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: Macbeth (Lyric Opera Chicago)

 

Verdi’s "Macbeth" is a Beautiful Tragedy

 

32 Act Four, MACBETH pic12507 c. Robert Kusel

   
Lyric Opera presents
   
Macbeth
  
Composed by Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto by
Francesco Maria Piave
Directed by
Barbara Gaines
Music directed by
Renato Palumbo
at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker (map)   
through October 30  | 
tickets: $46-$207  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

If Shakespeare were a rock band, Macbeth would likely be the first track on the B-side of his greatest hits album. The classic tragedy about a power-hungry Scottish royal couple is certainly popular, but has never managed to reach the same lofty placement on the theatrical mantle occupied by Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet.

12 Nadja Michael, Thomas Hampson, MACBETH DBR_2517 c. Dan RestI can understand why. For me, the title character always came across as a brutish ogre who stomps around in fits of testosterone-driven rage. You can almost picture him delivering his lines, as poetic as they may be, in a series of grunts. He’s like the Arnold Schwarzenegger of the Shakespearean world.

But Lyric Opera’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth infuses the treasonous Scottish nobleman with a vulnerability I have never witnessed before. Perhaps it is because of the passionate singing, the low bellow delivered by performer Thomas Hampson, that allows you to really feel the emotions behind Macbeth’s words. Or perhaps it is that unique quality of opera wherein characters sing aloud their inner dialogue regardless of how many chorus members are on stage. Either way, this Macbeth may have a bold exterior, but there’s no mistaking that inside he hides a sensitive, insecure soul.

Although Hampson is billed as the star of the show, and he certainly delivers, the real standout is Nadja Michael as Lady Macbeth. This woman is absolutely outstanding, with a stunning presence anytime she’s onstage. The amount of endurance and vocal strength required to sing her four arias must be a harrowing task. Yet she does it without ever dropping her energy. And although the production is in Italian (with English super-titles), Michael’s acting and vocal inflection are paired so perfectly that you know what she is saying even if you have absolutely no clue what she is saying.

Leonardo Capalbo, as Macbeth’s foe Macduff, executes an aria in the fourth act that outdoes all the other male cast members. Sung right after he discovers Macbeth has slain Macduff’s entire family, it is a powerful and tragic piece that is infused with real heart, mourning and rage.

Unfortunately, Štefan Kocán’s portrayal of Banquo. Kocan is not as impressive – he has a uniquely guttural voice that, while I appreciate its distinctiveness, serves as a distraction.

21 Nadja Michael, MACBETH DBR_3062 c. Dan Rest 18 Nadja Michael, Thomas Hampson, MACBETH DBR_2666 c. Dan Rest
03 Nadja Michael, MACBETH DBR_2329 c. Dan Rest 29 Thomas Hampson, MACBETH DBR_3218 c. Dan Rest 23 Thomas Hampson, Nadja Michael, MACBETH pic11478 c. Robert Kusel
15 Act One, MACBETH pic22287 c. Robert Kusel 09 Nadja Michael, Thomas Hampson, MACBETH DBR_2463 c. Dan Rest

As you would guess, the Lyric does not shy away from spectacle. There’s plenty of eye-catching scenes throughout, including the opening which features not one but three actors flying through the air on cables. The set itself is towering, resembling a giant metal spaceship. Although it’s impressive in its scale, the futuristic look of the sleek metal seems out of place for a play in which swords are considered advanced weaponry.

Macbeth may be a man’s world, but that doesn’t mean a woman can’t steal the show. And Michael certainly does as Lady Macbeth. At the same time, the intensity of Verdi’s musical orchestrations brings unparalleled clarity to this Elizabethan classic, which – for all its action – really is about emotional tragedy.

For a combination of stunning spectacle and masterful acting and singing, Macbeth is the perfect production for those wanting to witness opera for the first time.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

01 Act One, MACBETH pic04030 c. Robert Kusel

 

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REVIEW: Tosca (Lyric Opera)

Puccini’s Violent Love Story Masterpiece

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Lyric Opera Presents

Tosca

By Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica
Conducted by Stephen Lord
Stage directed by Paula Suozzi
Thru January 29th (ticket info)

By Katy Walsh

tosca11Torture, murder, execution, suicide, despite the violent nature of this warhorse opera, Tosca contributes some of the most familiar romantic opera melodies to the mainstream. The Lyric Opera presents Tosca by Giacomo Puccini. Performed in Italian with projected English supertitles (by Francis Rizzo), Tosca is based on Victorien Sardou’s play La Tosca. Floria Tosca is a celebrated opera singer in Rome. Her lover, Mario Cavaradossi, aids an escaped political prisoner and is arrested. The villainous chief of police, Scarpia, coerces Tosca into saving Cavaradossi with promises of sexual favors. Betrayal ensues. No one gets what they want… except the audience. From the first aria of Recondita armonia to the duet Amaro sol per te, the memorable harmonies plunge the audience into an all consuming passionate love story, best experienced as an opera.

