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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REVIEW: The Mikado (Lyric Opera of Chicago)

     
     

Lyric creates a perfect holiday gift

     
     

01 Neal Davies as Ko-Ko center with Lyric Opera Chorus THE MIKADO DAN_4344 c Dan Rest

   
Lyric Opera of Chicago presents
   
The Mikado
   
Written by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan
Directed by Gary Griffin
Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker (map)
through Jan 21  |  tickets: $48-$217   |  more info 

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

I’ve found it, the perfect Christmas gift! It is Lyric Opera Chicago’s radiant, lush, sophisticated and gorgeous production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. One could even put a big red bow on it, the same color as the massive, velvety red flats that act as imperial Japanese doors to the proscenium of Lyric’s stage. They are perfect—as is the whole of Mark Thompson’s design for the production. How else to describe his set and costumes’ color palate but as a visual seduction that amplifies and fulfills Arthur Sullivan’s opulent score. Christine Binder’s lighting molds pure magic from Thompson’s rich golds, pinks, purples, reds, and sky blues, chartreuse 15 James Morris as THE MIKADO RST_9172 c Dan Restand wood tones. Updating the operetta to early 1920s Japan is also an inspired change that refreshes and illuminates good old G&S for today’s audience.

Conducted by Sir Andrew Davis and stage-directed by Gary Griffin, Lyric creates the kind of sumptuous dream that brings forth incredibly powerful musical moments, offset with sprightly comedy that makes the whole enterprise deceptively light and airy. That Davis and Chorus Master Donald Nally would draw gorgeous performances from their superlative cast may already seem a fete accompli to Lyric audiences; but that Griffin tops off the whole luxurious feast with the cherry and whipped cream perfection of precisely timed comedy is the real celebration of the evening. Clearly the cast is having too much fun and their enjoyment of W. S. Gilbert’s material is infectious.

Should this whole opera thing not work out, Neal Davies has a future in comedy. His Ko-Ko, a common tailor unexpectedly raised from near-execution (for the grave offense of flirting) to an appointment as Titipu’s Lord High Executioner, captures the wry mischievousness and cheerful nervousness of the arriviste who never expected to arrive. Of course, it helps to have one fabulously tacky hairpiece (wigs by Richard Jarvie) to clearly signal hopeful insecurity. Ko-Ko temporarily thwarts the romantic chance of the charmingly jejune Nanki-Poo (Toby Spence), who has journeyed to the village of Titipu to woo Yum-Yum (Andriana Chuchman), Ko-Ko’s ward and prospective bride-to-be.

      
07 Katharine Goeldner Andriana Chuchman Andrew Shore Emily Fons THE MIKADO RST_8395 c Dan Rest 10 Stephanie Blythe as Katisha THE MIKADO DBR_4064 c Dan Rest
06 Neal Davies as Ko-Ko THE MIKADO RST_8169 c Dan Rest 12 Toby Spence as Nanki-Poo Andriana Chuchman as Yum-Yum Neal Davies as Ko-Ko THE MIKADO RST_9010 c Dan Rest
   

In fact, in true G&S style, charmingly jejune is how one could describe the young leads of the show. It’s sounds cliché but, then, G&S revels in clichés–Spence and Chuchman make a darling, lyrical couple that clearly hasn’t got a gray cell to share between them. One relishes the heartfelt silliness of their romance, while becoming unfailingly reinvigorated at the prospect of romance succeeding—even though one can hardly say that it is ever really threatened. Meanwhile Ko-Ko, Pooh-Bah (Andrew Shore) and Pish-Tush (Philip Kraus) regale the audience with the absurdities of their respective posts as Titipu’s administration. Shore doesn’t miss a hilarious beat pointing up Pooh-Bah’s ridiculous attachment to his pedigree or his decidedly mercenary approach to civil service. Together they crisply whip off “I am so proud,” wherein Ko-Ko realizes that, under the orders of the Mikado (James Morris), he must find someone in Titipu to execute within a month or it could be his head, once again, on the “big black block.”

