liz Lauren.chronicle a woman’s life from childhood to marriage to death.  The Diary of One Who Disappeared  uses a chaotic, bold font.  The words are spliced onto lush, vibrant images of nature.  Within the abstract artistry, a ghostly woman sporadically appears.  Projection designer Hillary Leben effectively gives the audience snapshots of what’s going on inside the heads of the tormented lovers.

The entire show is accompanied by a solo pianist Craig Terry.  The uncomplicated choice continues to draw focus to the complex emotional singing.  In theory, the decision is simple and strong.  In reality, the Harris Theater’s concrete facade is an echo chamber.  Without an orchestra to provide a sound buffer, every cough, whisper, dropped program is an audible distraction.  Despite that unwanted soundtrack, HE/SHE boldly finishes off Chicago Opera Theater’s innovative season with a return to the basics: spectacular operatic singing!

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
     

Joseph Kaiser in Chicago Opera Theater's "HE/SHE". Photo by Liz Lauren.

HE/SHE is sung in German with English supertitle and in Czech with English supertitles. Run Time: 90 minutes including one intermission

All photos by Liz Lauren 

   

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Review: Medea (Chicago Opera Theater)

  
  

Medea casts its dark, irresistible spell

  
  

Anna Stephany as Medea, ensemble in background. Photo by Liz Lauren

  
Chicago Opera Theater presents
  
Medea
  
Written by Marc-Antoine Charpentier
Stage Directed by James Durrah
Conducted by Christian Curnyn
at Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph (map)
thru May 1  |  tickets: $30-$120  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Visually stunning, musically sumptuous, Director James Durrah’s vision for Marc-Antione Charpentier’s Medea (Médée) unifies contemporary minimalism with the controlled, ritualistic stateliness of French Baroque opera. Every sleek and suggestive element of Chicago Opera Theater’s production not only buttresses the underlying power and deadly magnificence of its central character, Médée (Anna Stephany), the sorceress who’s been done wrong by her man, but also establishes the pernicious atmosphere at the court of mendacious royalty.

Anna Stephany, as Medea, stands with her 2 children. Photo by Liz Lauren. From modern dance movement to costuming (also Durrah), to the stark, bold set design of bent wood clashed against metal (François-Pierre Couture), to the lighting design’s color palette of sepia, gold, pale yellow, copper, dark blue and smoky black (Julian Pike), COT’s design elements load their production with chic sophistication that meshes easily with the lush and powerful elegance of Charpentier’s compositions. Such a well-integrated design not only pays off in building to and amplifying Médée’s mournful rages and witchy moments, but also frames and supports the intrigues carried out at the court of Corinth.

Jason (Colin Ainsworth), Médée and their sons have fled to Corinth in the wake of Médée’s murder of Thessaly’s King Pelias. While Jason sues for protection from King Creon (Evan Boyer), Médée already suspects that he has fallen in love with the king’s daughter Creuse (Micaëla Oeste). Stephany’s deeply psychological performance strikes the right tenuous balance, wavering over Médée’s love for Jason, for whom she has killed and sacrificed, and yielding to jealous suspicions that become confirmed with each hour. Once Jason arrives, Ainsworth and Stephany convincingly render the sensual tension between this troubled pair. Jason tries to persuade Médée that every favor he pursues with Creuse he does only to secure their refuge. Adding insult to injury, Jason persuades Médée to give her cloak to Creuse, since the princess has admired it and such a gift may help their plea.

The cloak is everything. Rich, velvety black with a glossy persimmon lining, the cloak sets Médée apart, particularly as she enters at the back of the stage, hand-in-hand with her two sons in their pajamas of blue white. It’s an otherworldly moment that contrasts potent, mysterious danger with unsuspecting innocence. Likewise, once Creuse dons the cloak in Act Four (already poisoned by Médée), she flaunts it like a spoiled rich girl who has usurped Medee’s power. Certainly much fun is had in interim scenes, wherein Médée calls upon the spirits of the underworld to poison the cloak for Creuse’s undoing. (Trust the Chorus to act out their zombie best!) But the more accessible power plays come through each woman’s possession and manipulation of the cloak.