The Lyric opened its 2009/2010 season with this crowd pleaser and remounted it this month for a three week winter escape. The principals have changed for this mini-run but the sets and the huge supporting cast are the same. Act I in the Church of Sant’ Andrea della Valle ends with a visual explosion. The house of worship is already decked out with ornate details befitting the 1800’s (set designer Renzo Mongiardino). Cue the Chicago Children’s Choir, several clergy and church-goers in various liturgical vestments and Sunday best finery (costumes by Marcel Escoffier), the 100+ people on stage are merely a spectacular backdrop for Scarpia’s vow to destroy Cavaradossi and have Tosca. It’s these elaborate dramatic moments that elicit the inaudible oohs and aahs usually reserved for fireworks.

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Even without the stimulation of extensive sets and costumes, Tosca is still one of Puccini’s masterpieces, sung to perfection by the newest principals. Violeta Urmana (Tosca) sings magnificently through a range of emotions; irrational, jealousy, demanding, enraged, passionate, and desperate. Marco Berti (Cavaradossi) is the lover of beautiful things with unfortunate timing that leads to trouble with his diva girlfriend, an escaped prisoner, and evil police chief. Lucio Gallo is the creepy Baron Scarpia. He delivers wicked lyrics (translated) like “I lust, and then I pursue the one I desire, I satisfy myself, and throw her away” and “How you despise me but that is just how I want you.” Certainly, every woman in the audience wants to stab this guy – but, of course, not until after the final note of Lyric’s exquisite Tosca is heard.

Rating: ★★★½

SPOILER ALERT: Tosca committing suicide is questionable. The dramatic moment is lost behind a prison wall as if she is just escaping. But maybe that’s the Lyric Opera twist, Tosca finally gets a happy ending. Tosca escapes to sing again!

Note: All pictures by Dan Rest

 

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Review: Lyric Opera’s “Ernani”

Masterful Execution of a Verdi Unknown

 Lyric Opera of Chicago's production of Ernani 10/24/09.

Lyric Opera of Chicago presents

Ernani

At the Civic Opera House
By Giuseppe Verdi
Based on Victor Hugo’s tragedy Hernani
Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave
Conducted by Renato Palumbo
Stage directed by Jose Maria Condemi
Thru November 23rd (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

Ernani09 The Lyric Opera presents Ernani, an opera written by Giuseppe Verdi and first performed in 1844. The Italian opera with projected English subtitles tells the tale of Elvira’s suitors, all fighting for her love: Ernani, Don Carlo-King of Spain and Don Ruy Gomez de Silva. The outlaw, Ernani storms Silva’s castle to abduct Elvira. He runs into the King and an Elvira abduction already in progress. Silva enters furious that his fiancé is being double-abducted in his own home. In love with Ernani, Elvira escapes her marriage to Silva by becoming a hostage of the King’s. Because Silva keeps him from being arrested, Ernani pledges his life to him. In Ernani terms, this promise means Silva gets to decide when Ernani will die. So, after the King pardons everyone and orders Elvira to marry Ernani, who shows up as the wedding crasher? Silva appears and asks Ernani, “poison or dagger?” Ernani chooses a dagger, stabs himself and dies in Elvira’s arms.

A brief announcement at the beginning of Act II informs the audience that Salvatore Licitra (Ernani) begs forgiveness at his inability to sing at his optimal level. Because of the faulty microphone, it’s unclear what the issue is. The person next to me asks, “did he say tracheotomy?” I’m certain it is a trace of bronchitis or another ailment. No matter what Licitra’s struggle is, his performance is stellar. Only in duets with the powerful soprano performance of Sondra Radvanovsky (Elvira) did it occur to me that Licitra might be in a challenging match. Along with the King (Boaz Daniel) and Silva (Giacomo Prestia), the opera is sung magnificently. Adding to the grandeur of the performance, set and costume designer Scott Marr uses the huge cast adorned in finery or cloaked in black to contrast a wedding from the catacombs. With multiple wardrobe and set changes, the dynamic production is eye candy to the audience. Elvira’s costumes, designed by Donna Langman, are particularly exquisite.

 

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Ernani is a must see for its magnificent performances, beautiful costumes, and elaborate sets. The actual opera? Not so much. Verdi wrote Ernani early in his career at age 31. It doesn’t have the memorable arias of his later works, like; La Traviata, Aida, Rigoletto and Falstaff. The story is clunky. In Act II, Elvira tells Ernani she decided to marry Silva when she heard he was dead. What? I want Ernani to ask, or rather sing, “what happened during the intermission that made you think I was dead?” It’s also unclear why these three men all want Elvira when it’s obvious she only wants Ernani. Is it because she dresses nice? I don’t get it. And because it’s an opera, I’m ready for a tragic ending to a love story. Possible alternative endings after Ernani and Elvira’s wedding: Silva kills Ernani, the king kills Ernani, Elvira chokes on a piece of cake and because Ernani thinks she’s dead, he kills himself, she spits out cake realizes he’s dead and kills herself. But Ernani’s suicide because he promised Silva, his nemesis, that he would? Elvira totes around a dagger threatening to kill herself throughout the show but ultimately doesn’t as Ernani dies in her arms. Unsatisfying, Verdi!

Rating: «««

 

More: Watch the Ernani video trailer.     |     Listen to Ernani scene commentary.

 

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Pictures by Dan Rest

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