Archive for the ‘Music – Classical’ Category

PostHeaderIcon “Rigoletto” Is The Real Deal

Let me get right to the point. “Rigoletto”, now at Lyric Opera, is a vocally ravishing, near-perfect production that you should rush to see before its run ends on November 3rd. It is good to see Lyric nicely rebounding from its well-intentioned, but flawed, opening production of Gluck’s “Orphee et Eurydice”.

Rigoletto singing Gilda

Rigoletto sings to Gilda

The opera is one of (Giuseppe) Verdi’s triumphs in which he delved deeper into writing music closely married to the story’s drama. And the story is one that is full of so many elements that strongly resonate in our time: a parent’s love, sex, power and corruption. On Opening Night (October 7), both my companion and I thought the Duke of Mantua’s modern counterpart was Harvey Weinstein with Donald Trump not far behind.

It is an opera in which the trio of leading roles demands great vocal talent. And the trio of Matthew Polenzani as the lascivious Duke of Mantua, Rosa Feola,  as the innocent Gilda in love with the Duke and Quinn Kelsey as the court jester, Rigoletto, blend beautifully together and deliver the vocal goods. Each sang their roles with freshness and rich tones with nary a miscue all evening. The opera has some of Verdi’s most stirring music such as the meltingly moving aria between Rigoletto and his daughter, Gilda in Act Two and the Duke’s famous “La Donna Mobile”. It seemed to be more of a “sung opera” than most, in that Verdi one aria leadling inexorably into another, driving the story along.

Duke and Rigoletto

Rigoletto and the Duke

Lyric also made a smart choice in engaging the sought-after Italian conductor, Marco Armiliato, to play coax spirited playing of Verdi’s splendid score from Lyric’s stellar orchestra and the promising E. Loren Meeker to keep all the parts moving seamlessly.

Rigoletto is the tale of a curse cast on Rigoletto in Act One that is fulfilled at the end of the opera. The court jester’s over-protective love for his daughter leads to conflict and her unintended death.

I saw the Metropolitan Opera’s Live 2013 telecast of the opera in which director Michael Mayer had the inspired idea to transfer the action from 16th Century Mantua to modern-day Las Vegas with the Duke as the leader of a gamblers’ “rat pack”. That production featured the great tenor, Piotr Beczala, and generated much amusement. Lyric’s production was low on laughs but  struck me as having a deeper emotional core.

I left the hall knowing that I’d spent a great night at the opera. You have five more chances to catch this winning production. For tickets, go to



PostHeaderIcon Ballet Overshadows Opera Drama

Opening Night at Lyric Opera is always a glittery, red-carpet affair that no other Chicago arts organization does so grandly. Such was the case last Saturday evening complete with limousines, many men in tuxedos and ladies in their formal finery and scurrying photographers seeking to capture all the early spectacle.

Joffrey Ballet & Dmitry Korchak

Joffrey Ballet & Dmitry Korchak
© Todd Rosenberg Photography 2017

The work chosen to kick off Lyric’s 63rd season was “Orphee et Eurydice” by Christoph Willibald Gluck. An added attraction was the participation of 43 dancers from the Joffrey Ballet, with which the Lyric has just announced an artistic partnership to start with the 2020-21 season.

In this production, Orphee is a contemporary choreographer and his wife, Eurydice is the company’s star ballerina who suffers a fatal accident.  The opera, directed, choreographed and designed by John Neumeier, head of the Hamburg Ballet, was dazzling in its dance sequences and beautifully sung by its three perfectly-matched leads.

Dmitry Korchak

Dmitry Korchak

Special praise goes to Russian tenor, Dmitry Korchak, whose rich voice was without strain and a pleasure to listen to.  He conveyed Orphee’s grief over Eurydice’s death convincingly along with his resolve to descend to Hades and rescue her. Andriana Chuchman as Eurydice and Lauren Snouffer as Amour provided stellar accompaniment, particularly in the “Tendre Amour” trio near the end.

Ticket holders should know that Gluck wrote two versions of this story, a fact I hadn’t realized before Saturday’s performance. The last time Lyric presented the work in 2006 (which I attended), it was Gluck’s original 1762 Italian version, performed by noted counter-tenor, David Daniels. I totally enjoyed that staging and mistakenly thought that is what I would be seeing.

Not so. Gluck reworked his score for a 1774 French version that had Orphee’s castrato role now sung by a tenor along with extensive additions of dance music that rendered it more of a danced opera.  I give Neumeier great credit for effectively blending the production’s disparate elements and instilling freshness into the 243-year-old opera (with kudos to Lyric’s orchestra and chorus).

