Sunday, 18 February 2018 02:36

Review: ‘Cosi fan tutte’ at Lyric Opera

“No woman ever died for love” says Despina in Mozart’s charming little opera ‘Cosi fan tutte’. There may not be any deaths from love but, maybe a few tickled funny bones in this revival going on now at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Originally conceived by John Cox about ten years ago, this version of ‘Cosi fan tutte’ moves the setting to WWI, or 1914. This seasons’ production is largely the same with direction by Bruno Ravella.

‘Cosi fan tutte’ is a lighter work by opera standards. It’s basically a rom-com sung in Italian. Written in 1790, Mozart would only see this opera performed five times in his life, as he died the following year. Mozart operas are typically upbeat with plenty of repeated phrasing. There’s no shortage of beauty pouring out of the pit conducted by James Gaffigan. This is a very accessible piece in both music and performances.

The plot is fairly uncomplicated. Two men Ferrando (Andrew Stenson) and Guglielmo (Joshua Hopkins) question the fidelity of their fiances Fiordiligi (Ana Maria Martinez) and Dorabella (Marianne Crebassa). With the help of Don Alfonso (Alessandro Corbelli) and sexy maid Despina (Elena Tsallagova), the two men pretend to go off to war. They return to their future wives in disguise and each attempts to seduce the other’s fiancé. If it sounds familiar, it is. This opera is loosely inspired by Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’.

Few people attend an opera for the dramatic chops of the performers. Opera is about beautiful music first and foremost. That said, these two fantastic sopranos are also gifted comedic actresses. The over-the-top emotions of these two characters makes for some really great physical humor. The projected dialogue is almost as ridiculous as the plot itself. Martinez takes up the pious role, making her seduction all the more fun to watch. Crebassa is the goofball and her performance radiates joy even as she’s cheating on her fiance. Though, it’s really Tsallagova who runs away with the laughs in her performance as Despina. This is also her US debut. A talent we’ll hopefully see more of in coming seasons.

As always, the set and costumes are sumptuous. Setting this piece in 1914 gives costume and set designer Robert Perdziola a lot to work with. It’s not terribly often you seen somewhat modern fashion at the Lyric. There are some lovely flapper-flavored looks going on. Nothing quite compares to the second act opening though. A background of venetian boats adorned with twinkling lights opens up to reveal the imposter suitors sailing in to claim their respective victories. The visual against the lovely Mozart music is one of the most arresting moments of the evening.

‘Cosi fan tutte’ is not an opera you’ll find on any before-you-die lists, but it’s an opera worth seeing. While it’s not the shortest show of Lyric’s season, clocking in at just under four hours, it’s definitely the easiest to get into. The music is for everyone, and will leave you feeling warm and tingly.

Through March 16th at Lyric Opera of Chicago. 20 N Wacker Drive. 312-827-5600

 

Published in Theatre in Review
Monday, 05 February 2018 12:09

Review: I Puritani at Lyric Opera of Chicago

There are fewer things in theatre more exciting the curtain going up on the first act of an opera. Often there’s no ceremony or pre-recorded note from management. The lights dim and the overture begins. How enchanting to take your first look at the sumptuous sets and costumes Lyric Opera has created for this production. Pilgrim-chic you might call it. Tradition and form make opera a unique theatrical experience. On a snowy Sunday afternoon, the curtain came up on Bellini’s ‘I Puritani’, signaling to its audience, get comfortable.

Eric Einhorn’s production of Bellini’s drama runs just under four hours with two intermissions. The first act is the longest at eighty minutes. ‘I Puritani’ concerns a Puritan hamlet in which a young princess Elvira (Albina Shagimuratova) chooses another suitor, Arturo, over the pre-arranged marriage to Riccardo (Anthony Clark Evans). Just before the wedding, Arturo obliges himself to save condemned Queen Enrichetta (Lauren Decker). While he’s smuggling her out of the country, word returns to Elvira that her fiancé has run off with another woman. She is devastated and the army pursues him.

Yeah, that’s the plot. Nearly four hours to convey that relatively simple story along with Bellini’s beautiful score. This is why opera is special, because for four hours, we really don’t care what the plot is. For centuries opera was performed without the super script translations, leaving the audience to presume based on summaries in their playbills. Projected translations are used sparingly in this production of ‘I Puritani’ – maybe because the plot is so uncomplicated, they’re not necessary. In any case, they’re certainly not missed and would likely be distracting. What should be paid attention to are these beautiful singers and the gorgeous orchestra.

A significant difference between musical theatre and opera is that the leads are not expected to be great actors. Voice is most important in these roles, especially in Bellini’s works. He believed that a beautiful voice is what stirs audience emotions. He’s not wrong. Though, Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova is a good actress. She’s not heard until the second scene, but her performance is easily the most accessible aspect of this production. Her heartbreak is palpable in voice and gesture regardless of language. Act II is worth the entire afternoon.