Micaela Oeste as Creuse, background: Ensemble. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Anna Stephany as Medea, Colin Ainsworth as Jason. Photo by Liz Lauren Paul LaRosa as Oronte, surrounded by Ensemble. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Being baroque opera, manipulation and intrigue is key. King Creon lures Oronte (Paul LaRosa) to Corinth’s defense against the Thessalians with the promise of marriage to Creuse. But Creon really intends Creuse for Jason and makes every move to remove the threat of Médée’s presence by sending her into exile without her children. Fools–they should know not to mess with Médée. But often, more compelling than her carrying out her revenge are scenes in which characters are still sorting out everyone’s hidden agenda.

The cast is theatrically adept and vocally powerful. The Baroque Band, a Chicago-based ensemble since 2007, conducted by Christian Curnyn, provides rich, majestic and period-perfect musical underpinning to each character’s lies and deceptions. Under the veneer of civilization beats passionate hearts, just as driven to satisfy desire as Médée’s — they only lack the mojo to back it up.

Well, COT’s Medea has tons of mojo. More’s the pity that there are only three more performances before it closes–run, do not walk, to see them.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

The ensemble of Chicago Opera Theater's 'Medea' surrounds Anna Stephany (Medea).  Photo by Liz Lauren.

Chicago Opera Theater’s Medea continues at Millennium Park’s Harris Theater through May 1st, with performances April 27 and 29 at 7:30, and May 1 at 3pm.  Tickets are $30-$120, and can be purchased by phone (312-334-7777) or on the web (HarrisTheaterChicago.org).  For more info, visit the company’s website:  www.chicagooperatheater.org. Medea is sung in French, with English supertitles.

 

     

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Review: Death and the Powers (Chicago Opera Theater)

  
  

Avatars create their own opera

  
  

Sara Heaton, soprano: Miranda; Hal Cazalet, tenor: Nicholas - in Chicago Opera Theater's 'Death and the Powers'. Photo credit: Paula Aguilera

  
Chicago Opera Theater presents
   
Death and the Powers: The Robots’ Opera
   
Written by Tod Machover and Robert Pinsky
Directed by Diane Paulus
at Harris Theater, Millennium Park (map)
through April 10  |  tickets: $30-$120   |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

You could call it an elaborate futuristic puppet show or a techo triumph that pushes opera deep into the 21st century. But you won’t confuse Death and the Powers: The Robots’ Opera with any staging you’ve seen. Developed by composer Tod Machover’s Opera of the Future Group at the MIT Media Lab, this 90-minute cyborg concoction, a Midwest premiere, is based on a libretto by former poet laureate Robert Pinsky and staged by Diane Paulus, who recently revived Hair on Broadway. Together they’ve created a curious amalgam, a sci-fi one-act opera that could also pass for a domestic tragedy.

James Maddalena, baritone: Simon Powers in 'Death and the Powers' at Chicago Opera TheaterThe plot quirkily combines our fear of death with our ardor for and reliance on technology. Though apparently unwilling to risk consigning his dying body to frozen cryonics, multi-billionaire inventor Simon Power still refuses to die in the flesh when he can live in the circuitry. As dying focuses his faculties, he devises a scheme to “download” himself into the world he refuses to leave behind, to escape from matter into the machine. It’s called The System: This Matrix-like hive of embedded memories and personality will perpetuate Powers indefinitely. You CAN take it with you, it seems.

Of course, those left behind can’t help but feel a bit abandoned, especially his doting daughter Miranda (an allusion to the magician Prospero’s daughter in The Tempest). She clings to the world of “sweat and death,” but her mother Evvy, now a semi-widow, is gradually captivated by the System: Evvy cherishes how well this sprawling motherboard has cloned Simon–even though she still craves to be touched. Behind all the Frankenstein-like wizardry is a bionic boy named Nicholas whose arm was transformed by Simon’s benevolence and who wants to repay the favor with electronic immortality.

But the System’s scheme requires the reconstituted Power to turn his back on the finite world of flesh. His “departure” causes a worldwide financial depression. When confronted by the Miseries, a wailing crowd of distressed supernumeraries, not so simple “Simon” retreats back into his cyber cocoon. Miranda is left to choose between real life and an authentic simulation.

It’s easy to find the brain behind this bold enterprise, a bit harder to locate the heart. (More on that later.) With its “disembodied performance” of feedback sensors, customized audio system of 143 speakers, analysis software, surround sound, movable and brightly lit robotic androids, collapsible, bird-like Chandelier, and massive rotating control banks (the bookshelf-like “Walls”) that reflect Simon’s every mood change, the production is itself a “system” that dominates the doings. Far more impressive than affecting, Death and the Powers keeps us as detached emotionally as Simon is physically removed from reality.