Yet, I regretted his downplaying of the tale’s rich drama. Orphee and Eurydice’s reunion and horrible loss seems to happen in an instant compared to all the terpsichore (although I’ve seldom seen the Joffrey dance better).

The Opening Night version struck me as wan by comparison with Lyric’s 2006 production. The evening damped down the opera’s emotional heart.  Neumeier chose a cooler narrative, one that prioritized the dance elements.

For example, near the end, as Orphee seeks to heal from the devastating loss of his beloved for a second time, Amour tells him to “savor the beauty of love”. There followed a lovely imaginary waltz between Orphee and a ghostly Eurydice. This seemed the poignant and perfect moment on which to end the opera. Instead, Orphee retreats to the back of the stage and we witness an extended, exuberant dance. For Neumeier, who replaced the happy ending of Gluck’s French version only to end with such a light-hearted frolic, seemed like the wrong move.

This production has much to recommend it–fine singing, appealing ballet sequences and Gluck’s music–and will delight many. It simply left me, however, with mixed emotions. Give me Italian Gluck!

Five more performances of “Orphee et Eurydice” remain through October 15. For dates and to purchase tickets, go to






PostHeaderIcon Concert Produces Own Lalla Vibe

What a difference the right place makes! That insight was proven true once again last Saturday evening (August 5) at the Harris Theater of Music and Dance by the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra. Forced to move indoors due to the Lallapolooza din in Grant Park, the move proved a true blessing in disguise.

Carlos Kalmar

Carlos Kalmar

Carlos Kalmar, the orchestra’s guiding light since 2000, programmed a particularly rich program that capitalized on the move. Each half opened with a stirring piece, Hindemith’s “Concert Music for Strings and Brass” and Mendelssohn’s “Calm Seas and Prosperous Voyage”. The brass forces were prominently featured and delivered ringing sounds.

The concert featured two showstoppers: Claude Debussy’s “La Mer” and Richard Strauss‘ “Oboe Concerto”. I have heard the Debussy many times and admired both the level of orchestral playing and Kalmar’s refined shaping and pacing of the score. The orchestra’s sections were in sync and blended perfectly.

Moving the concert indoors revealed what an acoustic jewel the Harris is. I reveled in the hall’s fine sound separation so that the strings, winds, brass and percussion elements all could be heard distinctly. It made me realize how dry Orchestra Hall’s sound is in comparison and does the orchestra a disservice. And it was superior to the Pritzker Pavilion’s more dispersed sound outdoors.


Francois Leleux

Francois Leleux

For me, the evening’s highlight was Strauss’ sublime concerto. The featured soloist, Francois Leleux, played the piece with deep feeling. I’d never heard the composition live but this struck me as a definitive performance. (Ray Still, the Chicago Symphony’s famed former oboist, delivers the best performance on disc.)  Leleux put his whole body into the playing which made me close my eyes at times to cut out his movements onstage. But nothing detracted from his evident mastery and Kalmar’s expert accompaniment. Leleux received a well-deserved standing ovation. My friend and I exited the concert feeling uplifted.

Only two more weeks remain in the Grant Park Orchestra’s season. You should clear your calendar and get downtown for Tchaikovsky’s “Manfred Symphony” this weekend along with a World Premiere of a work by composer Aaron Jay Kernis. Preceding Saturday’s concert, there will be a festive “Pastoral Picnic in White” on the Great Lawn at 6 p.m. Should be quite a sight.

The closing week will feature Kalmar leading Haydn’s lovely “Cello Concerto” on Wednesday, August 16th and Beethoven’s incomparable “Symphony No. 9″ for two weekend performances.  For the full schedule, visit And consider buying a reserved seat down front so you can drown in the full aural and sensual impact of Ludwig’s divine masterwork.


PostHeaderIcon Seven Special Nights at Ravinia

Ravinia's early days

Ravinia’s early days

Ravinia started as a summer escape in 1904 when it opened as an amusement park complete with a baseball diamond, electric fountain and a casino with dining rooms and a dance floor. This first incarnation ended in 1910 but reopened a year later as a summer venue for classical music. Opera was added in 1912. Today, more than 100 years later, Ravinia is the oldest outdoor music festival in North America.

The park’s association with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will mark its 80th anniversary next season. The venue remains a summer destination for world-class classical musicians. Yet, over the past two decades, the CSO has shared its summer residency with stars from the world of popular music. This profitable musical partnership can be seen as returning Ravinia back to its founding days as an amusement park with musical entertainment.