As always, the costumes and sets are overwhelmingly beautiful. Haunting imagery is captured by the large cast numbers and soaring melodies. ‘I Puritani’ may lose the attention of its audience during the lengthy solos, but will quickly recapture focus when the whole ensemble fills the stage. Just as exciting as the curtain going up, is the curtain coming down. Opera enthusiasts scream “brava” and beg for more curtain calls, a truly opera-specific tradition. In opera, the energy of the experience sustains the art itself.

Through February 28 at Lyric Opera of Chicago. 20 N Wacker Drive. 312-827-5600

 

Published in Theatre in Review
Friday, 08 December 2017 17:44

Review: 'Turandot' at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Finding love is hard. What someone else wants can sometimes be a riddle, but in the case of Puccini’s ‘Turandot’ it’s quite literal. The Lyric Opera of Chicago welcomes back the classic Eastern-flavored piece that is new to Chicago but has previously been seen in a few other American cities. Directed by Rob Kearley, this quick opera is an intellectual alternative to the scads of warmed-over holiday specials offered by most other theaters in December.

‘Turandot’ is a somewhat culturally insensitive Chinese fairy tale. In it, Princess Turandot (sung by Amber Wagner) is a mysterious princess who asks her suitors to answer three riddles. Failure to answer correctly results in death. She goes through suitors quickly until a non-noble, Calaf (Stefano La Colla), is able to correctly guess the answers. Calaf is beloved by his father’s slave Liu (Maria Agresta), but he blindly persists in his conquest of Turandot.

While Amber Wagner is a vocal sensation, there’s something missing in her performance. Stefano La Colla on the other hand is both a fantastic vocalist as well as a convincing actor, something not exactly mutually exclusive in opera. Though, the evening’s real stand out may well be Maria Agresta who will be singing Liu for the December performance dates. Her Liu is very moving.

Puccini’s score is stunning. This is a more modern opera in that it was first presented in 1926. The rich choral arrangements and individual songs with melodies and harmonies make this sound like a traditional musical. It’s not hard to hear ‘Les Miserables’ in the large cast choruses. The music is strong enough to overshadow the none-too-subtle themes of Orientalism and misogyny.

Thankfully, the set pieces and costumes (which are mostly very tasteful) are the only uses of what some would call “yellow face.” The intricate sets designed by Allen Charles Klein are beautiful. The colors and contrasting layers are dazzling and the perfect companion to the soaring music.

‘Turandot’ was Puccini’s final work and he died before completing it. There’s a well-accepted conclusion written by Alfano based on sketches left behind. Some productions simply end where Puccini ended, but that seems a bit disappointing. Kearley opts for the Alfano conclusion. Operas can feel a little endless for the uninitiated. Have no fear, ‘Turandot’ is a swift and engrossing three hours. This is a great beginner opera for those looking to culture themselves this holiday season.

Through January 27th at Lyric Opera Chicago. 20 N Upper Wacker Dr. 312-332-2244

 

 

Published in Theatre in Review

“I’ve always favored unbridled passions,” sings Wotan in the Lyric Opera’s new production of Richard Wagner’s “Die Walküre” This is the second installment in Wagner’s epic 4-opera cycle “Das Rheingold” Lyric produced the first opera last season and will sequentially include the next two operas in their forthcoming seasons. In 2020, there will be a special presentation of all four productions.

Five hours is a long time to spend in a theater. Wagner is especially challenging for those not particularly versed in classical music. That said, this gorgeous production by David Pountney is well worth the time. If you’re wondering if you needed to see the first opera to understand the second, you absolutely do not. “Die Walküre” is a standalone with a clear conclusion. Most will at least be familiar with “The Ride of the Valkyries”

“Die Walküre” is sung entirely in German with projected subtitles. Try to imagine a time in which there were no subtitles. The plot is very weird, perhaps it was best to only assume what’s going on. Essentially, this is an opera about incest and that seems pretty racy for its 1870 premiere. The music is incredible though, which likely contributed to its cannon status.

The first act is surely what to come for, coincidentally it’s also the shortest. In the first act we meet the incestuous lovers Siegmund (Brandon Jovanovich) and Sieglund (Elisabet Strid). Siegmund rescues Sieglund from an unhappy marriage and wards off her husband with a magical sword only he’s able to pluck from a tree stump. He then impregnates his sister wife, despite that they know they’re related. Insert shrug emoji here. Staging in the first act is pretty sexual for a 19th Century opera. Siegmund’s sword is an obvious phallic symbol and Pountney’s blocking leaves little to the imagination. The blatant eroticism helps spice up the melodrama.

