Sold Out?! Duh. What Was I Thinking?

MetsonnambulaI’ve really wanted to attend one of the Metropolitan Opera HD live broadcasts so when I recently learned that the critically acclaimed production of Bellini’s La Sonnambula was on the schedule I was thrilled. Natalie Dessay is one of my very favorite performers and I was curious to see Mary Zimmerman’s staging.

Unfortunately (and because I’m an idiot), my excitement didn’t translate into action. It didn’t occur to me until now that it might be a good idea to buy tickets in advance. You know, like you would for a LIVE performance of a ONE DAY ONLY production. Checking the Fandango website I see it’s sold out. Probably has been for weeks. Duh. Duh. And double duh.

Well, now I know better for next time. And I just gained three hours back on Saturday. Bother.

Tragic Love Suitable for a Valentine’s Day Weekend

By coincidence, my weekend was choc-full of unrequited love, betrayal, passionate revenge, and romantic tragedy. Happy Valentine’s Day!

It began with my reading (nearly in one sitting) of Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton’s classic tale of snow-bound, star-crossed tragic love. Otherwise known as happy times in New England. Or, let’s go sledding! (Review to come.)


Saturday I attended the opening night performance of Lyric Opera’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. Known in opera circles as “Cav/Pag,” these two one-act Italian operas were the perfect anecdote to a sappy Valentine’s Day. No sailing off into the sunset happy endings here. Betrayal, adultery, despair, madness, and a few rounds of deadly knife play. True love.

The staging is the same that I’d seen a number of years ago, but still well worth seeing again. Guang Yang, as Santuzza in Cav was wonderful and the music was beautiful. Set in 19th-century Calabria, the sets and costumes were wonderful, with kids and chorus members aplenty, giving the audience much to see and hear.

This production of Pag is given an effective post-war Italian update. The action centers around a group of traveling players, complete with stilt-walkers, clowns and jugglers so there’s lots of fun stage business going on. Mark Delavan was good in his double bill as Alfio in the first and Tonio in the second opera, and Vladimir Galouzine as Canio had the audience with his famous aria, containing perhaps the most well known two lines in opera history. (It comes at about the two minute mark in this clip.) It was funny to note as well, when so many death scenes in opera go on and on and on, the deaths that conclude each of these one-acts come right at the end, barely before the final curtain hits the floor. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am.

To round out my Valentine weekend, I started reading Birchwood, a remarkable Gothic Irish novella by John Banville. Riveting prose and about as romantic as Mr. Rochester’s first marriage.

Not Your Father’s Don Giovanni

I came out of the opening night performance of Chicago Opera Theater’s brutal new production of Don Giovanni feeling like I’d been pummeled. I didn’t know whether I wanted to take a shower or have a stiff drink. Or both.

My friend Karen said it best when she described the feeling as if we’d just gotten off a long ride on a skanky late night el. Imagine Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut meets Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and you have an idea of this relentless interpretation of Mozart’s opera.

Lothario Don Giovanni is portrayed as a serial date rapist who presides over a dark S&M club where masked guests cavort. Donna Elvira, one of the many women Don Giovanni has seduced and abandoned (this production tallies the number at 1,003) is a dominatrix who still loves the man, knowing how horrible he is. The young couple of Zerlina and Masetto, (inexplicably choosing a sex club to host their pre-wedding party) are like Janet and Brad in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (or Tom Cruise in EWS); innocent fish out of water until they get sucked into the depravity.

Singing and acting by the featured cast is excellent across the board. Iain Paterson is a commanding presence in the title role and Matt Boehler was excellent as DG’s right-hand man Leporello. Unfortunately, I’d have trouble recommending this version of Don Giovanni to anyone other than hardcore (no pun intended) Mozart fans who don’t mind a lurid interpretation of the classic.

Let me be clear here. Don Giovanni is not a nice guy and many the contemporary production soft-peddles the brutal, aggressive behavior of a guy who makes sport of violating women. But when it comes to simulated sex and violence on stage, a little can go a long way.

