Archive for October, 2016

PostHeaderIcon “Tristan and Isolde” Twice

I spent seven hours in two darkened movie theaters two weekends ago gorging on a full plate of opera.  Yet, I emerged from this musical marathon not spent but energized by two fascinating takes on one of opera’s supreme works, Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde”. There was the Metropolitan Opera’s MetLive telecast and  a leaner retelling of the same tale, “The Love Potion”, by composer Frank Martin, presented by Chicago Opera Theater.

Nina Stemme & Stuart Skelton

Nina Stemme & Stuart Skelton

The Met’s production was star-studded from top to bottom. Nina Stemme and Stuart Skelton were in the title roles. Ms. Stemme followed her gripping portrayal in Strauss’ “Elektra” earlier this year with an equally outstanding vocal and emotional performance. In the pit was Sir Simon Rattle drawing an urgent performance from the Met Opera Orchestra while keeping the music in step with the action onstage.

This new production featured a stunning set design by Boris Kudlicka which located all of the three acts’ action on Tristan’s warship which was lit in semi-darkness, unlike any stagings I have seen for this work. It proved an audacious  and highly effective conception.

Notice must also be paid to the fine singing in the supporting roles by Ekaterina Gubanova as Isolde’s companion, Brangane, and Evgeny Nikitin as Tristan’s aide, Kurwenal.

Two Met Live productions later this season will feature a pair of my favorite sopranos: Kristine Opalais in Dvorak’s “Rusalka” and Anna Netrebko in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin.” Neither should be missed. You can secure Met Live tickets in advance at

On Sunday, I ventured to the Music Box Theatre to hear COT stage the Tristan & Isolde legend. The Music Box, better known for its sing-along “Sound of Music,” was venturing into unchartered waters as was COT. How could 12 singers convey the richness of the prior day’s opera on a tiny stage and in only 2 hours?

Triston & Isolde - Music Box

Tristan & Isolde at Music Box

Very imaginatively, actually, though with significant variations. This was not grand opera but what composer Martin called “a secular oratorio.” Love Potion  was sung in recitative fashion by a cast of highly resourceful ensemble singers/actors. Plus the story was truncated, based simply on three chapters of the novel “Roman de Tristan et Iseult” by Joseph Bedier.

Wagner purists will object loudly to King Mark’s order that the lovers remain apart and pure. How could they while under the potion’s spell? There’s also a second Isolde whom Tristan marries, Isolde of the White Hands. It is her jealousy that spells death for the unlucky lovers. And, finally, no Liebestod, Wagner’s passionate aria and one of opera’s most beautiful love songs.

It took me the entire first act to adjust to the recitative narrative and dampened emotion but, by the second half, I was enjoying director Andreas Mitisek’s inventive use of the ensemble and the video projections in place of full sets. COT has always been able to do a lot with a little. The twelve singer/actors carried poles that alternately served as spears and ship oars. As to the singing, I found the strong, though brief, performances of King Mark (Nicholas Davis) and Branghien (Brittany Loewen) superior to the duo in the title roles.

COT’s next production will be Purcell’s “The Fairy Queen,” a re-imagining of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Performances are scheduled for November 5, 11 and 13 at the Studebaker Theater in the Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan Avenue. But it is the company’s two season-ending productions, “The Invention of Morel” by Stewart Copeland (founder of the rock group The Police) and “The Perfect American” by Philip Glass, his take on Walt Disney.

Tickets for “Fairy Queen” and future productions can be purchased at or at 312/704-8414.




PostHeaderIcon Two Unlikely Art Soulmates

PostHeaderIcon Pass the Popcorn: Festival Picks

Before I delve into which films I recommend in the 52nd Chicago Film Festival, tribute must first be paid to the tireless efforts over more than a half-century of Michael Kutza. Back in 1964, before there was Sundance, Telluride, Toronto and a host of other festivals, Kutza had a dream that would not be denied. The festival has since expanded its mission and influence over the years and is now a major venue on the film circuit. All due to the vision of not some committee or a millionaire but one twenty-something guy from southwest Chicago.

This year’s festival feature runs from October 13 to 27 with over 125 feature films from more than 50 countries. I have seen only a small fraction of the films but, judging from my reading of the program listings and a preview video screened at the press conference, I want to recommend    5 feature films that appear critically worthwhile and 5 films with strong Chicago connections.

"A Quiet Passion"

“A Quiet Passion”

My first 5 selections, excluding the Opening and Closing-night films, are:  A Quiet Passion (Oct. 16), directed by master filmmaker, Terence Davies, that paints the life of poet Emily Dickinson in visually lush tones with a powerful performance by Cynthia Nixon, far from her “Sex and the City” days. Next is Things to Come (10/16 & 19), written and directed by Mia Hansen-Love. Another film that might be categorized simply as a chick-flic but one which features an outstanding, humane performance by the great Isabelle Huppert. A classy melodrama about a philosophy professor who, in short order, loses her mother, her husband to divorce and her publisher and who must construct a new life.