Happily, Nanki-Poo arrives to do himself in and Ko-Ko persuades him not to squander his death in wasteful suicide—rather, do your patriotic duty and let the state kill you instead. He promises a month of married happiness with Yum-Yum in return for Nanki-Poo’s timely and well-celebrated execution. Just when it seems as though our young lovers have a chance at some limited happiness, Katisha (Stephanie Blythe) arrives in full force, seeking Nanki-Poo, who is actually the son of the Mikado and her betrothed.

Let me say that Lyric brought the big guns when they picked Blythe for this role. Her mezzo-soprano dominates the stage and one couldn’t ask for a more humorous or more resplendently-voiced ruthless virago. Tell us, how does it feel to have all that power, Ms. Blythe? Because Griffin’s staging allows her glorious full play, whether she is reaching operatic heights with the chorus with “Oh fool that fleest my hallowed joys!” and “For he’s going to marry Yum-Yum” or outshining the arrival of the Mikado in “Miya Sama.”

All that can be said of James Morris’s turn as the Mikado is that it’s too bad he doesn’t have more numbers. “A More Humane Mikado” is always an anticipated delight and Morris acquits himself with privileged dignity, polish and grace, while amusingly forbearing Katisha’s constant upstaging. The Mikado’s arrival precipitates the need for an execution and Ko-Ko decides to let Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo marry while faking Nanki-Poo’s execution on the death certificate. When Katisha discovers Nanki-Poo’s name on the certificate, his true identity as the Mikado’s son is revealed to all and Ko-Ko once again finds he is headed for the big, black block unless he can seduce Katisha into forgetting all about Nanki-Poo and marry him.

16 Neal Davies as Ko-Ko Stephanie Blythe as Katisha THE MIKADO RST_9339 c Dan RestThis is not to say that Davies’ excellent rendering of the classic “Tit-Willow” depends upon a tree, but Thompson’s set design brings home the song’s comic impact by balancing it against Yum-Yum’s enchanting declaration of self-love and Katisha’s misery at losing her chance at marital bliss. Under the radiant pinks of a tree festooned with cherry blossoms, Chuchman effortlessly delivers “The Sun Whose Rays;” the same tree is theatrically brought into the scene with twisted and barren branches against a backdrop of mournful indigos and purples when Katisha sings “Alone, and Yet Alive!” Then the same barren tree remains under which Ko-Ko stands to sing a made-up account, of a birdie committing suicide over blighted love, to seduce Katisha.

It’s a moment that simply and elegantly unites all three as it gently and reassuringly spoofs the heart in its outlandishly unreasonable passionate expectations.

It is a bit of silliness that is pure genius and that is what Lyric’s Mikado pulls off so well throughout the whole production. The show will send you into the cold winter night, your ear alight with its happy tunes and a joyful heart against the cares of this world. And what could be a better Christmas gift than that?

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
   
   

17 Andriana Chuchman Toby Spence Neal Davies, James Morris Stephanie Blythe THE MIKADO RST_9395 c Dan Rest

Running Time: 2 hours, 54 minutes. In English with projected English texts

 

 

     
     

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REVIEW: A Masked Ball (Lyric Opera Chicago)

   
  

Women take the lead in Lyric’s stunning Verdi production

   
  

13 Act Three A MASKED BALL DAN_4071 c Dan Rest

   
The Lyric Opera presents
  
A Masked Ball
  
By Giuseppe Verdi
Directed by
Renata Scotto
Conducted by
Asher Fisch
Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker (map)
Thru Dec 10  | 
tickets: $43-$217  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

I recently re-watched the Bugs Bunny short “What’s Opera, Doc?” and I was amazed by how well it adhered to the traditional visual aesthetic and plot structure of actual operas. The epic landscapes, the buxom blondes, the sudden tragedy in the final act – it’s obvious the director, Chuck Jones, had a deep appreciation for the medium. Renata Scotto’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s A Masked Ball similarly delights in these opera conventions, and her traditional direction captures the majestic grandeur of the lush score. Asher Fisch conducts an orchestra that performs Verdi’s music with precision and intensity, and although there are occasional balance issues with the vocalists, the orchestra is otherwise fine accompaniment for the talented singers.