James Levine

James Levine

Nowadays, the pop calendar, with such stars as Diana Krall, Buddy Guy, the Moody Blues and Aretha Franklin,  is what draws the crowds and keeps the Ravinia Festival in the black. However, my Ravinia memories date back 40 years and innumerable nights spent picnicking on the lawn and seated on the indoor benches, listening to the Chicago Symphony under the batons of James Levine and Christoph Eschenbach. That is the tradition I want to honor today with my selection of seven nights of special orchestral and chamber music performances.

Here is the potpourri of my personal choices. I could easily made a dozen selections. You are entitled to your own favorites. Mine, in chronological and not ranking order are:

Joshwa Bell

Joshua Bell

July 12–Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Joshua Bell. Bell is a violin superstar whom I’ve never heard live. That explains why plus the Prokofiev Suite from Romeo and Juliet is such sublime music.

July 20–Susanne Malkki conducts the CSO. Ms. Malkki is garnering great notices for her conducting and I want to discover her for myself.

July 24–Calidore and Emerson String Quartets–A dream pairing of two chamber powerhouses with a wonderful program.


Susanne Malkki

August 15-17–Jonathan Biss’ second cycle of Beethoven Piano Sonatas. I enjoyed last season’s debut of this cycle. Have enthusiastically followed Biss’ playing and growing artistry over the past decade.

August 17–The Knights with Susan Graham–The Knights blew me away last season at Harris Theater with their superb playing. Opera star Susan Graham lends her creamy mezzo voice as an added bonus.

August 23–Lucerne Symphony Orchestra with James Gaffigan conducting. This is Claudio Abbado’s old orchestra of virtuoso players. Gaffigan is a rising star. The program includes another rising star, pianist Behzod Abduraimov, playing the lyrical Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto which I prefer to the overplayed Third.

Pacifica Quartet

Pacifica Quartet

September 1-3–Pacifica String Quartet–My favorite chamber ensemble tackling all 16 Beethoven String Quartets over five performances the way they tackled Shostokovich’s String Quartets several seasons back. The last time all four original members will play together. A Must-See!

Five of these evenings take place in the Pavilion. However, the Biss and Pacifica appearances are in Bennett Gordon Hall where the seated admission is only $10 per performance. And if you are a devoted lawn afficionado, as I was in my youth, you can enjoy all 7 special evenings (11 total performances) for an astoundingly low $100,  the same cost as for one Pavilion seat for Joshua Bell. For tickets click

I need to do penance for leaving James Levine’s return with “The Creation” and Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s’ “Catalogue d’Oiseaux” by Messian, whom I adore, off the list. Mea Culpa! Happy Summer Listening!

PostHeaderIcon Opera The Second Time Around

It is always instructive to read a book or see a movie twice though I rarely do.  You see some things differently or what you may have missed the first time and thus gain greater enjoyment. The same with opera. I  had that experience recently seeing two opera productions of  “Eugene Onegin”. The first production was at Chicago’s Lyric Opera in March and the second time with the Metropolitan Opera’s MetLive HD screening two weeks ago.

I have written how much I enjoyed Lyric’s staging, a beautiful, minimalist conception, by noted opera director, Robert Carsen. The Met’s version was a sumptuous grand opera staging of Tchaikovsky‘s score. The director was Deborah Warner and she shepherded a lively production featuring a superb cast in the leading roles and stunning choreography in the opera’s opening sequence and the third set’s        Opera Ball with its iconic waltz theme.

Anna Netrebko in Met's Eugene Onegin

Anna Netrebko in Met production

The MetLive production was a delicious bon bon with pleasing features but, as I watched it unfold over four hours, I kept thinking of the less-opulent Lyric performance. Carsen made us see the opera essentially as a wrenching love story that centered around two ill-fated love letters. The first letter was Tatiana’s innocent declaration of love to Onegin while the second was Onegin’s desperate appeal to win back Tatiana.

Peter Mattei in Eugene Onegin

Peter Mattei

I thought the Met’s Onegin, tenor Peter Mattei, was vocally a shade richer than Lyric’s Marius Kwiecien, Anna Maria Martinez‘s acting performance as Tatiana  was superior to the Met’s Anna Netrebko. Though Netrebko is opera’s reigning diva, I thought the role was not suited to her. It just seemed too impossible to picture her as an innocent, teenage girl. The screening stayed focused fairly close-up on her face and one saw a mature woman. While believability is not always respected in opera, I see it as a key component in winning an audience’s heart.

The next and last of Fathom Event’s MetLive HD season is Strauss’ beloved “Der Rosenkavalier” on this Saturday, May 13thI am especially anxious to see this production since the director is the same Robert Carsen who, once again, is winning raves for updating the action from 19th Century to Vienna to before the outbreak of World War I. It will also be my fifth time seeing this opera. Yet I anticipate it will reveal new insights which is one of the many pleasures opera provides.

To purchase tickets, go to