     
Emily Albrink, soprano: Evvy - Death and the Powers at Chicago Opera Theater Sara Heaton, soprano: Miranda in 'Death and the Powers' at Chicago Opera Theater
Hal Cazalet, tenor: Nicholas;  Emily Albrink, soprano: Evvy - Death and the Powers at Chicago Opera Theater Hal Cazalet, tenor: Nicholas - Chicago Opera Theater

Happily, James Maddalena’s all-controlling Simon refuses to be cowed by the elaborate equipment that surrounds and finally absorbs the mad mogul. He sings up a storm, a swan song that haunts the action. Simon’s “second coming” obsession with a cyber rather than cellular afterlife is echoed by Hal Cazalet’s equally possessed Nicholas. It’s even shared by Emily Albrink’s easily converted Evvy. (This wife loves Simon enough even to feel him in banks of modules and flashing book spines.) It’s up to an anguished and effective Sara Heaton to keep tortured Miranda in the real world. Valiantly and defiantly, she refuses to sacrifice the “meat” of mortality for the sinful pride of becoming your own posterity.

With musical amplification by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project conducted by Gil Rose, Mahover’s pulsating score eschews melodic rhapsodies for the coiled intensity of frenetic passages and occasionally rhapsodic outbursts. Pinsky’s brilliant libretto lifts it throughout. This proud poet delivers fascinating riffs on the paradox of running out of matter but not out of time and the hubristic arrogance of Power’s neo-Faustian bargain with the all-sustaining System.

It’s an awesome tour de force, enough to cement C.O.T.’s reputation for enterprising risk-taking, not the usual menu you encounter from an opera company. This state-of-the-art showcase for electronic innovation is probably not the future of opera (it still comes down to singing a story). But it’s a bracing look at a brave new world. Death and the Powers will either soon be dated or depict the shape of things to come. But until the computer writes the review, I pick meat over machinery.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Hal Cazalet, tenor: Nicholas - Chicago Opera Theater

All photos by Paula Aguilera and Jonathan Williams

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Review: Hercules (Lyric Opera of Chicago)

  
  

Well-intentioned ‘Hercules’ can’t build momentum

  
  

Part One  HERCULES  Lyric Opera Chorus - Dan Rest

  
Lyric Opera of Chicago presents
  
Hercules
  
Composed by George Frideric Handel
Directed by
Peter Sellars
Conducted by
Harry Bicket
at Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive (map)
thru March 21  | 
tickets: $33-$217  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

For his oratorio Hercules, Handel decided to forego hydras, golden apples, and Augean stables. Instead, he wrote a three hour piece about the very last snippet of Hercules’ myth: the point where the victorious Hercules returns from war and is murdered by his jealous wife, Dejanira, who suspects he bedded his recent captive, Iole. It’s an intense story; the 90’s TV show and Disney movie don’t even touch this stuff. Instead of an epic, Handel crafts an immensely personal and psychologically complex narrative complete with pounding arias and swirling recitatives.

Mackarthur Johnson, Lucy Crowe in Lyric Opera's 'Hercules'. Photo credit: Dan RestThe puckish Peter Sellars, always one for concepts and re-imaginings, directed this new production of George Frideric Handel’s Hercules. Sellars zooms in on themes concerning how war affects soldiers. The production ponders that even if you can take the warrior out of the war, can you take the war out of the warrior? It is an idea that mystified Sophocles, the writer of Handel’s source material The Trachiniae, yet it’s a problem that we face now with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq still blazing (and veterans living on the street).

Sellars’ Hercules is both an ancient saga and a modern conundrum. Hercules (Eric Owens) wears the camouflage and flak vest of a 21st Century combatant; the captured Iole (Lucy Crowe) dons an Abu Gharib-style orange jumpsuit and sings her first notes from under a black sack. Sellars steals the images from newsreels, slaps them on-stage, and makes them sing.

The major issue with Lyric’s fresh opera is that Handel’s storytelling fails to captivate. He originally meant the piece to be an oratorio, or a “musical drama” in his own words. Handel wrote 26 such oratorios, a genre written for concert performances and negligible interaction amongst performers (or what we in the biz call “acting”). He didn’t necessarily intend for the harpsichord-heavy work to pack opera houses. He packs his composition with de capo arias – loads of thematic repetitions with tidbits of embellishment and alteration as per the singers. The opera feels like an overly-extended Miesner exercise, with certain phrases (such as when Dejanira, overwhelmed by guilt, begs for her ghost to be whipped by scorpions) repeated over and over. It ventures into snooze-fest territory.