06 Sondra Radvanovsky Frank Lopardo A MASKED BALL DBR_0519 c Dan RestIn Stockholm, Sweden, King Gustavus III’s (Frank Lopardo) political competitors conspire against him as his thoughts linger on the magnificent Amelia Anckarström (Sondra Radvanovsky), the wife of his private secretary Count Anckarström (Mark Delevan). When Gustavus’s page Oscar (Kathleen Kim) tells him of the fortune teller Mme. Arvidson (Stephanie Blythe), the king grabs the opportunity to learn his fate, but receives less than favorable news: he will be killed by the next hand he shakes. Upon shaking the hand of his closest friend Count Anckarström, events are set in motion that lead to the Count’s alliance with Gustavus’s opposition.

In the leading role, Lopardo’s vocals are technically astounding, but their lyrical quality lacks the dramatic intensity that would make Gustavus a more believable political leader Lopardo. There is a conscious choice to have Gustavus’s role as lover take precedence over his position as king, but the political intrigue could be enhanced by a more aggressive tenor. Delevan disappoints as the piece’s main villain, and his inconsistent vocal positioning diminishes the resonance of his sound. Opera should appear effortless, but there’s a lack of comfort in Delevan that can be both seen and heard, especially in the presence of his masterful female costars.

The weaknesses of the men in the cast are more than compensated by the women, who showcase stunning vocals that elevate the entire production. The petite Kathleen Kim finds herself surrounded by men for most of the show, and her voice glides above the males to lend an air of innocence and sweetness to the tense atmosphere of the early scenes. In her lower register, Kim is occasionally overpowered by the orchestra, but on the whole she gives an exemplary performance in her gender-crossed role.

     
09 Sondra Radvanovsky Frank Lopardo A MASKED BALL RST_7779 c Dan Rest 05 Frank Lopardo Stephanie Blythe A MASKED BALL RST_7318 c Dan Rest
07 Sondra Radvanovsky Mark Delavan A MASKED BALL RST_7499 c Dan Rest 10 Sondra Radvanovsky Frank Lopardo Kathleen Kim A MASKED BALL RST_7860 c Dan Rest 01 Frank Lopardo A MASKED BALL RST_7009 c Dan Rest

The production really begins in the first act’s second scene, when Stephanie Blythe takes the stage as the mysterious Mme. Arvidson, delivering the aria “Re dell’abiso” with astonishing force. Just like her fortunes, which exert their influence long after they’ve been told, the character makes an impression that lingers throughout the entire production, despite only appearing in one scene. Blythe has immense control of her powerful instrument, a quality she shares with Radvonovsky, who stuns as the forlorn Amelia. Amelia’s two arias, “Ma dall’arido stelo divulsa” and “Morro, ma prima in grazia,” are the most powerful moments of the entire show, with Sondra Radvonovsky’s incredibly sonorous voice maintaining strength and clarity in all registers. Her singing emphasizes the expressive qualities of Verdi’s music, and the level of trust she puts in the composer translates to complete comfort on stage.

Under the direction of Renata Scotto, herself a renowned soprano, the women take charge of the production. Despite the unevenness of their male counterparts, the women ignite the drama and splendor of Verdi’s music; their dedication gives A Masked Ball the grand scale that makes opera such an exciting art form.

   
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

12 Act Two A MASKED BALL DAN_3956 c Dan Rest

        
       

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REVIEW: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Lyric Opera)

     
     

Britten adds tonal mysticism to terrestrial Shakespearean comedy

 

A Midsummer's Night Dream - Lyric Opera 11

      
The Lyric Opera of Chicago presents
   
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
     
Composed by Benjamin Britten
Libretto by
Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears
Ardis Krainik Theatre, 20 N. Wacker (map)
through Nov. 23  |  tickets: $43-$204  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