Logically, this affair angers the gods and they send favored Valkyrie Brünnhilde to kill Siegmund. Reknown soprano Christine Goerke reprises the role of Brünnhilde, which she’s previously sung for a few other companies. For those unfamiliar with this opera, it would seem like a bit of a surprise that the story really ends up being about Brünnhilde and her relationship with her father Wotan (Eric Owens). The two shine together in the final act, despite the nearly agonizing repetition of dialogue.

This is an exciting and beautiful production. The aesthetic is almost like an old movie set. The horses upon which the Valkyries fly are hand operated by the ensemble. It makes you wonder, how did Wagner envision this special effect at the time he wrote it? Each scene is darkly lit and costumes are trimmed in red. The time period seems to be undecided as costumes appear to span the decades.

With only seven performances, this special production is a must-see for local opera enthusiasts. For those unfamiliar with opera, attend without trepidation. The production may run just a little under five hours (with two 30-minute intermissions), but the evening seems to fly by.

Through November 30th at Lyric Opera of Chicago. 20 N Wacker Drive. 312-332-2244

 

Published in Theatre in Review

Court jester Rigoletto prefers to hide his misery behind jokes and mockery of others. But it’s not the only thing he hides; his beloved daughter Gilda lives with him unbeknownst to the world; he selfishly keeps her locked away in fear of losing his only joy.

This famous Juiseppe Verdi’s three-act opera is new to Chicago. Directed by E. Loren Meeker, this production brings many great stars to the Lyric Opera’s stage. Quinn Kelsey’s powerful baritone skillfully conveys a wide spectrum of emotions: anger at the world and his character’s disfigurement, despise for the world, yet tender love for his daughter. A Ryan Opera Center alumnus and 2015 winner of the Metropolitan Opera Beverly Sills award, Kelsey’s solemn looks combined with the brassy voice is the perfect fit for the role of the hardened hunchback fighting for his happiness. But the real magic happens when Rigoletto and Gilda first appear together in Act I. The Italian soprano Rosa Feola is divine; the beautiful quality of her voice brings something special to every scene she is in. But it’s the supreme blend of the two voices of the father/daughter duets that create divine auditory harmony. Feola’s character Gilda is innocent and loving; isolated and hidden away in the house by her father, she’s desperate to love romantically. So, when she is encountered by the Duke of Mantua pretending to be a penniless student, she falls in love immediately and fatally.

Tenor Matthew Polennzani is spectacular as Rigoletto’s handsome master, Duke of Mantua. Encouraged by his sharp-tongued court jester, he lusts after every pretty woman in town. Pleasing his master by making fun of the courtiers whose wives and daughters Duke wants to seduce, Rigoletto has no real friends yet many enemies. One of such courtiers, Count Monterone, whose daughter the Duke of Mantua deflowered, gets angry at Rigoletto and places a curse on him. Superstitious Rigoletto takes the curse very seriously; pre-occupied with the old man’s words, he can think of nothing else. The opera’s original title was La maledizione (The Curse); based on Victor Hugo’s play Le Roi s’amuse, Italian libretto by Francesco Maria Piave.

Elegant and rather minimalist, the cleverly designed set has modern feel to it. Set designer Michael Yeargan created clean lines of buildings unburdened by embellishments or much color. Reflective floor surfaces in Acts II and III run into the back wall transforming half the stage into an endlessly large body of water. Seamlessly moving walls and buildings quietly encroach onto Rigolettos’ world as events make turn for the worst.

While we expect operas to be very colorful and the performers extravagantly dressed, the costumes of the current production are disappointedly modest and monochromatic, less Rigolettos’ bright outfit (costume designer Constance Hoffman); it’s sometimes challenging to distinguish characters from one another, especially from far away.

When lonely Gilda is encountered by the Duke of Mantua pretending to be a penniless student, she falls in love with the charming, albeit deceitful, Duke immediately and fatally. The Duke has Gilda abducted and subsequently dishonored. Ashamed, she confesses to Rigoletto, and her vengeful father hires an Assassin in order to kill the Duke. Ukrainian born very capable bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk, though lacking certain viciousness one would expect from an assassin, is nevertheless very good; and together with mezzo-soprano Zanda Svede who plays his accomplice sister Maddalena in the opera, they make a splendid team. Duke of Mantua’s life is spared when Gilda, dressed in mans clothing, sacrifices her life for love. Rigoletto is devastated and realizes that the ‘curse” came true.

Orchestra led by Conductor Marco Armilliato provides live score.

Playing through November 3rd - for more show information visit www.lyricopera.org.

 

Published in Theatre in Review

 

 

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