Several moments break the pattern and grabs hold of one’s attention. All of the choral numbers were welcome (although the choreography was often out-of-sync), especially when they muse, gossip and hiss about the nature of jealousy. Alice Coote’s Dejanira is the real driver of the story, not the titular hero. Coote’s performance manages to be pained, majestic, and honest. The English mezzo-soprano doesn’t shy away from diving to hellish emotional depths, yet she exudes grace in all she does. When Handel writes him in, Eric Owens’ growling Hercules is also terrific. Crowe’s singing is top-notch even if her characterization is too stiff. One of my personal favorites is David Daniels’ Lichas (a part originally meant for a contralto).  A gopher for Hercules and his wife, we watch as he does all he can to console and connect the couple, even though this ends in terrible failure.

     
Alice Coote, David Daniels, Eric Owens - HERCULES - Dan Rest Eric Owens, Alice Coote - HERCULES - Dan Rest
Alice Coote and David Daniels HERCULES - Photo credit Dan Rest Alice Coote, Eric Owens - HERCULES - Dan Rest Alice Coote Dejanira in HERCULES - Photo Credit Dan Rest

Sellars’ ideas are valuable and pertinent—veterans were brought in for dress rehearsals and gave the production a standing ovation. He fleshes out themes that make Handel seem powerfully contemporary. George Tsypin’s set is simple, just a few weathered columns and boulders, but it comes to life with James Ingalls’ dazzling (and occasionally terrifying) lighting.

Once you dig past Handel’s redundancy, Dejanira and Hercules seem remarkably layered. Stuck on the home front, they are dealing with a realistic quagmire, even if the circumstances (like him being a demigod and her killing him with a coat that rips out his organs) are not. Handel’s Hercules is a confounding work, but Sellars, a populist at heart, stares it down unflinchingly.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
   
  

Alice Coote, Eric Owens, Lucy Crowe, Marckarthur Johnson, Richard Croft - Hercules - Dan Rest 

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Review: Lohengrin (Lyric Opera Chicago)

     
     

Lyric champions Wagner’s epic love story

     
     

Entire ensemble from Richard Wagner's 'Lohengrin' at Lyric Opera Chicago. Photo by Dan Rest.

  
Lyric Opera of Chicago presents
  
Lohengrin
  
Composed and Libretto by Richard Wagner
Conducted by Sir Andrew Davis
Directed by Elijah Moshinsky
at Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive (map)
through March 8  |  tickets: $33-$237  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh 

A man rescues a damsel from murder charges, promises to love her forever and wants to marry her. The only wrinkle? She must never ask his name, origin or lineage. Can she stay true to a nameless hero? Lyric Opera presents Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin, an opera in three acts. Friedrich accuses his ex-girlfriend Elsa of dumping him for a secret lover. He also charges her with murdering her brother. The double attack is prompted by Friedrich and his wife Ortrud’s desire for the crown. In her defense, Elsa summons her champion to appear. She insists God is sending her a knight. Her prayers are answered when the hero sails in on a swan. The rescuer duels Friedrich and wins. As Elsa and the hero head towards a happily ever-after, Ortrud and Friedrich plot their revenge. Using pagan and female persuasion, Ortrud pokes holes in Elsa’s bubble of bliss. Elsa struggles with her ability to love unconditionally this hero without a name or a past. Wagner’s Lohengrin is an epic love story complicated by the unknown.

Emily Magee and Johan Botha in Lyric Opera Lohengrin - photo Dan RestUnder the masterful baton of Sir Andrew Davis, Lohengrin captivates from the overture to finale. The dreamy melodies tangled with hope and sadness leap into commanding forceful musical passages. With the curtain still down, the introduction transitions the audience from the real world to Wagner’s fantasy where ‘there is no remorse in happiness.’ In this production of Lohengrin, the scenery and the action is minimal. Instead, the stage is filled to capacity with the chorus adding to the rich tone of the score. Trumpeters flank the stage in a majestic nod to the nobility clash. Johan Botha (hero aka Lohengrin) is the man of mystery. Botha’s entrance is less than dramatic but as soon as he begins singing he imposes an authority on the proceedings. Botha radiates his simplistic love ideology. Emily Magee (Elsa) struggles with the whole ‘If I love you, why do you need to know my name?’ Magee amazes as she emotionally sings through a spectrum of feelings; desperation, joy, doubt. Her aria “Euch Luften” is sung with an earnest sincerity to help her accusers. Elsa’s bad guys are wickedly wonderful. Michaela Schuster (Ortrud) conjures up a (black) magical performance. Schuster aggressively delivers her evil intent with strong vocal stylings and distorted facial expressions. Her duet with Greer Grimsley (Friedrich) spellbinds with a naughty sensuality. Grimsley holds his own in the marriage of ambition with solid conviction from his first appearance. Lohengrin is all about loving and the music! Under Davis’ musical direction, the ensemble makes love with the music for the pleasure of the audience.