Fairies clash, couples quarrel, actors fight, the forest is a hotbed for ‘tragical mirth.’ The fates of happy endings rest in the hands of one nymph and he better not puck it up!  Lyric Opera of Chicago presents A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an English opera composed by Benjamin Britten based on the Shakespearean comedy. A Midsummer Night’s Dream crashes three worlds together. In the shadow land, the king and queen of the fairies are fighting over a newly acquired child-servant. In the A Midsummer's Night Dream - Lyric Opera 10mortal realm, a runaway bride flees with her lover. She is chased by her lawfully-intended groom, who is being stalked by the bride’s best friend. On the theatrical stage, an acting troupe disputes over roles in rehearsals. It’s become one disenchanted forest. To cast a spell on the woods’ inhabitants, the king has an underling push a little herb. Puck gets all the parties stoned. It turns into a swingers’ love fest where one guy ends up quite the ass. Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the Shakespearean mystical comedy played out with a hazy melody.

The show opens in an Avatar-type world designed by Dale Ferguson. The green fabric walls and ceiling are breathing organisms with rhythmic movement. The backdrop is a see-through tapestry showcasing silhouettes for the dreamy ambiance. A beautiful silky stage-size ribbon acts as a top cover to the action. It ripples and flows to frame the story. To add to the magical surroundings, the Anima – Young Singers of Chicago – are multiple white- ghosted cherubs. The young voices blend heavenly with their master and mistress. David Daniels (Oberon) sings the counter-tenor role with an otherworldly sound. As he floats above his dominion, Daniels’ eerie vocal range sets the whimsical tone for the elfin world. With an exquisite long- trained gown, Anna Christy (Tytania) is a regal presence even when making love to a donkey. A Midsummer Night’s Dream breaks operatic form for the role of Puck. Esteban Andres Cruz (Puck) is perfect as the impish sprite delivering his verses without singing.

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For some, the real show begins in the third act for the play within the play. The acting troupe performs a farce within a farce entitled “Pyramus and Thisbe”. An extended version has been staged much to the audience’s delight. As the divo, Peter Rose (Bottom) is hilarious in bellowing out his songs and his overacting. His fairy hook-up descends in a surreal swirling exit. The morning after, he awakes in oblivion to magnificently sing “when my cue comes, call me.”  Bottom’s stage love of his life is Keith Jameson’s Thisbe (in drag). Jameson emphasizes over-the-top dainty and is rewarded with mega-laughs. The wall, the moon, the lion, the dog – the entire cast delivers laugh-out-loud comedy on the stage within a stage.

Between being enchanted by fairies and amused by the actors, the mortals place third in the race for attention. In the non-opera version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the love-cluster of Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius and Helena is center stage. For Britten, it’s more of a side to the entrée. His main course is a hearty helping of elfin magic with save-room-the-actors-brought dessert. The real sustenance is the fantasy melodies sung memorably by Daniels and the youthful chorus. These ample portions overpower the familiar sides of girl-chases-boy-chasing- girl-with-other-boy harmonies. Then, it’s time to indulge in the absurd treat that is so enjoyable because it’s way overdone. Dessert: it’s all that with extra nuts. Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a visual imagined magical kingdom frolicked with actors looking for work and mortals looking for love. Sweet dreams are made of these, who am I to disagree?

  
  
 Rating: ★★★½
  
  

A Midsummer's Night Dream - Lyric Opera 02

A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs November 8th, 10th, 20th, 23rd at 7:30pm, and November 13th, 17th at 2pm

Running Time: Three hours and twenty minutes includes a fifteen minute intermission.

         
        

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REVIEW: Carmen (Lyric Opera)

   

Exquisite performances make a restless ‘Carmen’ shine

 

Katharine Goeldner as Carmen - Lyric Opera - Photo by Dan Rest

   
Lyric Opera presents  
   
Carmen
   
Composed by Georges Bizet
Directed by
Henry Silverstien
Music directed by
Alain Altinoglu
at
Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker (map)
through March 27   |  
tickets: $38-$227   |   more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Even though Georges Bizet’s Carmen spawned some of the most recognizable melodies in classical music, it was a complete flop when it premiered in 1875, as critics pronounced it immoral even before it opened. Bizet died soon afterwards, never knowing his enduring popularity. Although considered an “opera comique,” the sensual and tragic love story pretty much murdered the style. The initial run almost bankrupted Paris’ Opera Comique, but Carmen’s influence went much further. The commercially viable, family friendly, yet artistically vapid form of the opera comique was made obsolete by Bizet’s genre-bending themes.