In my opinion, the grim, unrelenting production values overshadowed the music and so it didn’t work for me. And yet, I’m glad I saw it. You’ll never get me to criticize COT for trying. I’m a season ticket subscriber for the very fact that their productions can be counted on to push the envelope, not just for what they choose to present but how they do it. Creative staging, sets and lighting, not to mention high quality singing and acting, is what I’ve come to expect from COT.

COT recently announced this production will mark an exciting Chicago first. On May 9th, Don Giovanni will be simulcast on a big screen in Millennium Park. As I sat in the audience last night, I kept thinking how the heck are they going to present this racy material in such a public venue.

A Memorable Moment

Last month I saw a performance of John Adam’s Doctor Atomic at Lyric Opera and I delayed in writing about it and then forgot to post the damn thing! So, while there’s no chance of seeing this in Chicago (performances concluded last month) I did still want to record the experience–

This isn’t my favorite type of music and I won’t be adding a recording of the opera to my iPod, but I’m always glad to see a new opera, especially when it takes on a topic like the testing of the first atomic weapon at Los Alamos. The music was quite beautiful; my problem is when the voices come in and sound as if they’re singing a different melody altogether than the orchestra. The staging (by celebrated director Peter Sellars) was creative and engaging, culminating in an amazing bit of theater using soundscapes, music, dance and slow-motion performance to evoke the momentous first bomb blast. When the last sound died away, there was a full minute of absolute, chilling silence before the applause–it was one of the most powerful moments I’ve ever experienced in live performance.

In January…

I Read

  • A 750 page book (The Way We Live Now, review to come) which I really enjoyed. A great way to kick off the reading year.

I Marveled At

  • Renee Fleming singing in Lyric Opera’s final performance of Verdi’s La Traviata. She was incredible. The perfect combination of rich, pure voice and passionate acting. Baritone Thomas Hampson was also amazing.
  • The exhibition Maps: Finding Our Place in the World at the Field Museum, an impressive display of 100 important maps, spanning from 1300 BC through today’s GPS. This diverse collection explored the many incarnations of a map, incorporating history, science, geography, social history, exploration, and art. There were maps drawn by Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Leonardo Da Vinci, Charles Lindberg and Ambrose Bierce. Maps made out of sticks to chart the swells in the seas around the Marshall Islands and a map of Greenland’s coast carved from a piece of wood. There were gorgeous Japanese maps from the Edo period, a map of Lewis and Clark’s journey made by a member of the expedition, the map of British and French territories in North America presented to King George II, and Captain Cook’s chronometer! Unfortunately…the exhibit closed last weekend

I Whacked the Heck Out of a Plastic Baby Doll

  • Learning first aid in a class on infant choking and CPR. I pray I never have to use any of it.

I Said Goodbye to a Dear Fuzzy Friend

  • Handsome Zach, one of the finest felines you could ever hope to meet, passed away two weeks ago. Zach would have been 20 in March and that yowling bundle of personality had enough spirit in him for three cats, until a damned inoperable tumor developed this past fall. I’d known Zach since he was a kitten fresh off a horse farm in Indiana. He popped right out of the basket, marched around—I was in grad school then (a lifetime ago!) and sharing an apartment with Karen—and he made the place his own in about five minutes. He eventually went to live in Chicago but I saw him all the time and he often came to visit, staying with me when Karen would go out of town. Two weeks ago, Karen had to make that difficult trip to the vet with Zach, and Jen and I went with her. It was obviously the right time, but it’s still so hard to do. Zach was a wonderful cat and he’s greatly missed by us all.

Lyric Opera: All Hail Julius Caesar

NaBloPoMo, Day 26

I had a fantastic night at the opera last Saturday. Expectations were high going in to Handel’s Julius Caesar, which has garnered rave reviews. On the other hand, it’s always with a tad bit of trepidation that I take my seat for any opera with a running time that breaks the four-hour mark.

