Archive for the ‘Music – Classical’ Category

PostHeaderIcon Of Two Heroines & Two Stagings

I have attended two opera broadcasts during the MetLive in HD’s 10th anniversary season. This chance choice of repertoire allowed me to revel in the presence of two fascinating females: “Lulu” and, most recently, “Manon Lescaut”. 


Marlis Petersen as Lulu

The two productions also presented different stagings, one successful and one much less so. Lulu is the lusty and wily seducer who bends lovers to her will (killing a few before her own demise) while Manon is a much weaker, more innocent heroine, whose indecisiveness and love of luxury leads to her deportation and death in her lover’s arms.

Alban Berg’s opera is a masterpiece and among the greatest 20th Century operas while the Puccini version, compared to the original Massenet treatment, is a pastiche of the 19th Century novel on which the libretto is based.


Kentridge video

I found the Met’s ingenious production of “Lulu” featuring video projections by artist, William Kentridge, gripping. The result was a stunning theatrical, as well as vocal, experience. Kentridge has said his scenic projections are there to provoke “our thinking about ourselves, our awareness of ourselves as looking.” His images of countless newspaper headlines and of Lulu, her face, her body clothed and naked, are like a disassembled jigsaw puzzle.

A hallmark of the Peter Gelb era at the Met has been to chart a new course for the standard repertoire in an attempt to attract new, younger audiences. He has engaged many directors from the theater world to inject new life and more updated, dramatic stagings of operatic works. This is causing bitterly fought arguments, as a New York Times story noted, not over dueling composers or singers but opposing styles of direction.

The Kentridge conception, marrying visually stunning imagery with the dynamic theatrical flair of Marlis Petersen as Lulu resulted in a melding of singer, sets and staging to produce a full operatic experience. However, I took exception to English director Richard Eyre‘s conception for “Manon”.

He took Puccini’s traditional staging and simply transposed the action from 18th Century France up to World War II, during Nazi-occupied France, without supplying a raison d’etre for the shift.  Eyre claimed it was to stress the moral ambiguity of the times on the characters. Rubbish. Apart from having some incidental cast members dressed in Nazi uniforms make brief appearances, the conception was inert and failed to raise any deep moral questions. Manon and her lover, Des Grieux, remain the same doomed lovers as in more traditional stagings.

Kristine Opolais-Manon

Kristine Opolais
as Manon

The one aspect in which both productions achieved success was in the outstanding vocal talents of the  two heroines: Marlis Petersen as Lulu and Kristine Opolais as Manon. Both ladies brought the necessary attributes–slim, beguiling figures and compelling dramatic ability–to their roles.

Three more Met productions, presented nationally in theaters by Fathom Events, remain on this year’s schedule. The next production, Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” (featuring the talented Ms. Opolais once more) will be broadcast April 2nd. The 10th anniversary season ends with telecasts of Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux” (April 16) and Strauss’ “Elektra” (April 30). To purchase tickets, go to


PostHeaderIcon New Opera Triumphs Over Terror

I remember sitting in the lobby of Lyric Opera over three years ago to hear the exciting news that Lyric had commissioned Jimmy Lopez (composer) and Nilo Cruz (librettist) to adapt Ann Patchett’s best-selling novel, “Bel Canto”, into an opera. General Director Anthony Freud and Lyric Creative Consultant, Renee Fleming, were beaming over the announcement. This would be Lyric’s first world premiere since William Bolcom’s “A Wedding” in 2004, While Patchett’s book deals with an invasion at the Peruvian Embassy by local guerrillas in 1996, that background seemed long ago and far away.

Yet last month’s Paris massacre and the San Bernadino terrorist attack five days prior to the opera’s world premiere suddenly turned yesterday’s news into today’s headlines. Lyric went into damage control mode to reassure patrons. Prior to the premiere, Freud drafted a letter to be inserted in all performance programs. It called the contemporary opera’s theme “shockingly topical” but defended Lyric’s artistic choice: “I believe that opera is a relevant art form and must not shy away from dealing with contemporary and disturbing subjects. Hopefully, we can play a part in stimulating thought, discourse and debate.” Discussions will be held with the audience at all performances.