Katharine Goeldner and Yonghoon Lee - Act III of Carmen, Lyric Opera - photo by Dan Rest A straightforward, traditional production, Lyric Opera’s Carmen is simple (or at least as simple as the Lyric gets) and deeply passionate. The focus is on the layered characters of the piece, none of whom is solidly villain or hero—they’re all just human beings. The story, loosely based on a novella by Prosper Merimee, eschews melodrama for moral complexity. Under the levelheaded direction of Henry Silverstein, this story of love—requited and otherwise—remains explosive. Even after nearly four hours of arias, I found myself with plenty to mull over on the way home.

In a Seville filled with soldiers, romance, and pretty girls, Carmen holds the record for most heads turned. She’s a poor gypsy girl, but rich in passion and independence, loving whomever she pleases. Don Jose, a lowly corporal, is smitten by her charms, and Carmen fancies the soldier, too. He even goes to jail for two months, charged with abetting her escape when she is arrested for some local trouble. After his stint in prison, Don Jose gets a little clingy. His attempts to control her does not sit well with the fiery gypsy, who dumps the obsessed lover. Like most stories that start off like this, you can probably guess the ending—homicide, followed by instant regret. In operas, domestic disputes always end bloodier than in reality.

The success or failure of this show depends on the quality of the mezzo-soprano playing Carmen. Due to some medical issues, Katharine Goeldner took over for Kate Aldrich for all of the October dates. I can’t attest to how Aldrich would have performed the role, but Goeldner was delightful. As Bizet’s famous flirt, she’s vivacious and quick. I understand Don Jose’s desire to lock that down. While usually exuding mounds of charm, Goeldner can also key into Carmen’s vicious and irrational side. She has a proto-feminist vision of gender equality, awesome—but she also harbors some wacky, romantic notions, like forcing Jose to desert the army to be with her. Goeldner makes all these layers clear. Her singing was exquisite, especially her “Habanera,” where she coquettishly discloses her thesis on free love (with a wink).

Katharine Goeldner, Kyle Ketelsen in Act III - Lyric Opera Carmen - photo by Dan Rest

Katharine Goeldner and Yonghoon Lee, final scene of Bizet Carmen, Lyric Opera - photo by Dan Rest Katharine Goeldner, Yonghoon Lee - Lyric Opera Carmen - photo by Dan Rest Katharine Goeldner, Yonghoon Lee, Lyric Opera - Carmen - photo by Dan Rest
Kyle Ketelsen as Escamilo, Lyric Opera Carmen - photo Dan Rest Yonghoon Lee as Don Jose in Carmen - Lyric Opera - photo by Dan Rest

Flown in from South Korea, Yonghoon Lee nuances his portrayal of Don Jose with plenty of lovelorn stares and conflicted frowns. He doesn’t match the intense passion of Goeldner in his acting performance, but he still presents a hefty challenge. He also struggles with externalizing Jose’s rage well; sometimes the character’s jealousy comes off as awkward, or just plain silly.

Penned by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy, the libretto could be better shaped. There are some throwbacks to the opera comique style that are unnecessary, especially in the first act. For example, there is a long number where a pack of children rush on stage and sing about imitating the army. Still can’t figure out a point to that one, besides “who doesn’t love to see kids on stage?”

The final five minutes are breathtaking, a perfect, wretched harmony of sound, image, and content. Out of sight, the chorus faintly sings the praises of a bullfighter, interspersed by the final encounter between Carmen and Don Jose, basked in blood-red light and showered with rose petals. It’s a transcendent moment, one that makes the previous three acts worthwhile.

   
   
Review: ★★★½
   
   

Lyric Opera - Scene from Act I of Carmen - Photo by Dan Rest

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