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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REVIEW: Arizona Lady (Chicago Folks Operetta)

A Rootin’ Tootin’ Hungarian Cowboy Opera

Arizona Lady Cast

   
Chicago Folks Operetta presents
   
Arizona Lady
  
Music by Emmerich Kálmán
Translated by
Gerald Frantzen and Hersh Glagov
Directed by
Bill Walters
Music-Directed by
Samuel-Hilaire Duplessis
at
Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont  (map)
through August 1st  |  tickets: $25-$35   |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Even though it is ridiculously sentimental, watching Chicago Folks Operetta put on Emmerich Kálmán’s operetta Arizona Lady had me thinking of Bertolt Brecht. With this work, the Hungarian composer, Kálmán, sets up a counterfeit American landscape, much like Brecht placed In the Jungle of Cities and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui in the exotic (to them) United States. The inhabitants of Kálmán’s Arizona proclaim that the state is full of silver, gold, and cowboy songs, instead of water shortages and racial animosities. In a way, director Bill Walters’ production is surreal and oddly captivating, mostly overcoming its amateurish missteps.

The plot follows the classic Viennese operetta structure, revolving around two pairs of lovers, one comic and the other a bit juicier (for the record, I saw the second cast for the show and the names reflect that). Lona (Juliet Petrus) rules over a ranch and possesses the mind of businesswomen, supposedly without any room for talk of love. Despite this, she is reluctantly attracted to the wandering, singing cowpolk Roy (Gerald Frantzen), offering him a job and the task of priming her horse, Arizona Lady (Maray Gutierrez), for the local race. This storyline is crisscrossed with the courtship between young shop-owner Nelly (Kellie Cundiff) and the son of a beef magnate/cattle “intern” Chester (Matthew Dingels). Horse thieves, the Kentucky Derby, law and order, escaping to Mexico, and Prohibition all stir up the love stories, resulting in a cute, if somewhat vapid, tale of the Old West that never existed.

This fictional world is actually very intriguing. Theatre celebrates unreality, so Kálmán’s West cobbled from Hollywood, Oklahoma!, and the opera halls of Hungary makes for a wholly unique theatrical experience. There’s plenty of guitar and saloon-style piano in the score, but this is joined by waltzes and Hungarian-folk melodies. Walters completely embraces the apparent contradictions, creating a universe that’s all its own. Part of August Tye’s great choreography is ripped from line-dance halls, while some of it smacks of traditional Eastern European dances. Yet all of it works.

While the cast tears up the score, the acting could be polished. Petrus dips in confidence and seems to rely on constant towel-snapping to conjure up Nona’s sassiness instead of letting the text do that for her. On the other hand, Dingels’ goofy mannerisms and genuine squareness may not be great acting, but could possibly be ingenious for the fumbling Chester. Rounding out the leads, Cundiff and Frantzen are fine if somewhat wooden. The supporting cast is pretty hit or miss. The best moments are little bits stitched in the script, like ranch-hands using a child to smuggle liquor past the Sheriff or someone yelling in the middle of a huge dance number, “Hey! I’m dancing!” like they just realized what was going on. Unfortunately, a lot of the comedy falls flat, and the transitions between dialogue and song are downright painful at times. The pace also falls slack in a couple of scenes. (Yes, I understand this is opera, but this light fare doesn’t feel like it should last three hours.)

Gerald Frantzen and Hersh Glagov’s translation of the 1954 operetta, which has never seen an American production until now, is obviously done with a lot of love. While usually charming, the script occasionally gets too silly and audience interest flags. There is also some Spanish dialogue very awkwardly folded in. But they keep Kálmán’s somewhat bizarre world intact.

There are too many stale moments for this Arizona Lady to be completely satisfying, a problem for Glagov, Walters, and the cast. But there’s a lot of passion on-stage over at the Theatre Building. And any indie opera outfit, attempting to do something so grandiose on the budget of a storefront, has a special little piece of my heart.

   
   
Rating: ★★
   
  

Arizona Lady poster

   
   

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REVIEW: Marriage of Figaro (Lyric Opera)

This marriage is a flawless, fun farce

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Lyric Opera of Chicago presents:

Marriage of Figaro

Composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Conducted by
Sir Andrew Davis
Stage directed by
Herbert Kellner
Projected English supertitles by Francis Rizzo
at
Civic Opera House through March 27th (more info)

By Katy Walsh

figaro01Figaro wants to marry Susanna. Marcellina wants to marry Figaro. Bartolo wants to marry the Countess. The Count wants Susanna. The Countess wants the Count. Cherubino wants everybody.  Arias of lust love are in the air!

Lyric Opera of Chicago presents Marriage of Figaro, composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. A four act opera buffa (comedy) performed in Italian with projected English translations. A sequel to The Barber of Seville, the opera is set in the late eighteenth century. Figaro and Susanna want to marry. As servants of the Count, the union must be authorized by him. In addition, the Count may choose to invoke the custom of ‘having the bride’ before giving her away. The Count is not the only one interfering with Figaro’s marriage. Debts and betrayals have followed him from his The Barber of Seville days. Through a comedic series of tricks and twists, love eventually conquers all.

Throughout all four acts, this cast sings and plays well together. It’s like watching a group of friends setting up good natured pranks to teach each other a lesson. Leading the playful spirit, Danielle De Niese (Susanna) is an adorable, lively sprite with pitch-perfect, comedic timing. Kyle Ketelsen (Figaro) delivers a solid bass-baritone performance as the ultimate cocky player. Anne Schwanewilms (Countess) laments the loss of her husband’s affections in a gorgeous rendition of “Porgi Amor”, and later vows to regain his love in “Dove Sono”. Within the frivolity of the frenzy of multiple charades, her arias are the quiet moments of true clarity and sadness of love lost. The Countess describes her husband as ‘modern: faithless, willful, not so much jealous, as vain.’ Mariusz Kwiecien (Count) embodies that description while – being the brunt of the shams – struggling at the same time. Kwiecien delivers his own spectacular aria “Vedro, mentr’io sospiro” with promises of vengeance to the pranksters. Joyce DiDonato (Cherubino) is a woman playing a boy sometimes playing a woman. She’s hilarious with her portrayal of a youth; a slave to his strong lustful infatuations. In a smaller role, Andrea Silvestrelli (Bartolo) makes his presence memorable with his booming bass singing. His aria “La vendetta” is magnificent. In particular, in one sequence, Silvestrelli squeezes his huge, rich voice through a series of rapid notes. Amazing.

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The Lyric Opera of Chicago has chosen to close its 2009-2010 season with a warhorse. Even to new opera goers, this Mozart’s masterpiece has familiar pieces. The overture and a few of the arias are used in movie scores to enhance themes of multiple plots colliding or love loss. The Lyric has cast it perfect and – under the guidance of Sir Andrew Davis at the baton – Marriage of Figaro hits all the right notes for high spirited high-jinx.  Highly recommended!

From the first note of the overture to the standing ovation, Marriage of Figaro is a flawless, fun farce!

Rating: ★★★★

 

Running Time: Three hours and forty-five minutes includes a thirty minute intermission

Note: Libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, based on Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais’ play La folle journee, ou Le marriage de Figaro (1784).

View (2010-02) Marriage of Figaro - Lyric Opera

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