Archive for the ‘Music – Classical’ Category

PostHeaderIcon An Imperfect American Icon

You would think that an opera by noted composer, Philip Glass, about an iconic American innovator, Walt Disney, and staged by an accomplished director of contemporary opera, Kevin Newbury, would stand a strong chance at being a success. I certainly did. But I was wrong.

Perfect American 1

Disney (center) with family and friends.

“The Perfect American” received its Chicago premiere last Saturday evening (April 22) at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park. It was Chicago Opera Theater’s final production under the leadership of Artistic Director, Andreas Mitisek, who also conducted the Glass score. Mitisek has given Chicago a mixed bag of contemporary operas during his five-year tenure. He is being succeeded as artistic director by Douglas Clayton, COT’s executive director.

This season, COT enjoyed critical acclaim with a compelling staging of the Tristan and Isolde tale, “The Love Potion” and, most recently, the sci-fi story, “The Invention of Morel”. That string of success makes this disappointment more striking.

I like my opera to be coherent. Yet, “The Perfect American’s” libretto by Rudolph Wurlitzer, based on the book by Peter Stephan Junge, veers sharply between fact and fantasy. The action is set in the hospital during the last three months of Disney’s life as    he relives events and petty torments in his life. Rather than being grounded in reality, the dialogue too often seems more like Disney’s fevered dream. His outbursts are uttered with no context or connection, akin to the ramblings of a sick patient under psychotropic medication.

Disney being treated

The play does have moments of clarity and could have used many more. Rather than a perfect American, Disney is portrayed as an egomaniac who took all the credit for his studio’s painstaking work and wild success. When the animators and graphic artists try to form a union, Disney crushes the attempt and fires scores of the artistic staff. Another scene shows his racist attitude toward blacks.

The play paints him as a right-wing super-patriot, the living embodiment of the American Dream for mid-century America. But the action soon pivots back to his angry outbursts. He is visited in the hospital by other historical icons, an animatronic Abraham Lincoln and pop artist, Andy Warhol, iconic figures in their own right. But their appearances are played more for laughs than insight.

Justin Ryan delivered a convincing singing and dramatic performance as Walt Disney. The large cast of supporting actors have no distinct identity and leave little impression.  I even found Glass’ signature ostinato repetitions not particularly gripping and sounding more like recycled Glass. Newbury kept the action moving at a brisk and assured pace, perhaps hoping the endless activity would mask the scant story line.

Some reviewers expressed a more forgiving opinion so perhaps you should catch the opera’s only remaining performance this Sunday, April 30, to judge for yourself. The composer is expected to attend. For tickets, call Chicago Opera Theater at 312/704-8414 or


PostHeaderIcon Two Lovers & Two Letters

It is customary in fine restaurants to serve an amuse-bouche between multiple courses. It serves as a palate cleanser and a satisfying respite., After Lyric Opera‘s rich diet of grand operas this season, from Das Rheingold and Les Troyens to Norma, that seems like the appropriate analogy for its current winning production of Eugene Onegin.

Director Robert Carsen,  whose six previous Lyric productions include the 2007-08 “Onegin” and the 2006-07 “Dialogue des Carmelites”, has masterfully stripped the story of a young girl and a worldly sophisticate down to its essential elements: infatuation, dismissal and role reversal. The staging is a stunning minimalist design of great beauty and simplicity.

Mariusz Kwiecien and Ana Maria Martinez

Mariusz Kwiecien and Ana Maria Martinez

The setting is a St. Petersburg estate in the 1820s, where little of consequence happens and the inhabitants grow bored. Imagine any play by Chekhov, from The Cherry Orchard to Uncle Vanya, transposed to the operatic stage and you have the picture. Madame Larina wants to make good marriages for her two daughters, Olga and Tatiana. During the harvest celebration, Olga’s fiance, Vladimir Lensky, a poet and his friend, Eugene Onegin pay a visit.

The leading roles were perfectly cast with Mariusz Kwiecien as Onegin and Ana Maria Martinez as Tatiana. Kwiecien delivers rich, Russian tones. Martinez is the ideal lyric soprano the score demands. Visually, Kwiecien is a handsome lover, with the right aristocratic bearing and Martinez is appropriately petite with a youthful appearance. Each sang beautifully, with the vocal highlight of the evening being the Third Act’s passionate duet, their only vocal appearance together.