Lohengrin is four hours and thirty-five minutes long. However, this should not be daunting. First, the music flows with an entrancing beauty. The allure engages with timeless essences. Next, the Lyric starts the show 90-minutes before its traditional curtain time. Somehow, the time change makes for pretend shortness. Spying 9pm on your watch at the last intermission break leads to a this-isn’t-that-long illusion. To help with the early start, the Lyric is also selling pre-ordered box suppers for $15. For me, I had a late lunch and a Clif bar in case of emergency. I was fine. No food stash required.

     
Michaela Schuster and Emily Magee in Lyric Opera Lohengrin - photo Dan Rest Johan Botha and Greer Grimsley in Lohengrin - Photo Dan Rest
Lohengrin by Richard Wagner - Lyric Opera Chicago 12 Lohengrin by Richard Wagner - Lyric Opera Chicago 14 Lohengrin by Richard Wagner - Lyric Opera Chicago 13

For opera newbies, there are two prominent familiar tunes in Lohengrin. The more obvious melody is the bridal march. Reading the German translated words, the song becomes much more romantic than the cheesy ‘here comes the bride’ mainstream version. Wagner’s original libretto is sweet thoughts of hope and wishes for a pleasurable union. The other recognizable moment will be around a few haunting bars of notes repeated throughout the show in relation to the swan hero. Here’s the symmetry moment, you’ll identify it from Swan Lake and its recent resurgence in popularity with the movie “Black Swan”. On a post-show read around, I discovered that Lohengrin was first performed in 1850. A Wagner admirer, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky premiered Swan Lake in 1877. I guess this swan song lives on in two masterpieces.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Georg Zeppenfeld, Johan Botha and Emily Magee Lyric Opera Lohengrin - Dan Rest

Lohengrin is an opera in three acts in German, with English titles by Francis Rizzo. Performances continue February 16th, 25th, March 1st, 5th, 8th at 6pm, February 20th at 1pm.  Running Time: Four hours and thirty-five minutes includes two intermissions.

All photos by Dan Rest

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REVIEW: The Girl of the Golden West (Lyric Opera)

  
  

Sheriffs! Bandits! Damsels! Passion! What’s not to love?

  
  

Act 3 of "Girl of the Golden West," playing at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Photo by Dan Rest

  
Lyric Opera of Chicago presents
  
The Girl of the Golden West
   
Composed by Giacomo Puccini  
Libretto by
Carlo Zangarini and Guelfo Civini
Directed by
Vincent Liotta
at
Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive (map)
through Feb 21  |  tickets: $56-$217  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I love a good Western. That may come as a surprise to some but maybe more of a surprise is the idea of a great Western opera – in Italian. Giacomo Puccini’s fascination with the American West is gloriously displayed in the Lyric Opera production of La Fanciulla Del West (or The Girl Of The Golden West). My dad used to call Westerns ‘horse operas’ because of all of the drama, brawling, greed, and damsels in distress. Luckily for us, Puccini’s Minnie is no mere damsel-in-distress when embodied by the fabulous soprano Deborah Voight.

Marcello Giordani and Deborah Voigt in the "Girl of Golden West", playing through February 21st at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Photo by Dan RestMs. Voight emanates strength with a healthy dose of ‘don’t mess with me’, making one of the great entrances in an opera – shooting off two rounds from her pistol to break up a fracas at the Polka saloon. Puccini’s interest in the “Wild West” was piqued by the European tours of the Buffalo Bill Western shows that included sharpshooter Annie Oakley. The deal was sealed, then, when – on a visit to New York – Puccini attended the Broadway play Girl of the Golden West by David Belasco.