I, Daniel Blakc (10/22 & 25) is the latest from noted social documentary director, Ken Loach. It scores points for winning the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Tells the story of a hardworking Newcastle carpenter whose life becomes trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare. Loach puts a human face on the modern welfare crisis. Moonlight (10/26), an American entry from director, Barry Jenkins, tells a heartbreaking story of a young man’s struggle to find himself and the pain and beauty of falling in love.

"Things to Come"

“Things to Come”

Finally, there is Abacus (10/18), by noted Chicago director, Steve James that is part of local Kartemquin Films 50th Anniversary. Those who know James’ prior work on Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters need no further encouragement to catch his latest about a Chinese immigrant family who must defend themselves and their dignity while the true architects of the 2008 financial crisis walk free.

In addition to Abacus, here are several more documentaries with a Chicago pedigree. American Anarchist (10/15 & 16), by Charlie Siskel, who directed the Academy Award-nominated, Finding Vivian Maier, offers a captivating portrait of William Powell, author of the infamous The Anarchist Cookbook. Another is Futures Past (10/14, 18 & 24), by Jordan Melamed, son of Merc Exchange pioneer, Leo Melamed. It’s a portrait of a father, a son and the struggle for success.

For Chicago foodies, there is Insatiable:The Homaro Cantu Story 10/17 & 24), by Brett Schwartz. Culinary connoisseurs need no further introduction to this pioneering chef. It is a behind-the-scenes look at Cantu’s sad story of culinary creativity mixed with his passion to tackle world hunger and obesity.

Finally, two indie films dealing issues of gender and disability are Miles (10/18 & 19), by Illinois native, Nathan Adloff and The View from Tall (10/20, 21 & 24), directed by Caitlin Parrish and Erica Weiss. Based on a true story, Miles follows a downstate high school boy who joins the girls’ volleyball team and faces harsh reaction from his rural community. In The View from Tall, a Chicagoland high school senior is bullied by her classmates over her affair with a teacher. She turns to therapy and forms a bond with her disabled therapist. Told with what is described as sardonic with by Parrish and Weiss, two local theater veterans.

As a longtime lover of French films, I cannot fail to mention a documentary by the celebrated director, Bertrand Tavernier, which is an ode to the universal power of cinema and French classics in particular. If you are like me, don’t miss My Journey Through French Cinema (10/15).

The festival’s official theater is AMC’s RiverEast21 on East Illinois Street. To purchase tickets, go to              or call 312-332-FILM.




PostHeaderIcon A Night to Remember

A Grand Spectacle! That was Lyric Opera‘s Opening Night. The anticipation of seeing a sublime production is what opera lovers bring to every opening but which few productions satisfy fully. Grand Opera is a very hard goal to attain. It requires the perfect blend of music, singing, staging and story. That’s what I saw and heard last Saturday evening at Richard Wagner‘s “Das Rheingold”.

Eric Owens as Wotan

Wotan (Eric Owens)

This was not one of Lyric’s satisfying but more minimalist stagings. The opening of the first work in Wagner’s Ring cycle seemingly spared no expense. It appears General Director, Anthony Freud, wanted to kick off this Ring cycle (only the third in Lyric’s history) with a bang and build excitement for the remaining operas in the tetralogy. The production looked rich and probably had a budget to match.

Director David Pountney deserves kudos for highlighting the dramatic interplay among the characters which made Wagner’s convoluted story easier to follow. And the Engels/Hopkins sets were a visual knockout. (The sets’ effects benefited from Lyric’s addition over the summer of new stage lifts, a turntable and new point hoists that can lift sets and people aloft.)

Samuel Youn as Alberich

Alberich (Samuel Youn)

There was so much to watch onstage, from the Rhinemaidens’ flying in mid-air, the giant puppets, Fasolt and Fafner, and the evil Alberich’s gold-smelting cave to the hokey conveyer belt transporting the ransom gold to Fasolt that the music sometimes took a back seat; not at the forefront as with less gripping productions. Sir Andrew Davis led the fine Lyric orchestra in perfect harmony and balance with the action onstage.

Last, but certainly not least, were the singers. All the characters in the leading roles, save one, delivered beautiful, full-throated singing. For me, special note should be given to Samuel Youn, making his American debut, in the role of Alberich and Stefan Margita as Loge. My only quibble was with Eric Owens as Wotan, the ruler of the gods. His performance struck me as under-powered in both his singing  (his voice tended to drop lower toward the end of his lines throughout the evening) and range of movement, a distracting fault in striking contrast with the rest of the cast.

The Norns and Erda (Okka von der Damerau)

The Gods entering Valhalla

You should not miss this production. You have five more opportunities to catch it before October 22nd. I can say that this “Rheingold” is the best musical currently on the boards in Chicago, bar none. Take that “Hamilton”. If that is Freud’s plan to lure more young people to the opera, he has succeeded.

For tickets, contact Lyric at 312/827-5600 or go online for performance dates and ticket purchases at