The performance was fantastic and the four-and-a-half hours flew by. Everything about this production was a revelation: Strong singing and acting (there wasn’t a weak performance in the group); gorgeous, colorful sets, lighting and costumes; whimsical choreography; and a solid performance by the orchestra led by Emmanuelle Haim, Lyric Opera’s first ever female conductor.

The production (originally created for Glyndebourne Festival Opera) updates the Caesar and Cleopatra story to around the turn of the 19th-century. Caesar’s troops are dressed as British soldiers and his military force includes battleships and zeppelins. Cleopatra is sultry and exotic in a variety of outfits from Egyptian courtesan, to sexy flapper, and finally as a version of Marie Antoinette. It all works.

Danielle de Niese nearly steals the show as Cleopatra in her Lyric Opera debut. She’s absolutely fantastic. Her beautiful voice is equally matched by a captivating stage presence. If it weren’t for the Baroque music, you’d almost think you were at a contemporary Broadway show when she’s on stage, with the amount of movement and choreography she employs while singing. The audience loved her.

Handel’s music can be a bit repetitive. Characters tend to sing something and then they sing it again and sometimes, they’ll sing it once more. There aren’t many duets or trios in Handel operas; most of the singing is done solo. If two characters do sing together, it tends to be a back-and-forth sort of thing. Very occasionally do you have a group sing together. So for some (myself included) this style of opera can get a tad tedious. This production of Julius Caesar avoids any hint of boredom, giving the audience much to look at and enjoy in addition to the music. Choreography, stage fighting, musicians performing on stage–Caesar (countertenor David Daniels) and a violinist serenading from on stage have a stunning “duet” together–and the intensity of the lead performances keeps you riveted to the characters and their outcome.

In general, Handel’s music is not my favorite. It’s pretty, but I prefer it in small doses. It all tends to sound the same to me after a while. My taste in opera leans more toward multiple voices melding together, the more the merrier. So it’s been a continual surprise to me through the years that many of my past favorites have been Handel operas. Xerxes (another gorgeous set) and Alcina (with a knock-out Renee Fleming) were amazing productions that stand out in my mind years later. Now, add to that list Julius Caesar.

I was also surprised to learn that this is the first time Julius Caesar has ever been performed by Lyric Opera. Based on what I saw Saturday night, critical acclaim, and the sold-out run, I doubt this is the last Chicago’s seen of this opera or this production.

Saturday 3 p.m.

NaBloPoMo, Day 25


Preparing a snack bag for last night’s marathon opera. Four-and-a-half hours of Handel’s Julius Caesar at Lyric Opera. (Blog post to come, but in one word–amazing!) Left-over Halloween candy, a dark chocolate turkey from Piron, and a banana.

This Week…

I Saw

  • La Boheme at Lyric Opera. A crowd pleaser, as always, but come on–after twenty years of recycling the same sets and costumes, why can’t they spring for a new look! I’ve seen this particular production three times now. On the plus side, we were treated to the Lyric Opera debut of Elaine Alvarez, who stepped into the lead role of Mimi after Angela Gheorghiu was fired days before opening night for missing too many rehearsals and blowing off her costume fittings. A real 42nd Street story.

I Infected Myself

  • With the flu virus, as I have every year for the past eight years or so.

I Waited

  • In the cold for over 2.5 hours last Friday for the Nicor gas man to show up in response to our “emergency” call.

I Learned

  • That no one wants to quickly resolve your water heater replacement issue when it’s “under warranty” and hence, no one stands to make any money off the deal. I also learned that the terms for voiding a warranty are be debatable, as the manufacturer of my water heater and the establishment where I purchased it duke it out. Meanwhile, I’m entering week two without hot water.

I “Read”

  • The last of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on audio book. Excellent. Thoroughly entertaining. While I can’t imagine replacing actually reading the Harry Potter books a first time with listening to them, this is a great way to revisit the story.

