Archive for November, 2016

PostHeaderIcon “Les Troyens” Conquers Lyric

The season is still quite young and Lyric Opera has scored its second blockbuster triumph with its first-ever staging of Hector Berlioz‘s epic music-drama, “Les Troyens”. The work is so massive in scale (monumental chorus, orchestra, ballet company and over 20 named roles) that only four American opera companies–the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, Los Angeles Opera and the Opera Company of Boston–have presented the full 5-hour score up to now.

"Les Troyens"

“Les Troyens” staging

Cost considerations most likely kept Lyric from mounting its own production before now. Spared the expense of building the Trojan horse, Dido’s royal palace, the cave in Act Four and aided by cost-saving advances in set design, lighting and video technology, Lyric was able to offer  a thrilling, richly satisfying production, greatly abetted by an ingenious, versatile set design by Tobias Hoheisel.

Berlioz, sadly, never heard a complete performance of “Les Troyens” (The Trojans) during his lifetime. Paris, in fact, did not hear the work in its entirety until 2003, 140 years after its truncated world premiere. San Francisco Opera was the first American company to perform it in 1966 with the Metropolitan Opera following in 1973.

Lyric’s success starts with its matchless casting in the lead roles of Cassandra, Dido and Aeneas and fine talent in key supporting roles, particularly with Anna, sister of Dido, and their melting Act 2 duet and tenor Mingjie Lei’s bell-clear aria as the poet, Iopas. All gave Lyric’s production a rock-solid foundation.

Cassandra, the king of Troy’s daughter, was sung by the formidable soprano, Christine Goerkewho gave such an unforgettable performance in Lyric’s “Elektra” several seasons ago. She was splendid at Sunday’s opening. And Dido, Queen of Carthage, was mezzo-soprano, Susan Grahaman equally celebrated singing actress who has made Dido one of her signature roles. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich was a vocally strong, convincing Aeneas.

I found Berlioz’s opera, a dramatization of two episodes from Virgil’s “Aeneid”, had a satisfying symmetrical structure. Part 1 (Acts 1 & 2), the siege of Troy, focuses on war and destruction while Part 2 (Acts 3 & 4), set in Carthage, stresses love and deliverance. Where Cassandra’s voice conveyed fear and urgency, Dido’s was warm and lilting. Act 5, unfortunately, ends with Aeneas’ abandonment of Dido who kills herself after placing a curse on Aeneas and his followers.

Much of the score’s magic lies in Berlioz’s masterful blending of music and story. The orchestra is a full partner, in seamless sync with the singers, expressing and accenting the action and emotional tone. Sir Andrew Davis and the Lyric orchestra excelled.  And the massive choral forces delivered soul-stirring sounds in  Act 1 and Act 2’s opening.

“Les Troyens” is one of Lyric’s seven new productions this season, part of General Director, Anthony Freud‘s ambitious plan to broaden Lyric’s audience appeal and excitement. He appears to be taking a page from Peter Gelb’s Met Opera playbook. Let’s hope Freud is more skillful in matching artistic with financial success.

Don’t let the thought of spending a 5-hour evening at Lyric keep you from enjoying a great evening of musical theater. Only four more performances of this rarely-performed masterpiece remain. Catch it before it ends on December 3. For ticket information, go to or call the box office at 312/827-5600.



PostHeaderIcon The Queen Who Kept Her Head

Last month, I made my way to Timeline Theatre for my latest history lesson. This time, it was a fascinating modern take on the House of Tudor (1485-1603). I do remember enough from my high-school History days about Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. I can’t recall ever hearing about Thomas Seymour and Katherine Parr. Yet, the latter figure was noteworthy. She was Henry’s sixth wife and the only one who outlived him.

As part of its 20th season, Timeline is presenting a highly engaging re-imagination of her marriage to the tempestuous Henry with the American premiere of Kate Hennig’s play, “The Last Wife”. It was first presented at the Stratford Festival in Canada last year where it enjoyed a three month, sold-out engagement.

Hennig’s play is not some Masterpiece Theater historical drama. Here, the actors are in modern dress and speak modern English. The action is set not at court but in the couple’s private quarters. Integral to the play’s appeal is that the audience, at one moment, is spying on their secret royal lives, complete with young children and raging quarrels, while, a moment later, we seem to be witnessing a 2016 dysfunctional family.

"Henry" grabs "Katherine"

“Henry” grabs “Katherine”

A modern note was struck right at the outset when Henry, convincingly played by Steve Pickering, barges in, grabs Katherine and forcibly kisses her, demonstrating his dominance, while a startled Seymour looks on. Immediately, my mind flashed to Donald Trump and the fresh revelations of his predatory conduct with numerous women.

The play accurately portrays Katherine’s keen mind and love of power.  AnJi White skillfully portrays a modern woman whose voluptuous figure can seduce and reduce two powerful men to her will. Parr must also have enjoyed an alluring figure. She was Henry’s consort before their marriage, carried on an illicit affair with Seymour and had four husbands in her life. She deserves greater recognition for getting Henry to pass the Third Succession Act of 1542 that restored his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, to the throne. Without her persuasion, no Queen Elizabeth I. History turns on such twists of fate.

Steve Pckering & Anji White as Henry & Katherine

Steve Pckering & Anji White as Henry & Katherine

There’s no better way to get your English History refresher than to see “The Last Wife”, now playing through December 18. For tickets and information, visit or call 773/281-TIME.

I also want to call attention to the full range of Timeline’s education efforts. I am only familiar with the richly informative outer lobby displays mounted for each production. This time, there was a video about Henry , a life-size depiction of Henry with a cutout for female patrons to insert their face and six panels depicting each of Henry’s wives. In the earlier production, “Bakersfield Mist”, the lobby featured an art history primer on Jackson Pollock and Abstract Expressionism. Post-show discussions with company members and a monthly panel discussion, Sunday Scholars, examining the themes of each play are regular features.

Timeline is now celebrating the 10th anniversary of its “Living History Education Program” for students at Chicago Public schools. Students explore the connections between history, art and their own lives. The intent is to teach students theater skills while fostering their capacity to think creatively. Since the program started, Timeline has turned history into Living History for more than 3,500 students.

To honor the theater’s 20th anniversary season and its mission to present stories inspired by history, Timeline was awarded the 2016  MacArthur Foundation’s Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. Bravo!