Archive for December, 2014

PostHeaderIcon Lyric Starts 60th Season Strong

This and my next post will highlight two of Chicago’s cultural crown jewels–Lyric Opera and the Auditorium Theatre. As to Lyric, I can honestly say that, over the 20 seasons I’ve attended, the combined leadership of Ardis Krainik, Bill Mason and now Anthony Freud, has taken Lyric to a higher artistic level.

It now ranks, in my opinion, second only to The Metropolitan Opera as America’s best opera company. It clearly can take pride in that achievement as it celebrates its 60th anniversary season. Over the past five or six seasons, my nights at Lyric (attending four productions each season) have been consistently satisfying with several memorable high points. That was less true in the 1990s.

Lyric Opera

The big differences: many new productions (seven this season alone) that add freshness to familiar scores, the engagement of set designers and directors from the theater world and a new generation of singing actors (also more svelte) who bring energy and believability to their roles rather than an earlier, static “park and bark” approach.

The two productions I’ve seen this Fall–Capriccio by Richard Strauss and Anna Bolena by Gaetano Donizetti–have been rewarding spectacles for both eye and ear. Richard Strauss’ musical career spanned nearly 60 years during which he composed such sublime works as, “Der Rosenkavalier”, and “Four Last Songs”, as well as the anguished “Elektra” and “Salome”. He also wrote two witty, stylized operas within operas, Ariadne auf Naxos and Capriccio.

While there is much to savor in both Capriccio and Anna Bolena, they probably are not everyone’s cup of tea. You may not warm to these scores if you like your opera full of hot-blooded romance and treachery. But, if you attend to hear great voices plus updated, imaginative staging, then both these operas offer a satisfying night out.

Renee Fleming

Renee Fleming

In “Capriccio”, Countess Madeleine (Renee Fleming) wants to celebrate her upcoming birthday with an evening of words and music. The composer Flamand and the poet Olivier argue over which work the Countess should favor and which artistic genre, music or poetry, is most worthy. Neither, proclaims the impresario, La Roche, who argues for an entertaining, theatrical piece.

Since Strauss is a favorite composer of mine, I was willing to endure this bit of buffoonery between Flamand, Olivier and La Roche but it slowed the action considerably. After intermission, the Count offers an original idea: why don’t they combine all three elements, essentially suggesting that they offer an opera with the present company as the opera characters. Thus, an opera within an opera is born. A brilliant resolution and one that turned an evening of initial tedium into a closing triumph.

Renee Fleming sang beautifully and conveyed the Princess’ dilemma of having to choose one art form over another. Kudos also go to Peter Rose as La Roche and the delightful Bo Skovhus. It’s regrettable that Anne Sofie von Otter had only a minor role as the actress, Clairon, that did little to showcase her talent. The gorgeous sets and costumes by Mauro Pagano and Robert Perdziola deserve special mention.

We all know the tragic story of Ann Boleyn whom Henry VIII wooed and then, three years later, wanted gone. He contrived reasons to kill her so he could wed the Queen’s confidante, Jane Seymour. Donizetti’s score soars in arias of great beauty and thrilling high notes. I must admit, though, that I grew weary of countless vocal pyrotechnics in what felt like Death in 100 Arias. Bel Canto must be my operatic Achille’s heel.

While director Kevin Newbury, did a fine job keeping the action moving to its predestined conclusion, this is really a singer’s feast and Lyric’s cast was solid from top to bottom. Jamie Barton as Jane Seymour, Kelly O’Connor as Smeton, Anna’s court musician, and tenor Bryan Hymel gave fine performances in a show of vocal splendor.

Sondra Rodvanovsky

But the evening’s real star was Sondra Radvanovsky who owned the role as Anna, the regal and unjustly accused Queen. If you want to hear her commanding performance in which she nails a succession of high Cs, as Maria Callas or Joan Sutherland did in their prime, you mustn’t miss her bravura performance before the run ends in January. The entire audience rose to its feet spontaneously at the curtain call and gave her a sustained ovation.

The non-human star of the evening were the dramatic, jaw-dropping sets by Neil Patel and lighting design by D.M. Wood, both making their Lyric debuts along with Newbury. Let’s bring this team back soon to work on a future production. Remaining performances are this Sunday, January 7, 10 and 16. For tickets, contact Lyric’s box office at