I Ate

  • Tasty maki specials at Indie Cafe on Broadway. Time and again, the best sushi in town.

I Bought

  • A circular polarizing filter for my D50 and I can’t wait to try it out. Now if the fall colors would just start turning around here!

Have a great weekend all!

Would You Go See This Opera If I Called It Musical Theater?

Chicago Opera Theater, Chicago’s other opera company, has another terrific production up (Beatrice et Benedict by Berlioz), audiences and critics love it–and yet they continue to struggle to fill the house. How can this be?

I find it hard to believe that this fine city can’t support a second opera company. COT focuses on modern and rarely produced productions from all eras of music; their offering is eclectic and always worth seeing. If you have any interest in music or performance, these productions are well worth seeing. And at only three productions per season (versus Lyric’s eight production a year), it’s not a tremendous investment of time or money.

COT’s 2007 season has been terrific. Each of the three productions have been well played, beautifully sung, extremely well acted (not always a given in opera), and I’ve been wowed time and again by the creative staging and light direction across the board. This year, everything seemed to be clicking for COT: Great productions, star talent (both rising and established, like Samuel Ramey in the recent production of Duke Bluebeard), and great critical reviews. And yet, I read on COT General Director Brian Dickie’s blog that “COT remains in a perilous state.” How can that be?!

Come on folks. All you in the Chicago area who love theater and music. You’ve already seen Wicked twice. Give COT a try. Their current production of B&B, running this Thursday and Saturday, is as great a way as any to get introduced to COT (or opera for that matter.) Here’s a musical adaptation of the Shakespeare play (a romantic comedy!), updated to the 1940s, sung in French with projected English supertitles, the music is ABSOLUTELY BEAUTIFUL, the staging is clever, the acting is strong, and lead Sandra Eddy has a captivating, rich voice. That old cliché “It’s a real crowd pleaser” definitely applies here.

Think of it as classical musical theater, if you must. If you’re at all curious, I strongly urge you to give this production a try. You’ll never have a better entrée into opera.

Review: The Return of Ulysses

Chicago Opera Theater kicked off their 2007 season last night with a fantastic new production of a 400-year-old opera. (Think about that for a minute–how cool is it to see an opera written in 1640?) Unless you’re averse to 17th-century music, I can’t think of a reason not to highly recommend Ulysses. Strong performances (with equal parts great acting and singing), inventive direction by Diane Paulus, gorgeous lighting design, and a deceptively simple set really brings this production to life.

The story is taken from Homer’s Odyssey and concerns Ulysses’ return after twenty years away fighting in the Trojan war. His faithful wife Penelope (an outstanding Marie Lenormand) grieves for his return, surrounded by drunken suitors all vying to win her hand. Orchestrated by the gods, Ulysses disguises himself as a beggar to safely make the final leg of his journey home.

The set is a standout, created by world renowned architect Rafael Vinoly who designed the recently completed the Graduate School of Business at the U of C. His set of multi-level, interconnected white boxes and stairways subtly transforms from an island into a palace and then a mountainside, awash in lush colors of light that paint a beautiful scene. Folding doors allow for dramatic entrance and exit, and a trap door in the stage functions as Penelope’s bath and then a roiling cavern that swallows up a man. The entire island set is placed on material that billows from beneath to simulate waves lapping the shore and creates a particularly beautiful effect when combined with dry ice.

Across the board, the singing and acting is top notch. Lenormand’s Penelope has a strong, clear voice that beautifully conveys her misery and commands the stage each time she sings. Robert Burt makes the most of his rollicking role as the gluttonous Iro. To single out others, would really mean listing the entire cast.

The score by Claudio Monteverdi sounds wonderful coming from a small pit of musicians playing on period instruments. (Including not one but two of these amazing looking stringed instruments!) There are only four more performances, currently running at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park. (COT information here.)

Next on the COT program: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle starring Samuel Ramey!