Archive for the ‘Music – Classical’ Category

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.




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


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