The world premiere of “Bel Canto” proceeded and it is a handsome production with a winning ensemble

Bel Canto World Premiere

Bel Canto World Premiere

cast, headed by Danielle de Niese, playing Roxanne Coss, a  world-renowned soprano hired for a birthday celebration honoring Katsumi Hosokawa, a Japanese executive at the home of Peru’s vice president.

In the middle of her singing, Tupac Amaru guerrillas burst into the mansion and take the guests hostage. A Red Cross representative tries to negotiate their release but, when the government refuses the guerrillas’ demands, a four-month siege ensues.

Danielle de Niese

Danielle de Niese

The long first act is briskly paced and full of incident. Director Kevin Newbury handles the choreographic challenge of a stage full of reception guests and the ensuing tumult with skilled command. A romantic element–the budding attractions between Hosokawa and Roxanne plus Gen, Hosokawa’s translator and Carmen, one of the terrorists–is introduced. The first act ends with Roxanne’s accompanist being killed as he rushes to save her from terrorist commander General Alfredo’s manhandling.

While the first act is replete with motion, the second suffers, by contrast, from a listless spell, brought on by the Peruvian fog known as garua. As one day drips into the next, a Stockholm-like atmosphere envelops captors and hostages. Hosokawa plays chess with a soldier, General Alfredo reads news accounts and one hostage hangs linen on a clothesline. A Russian diplomat awkwardly professes his love for painting and the lovely Roxanne.

 © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2015

GeneralAlfredo,               Rebel Commander
© Todd Rosenberg Photography 2015

Cruz’s lyrical adaptation, full of poetic imagery, could have benefitted from some editing or a shot of more drama here. While the languor of their captivity is perfectly captured and appropriate, the opera stalls until late in the act with riveting arias by two terrorists (mezzo J’Nai Bridges and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo). This is followed by the act’s most effective moment, a striking tableau of love duets by Hosokawa (ably sung by Jeongcheol Cha) and Roxanne on stage left alongside Cesar and Gen Watanabe on stage right.

When government soldiers eventually storm the mansion with guns blazing and even splattered blood onstage,  I saw audience members flinch. Such a reaction, aided by greater distance from the San Bernadino tragedy, will probably not be repeated at the January performances.

The opera, even with its uneven patches, succeeds in combining gripping theater and an appealing score with Hollywood-sounding crescendos. It deserves an extended life with future productions in opera houses worldwide. All the elements–an accomplished score, riveting contemporary story, fine cast, handsome production values–carry it past the finish line. It must rank as Lyric’s most successful commission in recent memory.

“Bel Canto” will have four more performances when Lyric resumes in January. The first is on Tuesday, January 5. I urge you to go and see this highly theatrical work for yourself. For tickets and more information, visit



PostHeaderIcon Music Festival Ushers in Summer

Fourscore and one year ago, our city forefathers brought upon this burgeoning city a new musical entity, the Grant Park Orchestra, and proclaimed it free to the public. Last Wednesday, that esteemed ensemble, an unofficial harbinger of Summer in the city, opened its 81st season at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.

Carlos Kalmer

Carlos Kalmer

Carlos Kalmar, starting his 16th year as Principal Conductor, chose a popular program featuring two crowd-pleasing composers, Rachmaninov and Beethoven.

Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is one of the classical repertoire’s iconic scores. The symphony’s opening movements exude a calm, joyful serenity before ending in a driving flourish. For me, the seamless blending of each note into the next, building, in the second movement, into passages of intense lyricism are testimony to Beethoven’s mastery of sound, in spite of his total hearing loss. Kalmar showed a sure sense of rhythmic structure, letting the early music unfold naturally without pushing the sound before propelling the third and fourth movements forward without any pause.

