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: 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
  
  

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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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