Carsen opens the opera with a very smart bit of stagecraft. He has a spotlight capture Onegin in a chair reading Tatiana’s fateful love letter, then repeats the image at the start of the third act. But, this time, it’s Tatiana reading Onegin’s impassioned letter. Besides the direction, credit must also be given to the original lighting designer, Jean Kalman. Her superbly suggestive use of color–shades of orange, deep blue, gold and peach– conveys times of day or seasons and renders the need for scenery superfluous. Quite clean and simple.

During Lensky’s visit, Tatiana is quite smitten with Onegin and, that night, pours her heart out to him in a lovesick letter. Onegin treats her note as an innocent girl’s infatuation. While touched, he cannot accept her love since he would quickly grow bored with domestic life. He can only love her like a brother. Tatiana is devastated.

When they meet again several years later, Onegin has traveled the world seeking excitement but returns home, bored and still seeking meaning. He attends a ball given by his cousin, Prince Gremin, and discovers that Tatiana is now a mature beauty and Gremin’s wife. Onegin now finds himself in love with her and implores her to run away with him. But now, Tatiana, though she still loves him, resists remaining true to her marriage vow. Onegin is the devastated one, realizing his chance at true love, once so freely given, was now forever lost.

You have five more opportunities to hear Tchaikovsky‘s lovely melodies with the next performance on March 8th. The opera is being performed through March 20th. For tickets, go to


PostHeaderIcon “Norma”, Lyric’s New Vocal Gem

The opera “Norma” holds a special place in Lyric Opera’s legacy. It was first performed during Lyric’s opening season (1954) by the iconic soprano, Maria Callas. Yet, those who were in the audience at last Saturday’s opening night performance heard a performance by acclaimed soprano,  Sondra Radvanovsky, that could hold a candle to Callas’ legendary appearance. Her performance was replete with vocal fireworks fused with a portrayal of intense emotion. She received a deservedly thunderous ovation at the end, .

Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma

Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma

I attend the opera hoping to hear fine voices, revel in the visual splendor along with seeking imaginative staging. Last Saturday, I was enthralled by the ravishing vocal performance of Radvanovsky as a Druid priestess, strongly supported by tenor, Russell Thomas, as Pollione, her cheating lover, and Elizabeth DeShong as Adelgisa, her follower but also romantic rival. Their stirring performances, particularly her duets with Adelgisa and Pollione near the end of Act 2, compensated for a production lacking visual splendor and inventive staging.

“Norma”, viewed as the pinnacle of bel canto opera, is not a standard of the opera repertoire, unlike perennial favorites “La Boheme”, “Magic Flute” or “Madame Butterfly”. It requires a special soprano who can handle the vocal demands of (Vincenzo) Bellini‘s devilishly difficult score that runs the gamut from thrilling high notes to soft pianissimos. It is also a killer role that requires physical stamina since Norma is on stage for nearly the entire opera. That explains why it has not appeared on Lyric’s calendar since the 1996-97 season. Radvanovsky is currently one of opera world’s reigning Normas, a world-class artist who is a Berwyn-born Chicago native.

Russell Thomas & Sondra Radvanovsky

Russell Thomas & Sondra Radvanovsky

I exited the opera house captivated by Radvanovsky’s portrayal. What I found disappointing was that director Kevin Newbury, who worked such magic with “Bel Canto”, was unable to instill this production with much vitality. He claimed he tried to give this tragic tale a “Game of Thrones”  look. I failed to see much of a “Thrones” connection apart from a lot of black leather onstage.

Newbury was not helped by Lyric’s one-size-fits-all set design. The huge, dark gray set worked well enough for the opening forest setting with its sacred bough. But it was a set short for more indoor settings. Norma’s two young children should not have had to sleep on the stage floor but in a home befitting a high priestess. Perhaps Lyric busted its budget with “Les Troyens” and needed to economize. Its one attempt at visual splendor was an impressive, oversize bull that appeared only at the end.

“Norma”, however, is an opera that one attends less for scenery than to hear vocal fireworks, particularly in the title role. Judged in that regard, Lyric delivered handsomely.

There are five more opportunities to catch this pleasurable, seldom-performed, score. “Norma” runs through February 25 at the Civic Opera House. To order tickets, go to



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 “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.