Yevgeny Sudbin

Yevgeny Sudbin

In the program’s first half, Kalmar chose Rachmaninov’s first composition, written at 18, the lesser-known Piano Concerto No. 1 rather than the more polished and lyrical Concertos #2 and #3. Soloist Yevgeny Sudbin, who has appeared in major European venues, including London’s Wigmore Hall and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, made his Chicago debut and demonstrated dazzling technique along with a lyrical touch. Only the piano’s overly bright sound robbed Sudbin’s interpretation of its more delicate shadings.

As a Music Festival-goer for over 20 years (more consistently since the Gehry bandshell opened), I relish its concerts for the outdoor picnic opportunities Chicago provides but, even more so, for its varied and challenging programming.  While offering familiar names such as Mozart, Brahms, Strauss and Sondheim, Kalmar respects his audience’s intelligence enough to play seldom-heard repertoire. This gives the orchestra a distinct identity.

Last weekend’s concerts featured the world premiere of a composition it commissioned, Kenji Bunch’s Symphony No. 3, “Dream Songs”, a song cycle of Native American tribal songs. Other intriguing works on the season calendar include Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony (June 26 & 27), Saint-Saens’ Piano Concerto No. 2 (July 24 & 25), Grant Still’s “Sunday Symphony” (July 29), Haydn’s rarely-performed Harmony Mass (August 7 & 8) and the closing concert, Elgar’s lesser-known oratorio, with features soloists and full chorus, The Kingdom (August 21  & 22).

Concerts are performed three nights each week, once on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. with a different program offered on Friday at 6:30 pm and Saturday evenings at 7:30 pm. Pack a picnic supper often this summer (the Music Festival season runs through August 22) and join the throng on the lawn to revel in top-rank musicmaking that can lift your spirit and make it momentarily forget our messy and sometimes heartbreaking world.

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

PostHeaderIcon Paris Goes Wild for CSO

A sweet twist of fate allowed Pauline, myself and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to all be in Paris last Saturday evening (Oct. 25). The idea of hearing the hometown band play in a different hall on tour plus hearing how Parisians would react proved irresistible.
CSO in Paris

CSO in Paris’ Salle Pleyel

Paris’ Salle Pleyel is a modern, U-shaped, hall of little architectural distinction, soon to be replaced by a  much larger, more distinctive music hall designed by Jean Nouvel and Christian de Portzamparc. However, from my seat in the first balcony, the acoustics sounded slightly better than the dry sound at Orchestra Hall.

From the opening downbeat, the orchestra’s unmistakably bold, unified sound  was on display. It began with an unusually vigorous work by Mendelssohn full of  brass flourishes and thundering tympani. Next came a sensitive, yet propulsive, reading of Debussy’s La Mer, accentuating both the sea’s fierce power as well as the soft lapping of the waves. Bringing an iconic French composition to Paris was a cheeky move akin to bringing coals to Newcastle. The audience registered its strong approval with hearty applause and cries of “Bravo”        for Muti and the musicians.

Muti, however, saved the best for after intermission. He had substituted Tchaikovsky’s Symphony 4 for the originally scheduled Divine Poem by Scriabin. This was the only venue where the orchestra played this piece but the aural fireworks began with the opening brass call to arms. Muti shaped the dynamics of each movement beautifully, especially the exquisite, unison, pizzacatto playing of the third movement. And when Muti brought the work to a crashing conclusion, the audience went wild.

Ricardo Muti

Ricardo Muti

I rarely have heard the sort of strong rhythmic clapping that the Parisian audience gave the orchestra. They called Muti back several times until he returned to the podium and offered an encore. Not just any short work but, following the bluster of Tchaikovsky, a sensitive, luxurious account of the overture to Verdi’s Nabucco. A master stroke by the music world’s leading Verdi conductor. As the entire CSO ensemble gave a ravishing display of total musical unity, I thought that the CSO should schedule a program of Verdi overtures and arias led by Muti at Orchestra Hall. So far, he has only graced us with the Requiem. Let’s have a rich helping of this composer’s scores for the living.

It was a night of gorgeous playing and emotional connection that made me proud of our orchestra and proud to be a Chicagoan!