Ms. Voight’s Minnie has just enough brass and fire to play with the boys and fend off the lascivious charm of the sheriff Jack Rance, played by baritone Marco Vratogna. Mr. Vratogna’s baritone is sexy and sinister. Rance is a sheriff and a gambler who thinks he has a direct line on Minnie’s virtue. Vratogna channels the great Yul Brynner with a shaved head and piercing intense gaze. I wondered if Brynner had modeled his Gunslinger on Jack Rance in the 1973 science fiction Western “Westworld”.

In every Western there must be an outlaw, especially if the bad guy is a smoldering misunderstood one. Enter the great tenor Marcello Giordani as Ramerrez aka Dick Johnson the hunted leader of a murderous gang of thieves out to steal the gold from this mining backwater.

Mr. Giordani has a gorgeous voice with velvety tones that never border on the strident or maudlin. He is a wonderful counterpoint to Ms. Voight’s powerful and clear soprano. Their acting is top notch in portraying two thunderstruck lovers. Voight’s bedroom eyes and womanly countenance enhance her performance. Meanwhile Giordani is quite entrancing and smoldering as her true love enraptured at the thought of one kiss from Minnie.

     
Marcello Giordani and Deborah Voigt in the "Girl of Golden West", playing through February 21st at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Photo by Dan Rest Act 1 of Girl of the Golden West playing at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Photo by Dan Rest
Debra Voigt with the men of the camp in Act 3 of "Girl of the Golden West" at Lyric Opera. Photo by Dan Rest Marcello Giordani and Deborah Voigt in the "Girl of Golden West", playing through February 21st at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Photo by Dan Rest

Mr. Vratogna (Sheriff Rance) and Ms. Voight have an excellent chemistry as well. Sheriff Rance’s intentions are less than honorable. He has a wife and Minnie is more of a trophy to be captured. There is a tense scene with Rance trying to force himself on Minnie and Ms. Voight’s portrayal is explosive in rebuffing him.

The supporting cast of “Fanciulla” is a combination of wonderful voices and fine acting. David Cangelosi is excellent as Nick the Polka bartender. He is a perfect comic relief as he pits the miners against one another in thinking they are at the top of the list for Minnie’s affections. Craig Irvin has a beautiful voice and excellent stage presence as Ashby the Wells Fargo man. I loved the portrayal of Sonora by the baritone Daniel Sutin. He has an exceptionally expressive visage to accompany the voice.

Puccini was my first exposure to opera with a Lyric production of La Boheme back in the 1970’s. His sense of theatre and drama are incomparable. He composed the lush and sweeping tragedies Tosca (recently produced at Lyric ★★★½) and Madama Butterfly. His works infuse humor, irony, and a wonderful sexiness to his characters for which I am grateful. He consistently wrote wonderful roles for women in particular. In “Fanciulla”, the role of Minnie is the only major female among at least forty men on the stage. It’s a powerhouse role to be undertaken by only the best and that is Deborah Voight.

Marco Vratogna, Marcello Giordani in "Girl of the Golden West" at Lyric Opera. Photo by Dan Rest.In my opinion, Puccini is the greatest theatrical composer history in history, and many have given homage or outright plagiarized his work. The Puccini estate sued Andrew Lloyd Webber over blatant lifts from “Fanciulla” in his version of The Phantom of The Opera – and the estate basically won, as Webber settled out of court. I also feel that Gene de Paul and Johnny Mercer owe a debt to Puccini for the Seven Brides for Seven Brothers score as well. Puccini’s rich and sweeping washes of sound are perfect for the Technicolor epics of John Ford and Stanley Donen, and – had Puccini he lived further into the 20th century – he  may have been witness to his influence on the American film soundtrack in Douglas Sirk melodramas and film noir classics.

The conductor for the evening was Sir Andrew Davis, who led the orchestra with command and joyful gusto. He has such joy for the music and that translates into an overall beautiful production. The Lyric is also gifted with the legendary Harold Prince as the original producer of “Fanciulla” in 1978 in Chicago. The director Vincent Liotta previously worked with Mr. Prince and has once again directed an excellent production.

Take the time to get acquainted with the treasure that is Chicago’s Lyric Opera. This is theatre and music that has persevered because of its beauty and soul-touching quality. It’s a chance to get dressed nice, put on your Sunday manners, and sit in one of the world’s great opera houses. Brava! Bravo! Te amo Maestro Puccini!

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
   
  

Act 1 of "Girl of the Golden West" at Lyric Opera. Photo by Dan Rest

     
     

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