We arrived in Chicago the last weekend in February just in time for the final night of Lyric Opera's splendid production of Vincenzo Bellini's Norma. With a truly memorable performance by soprano Sondra Radvanovsky in the absurdly demanding title role and a first-rate supporting cast, this was a demonstration of just how compelling a great bel canto opera can be.
The role of Norma, the Druid high priestess who loves neither wisely nor well, is widely regarded as one of the most difficult roles in the repertoire. It's a big part, and not just because of its length; its wide emotional and musical range requires a daunting combination of vocal flexibility, physical stamina, solid acting ability, and a dynamic stage presence. From the moment she first appears on stage, we must believe that this is someone who could command an army as well as the passionate attachment of a Roman general.
Ms. Radvanovsky had everything the role required. Her "Casta Diva" brought down the house with wild applause and spontaneous shouts of "Brava!" She was imperious. She was conflicted. She raged, sighed, and swooned -- and all with a wonderfully seamless and powerful voice.
She was backed up by an equally stunning cast headed by tenor Russell Thomas as the feckless Roman general Pollione and mezzo Elizabeth DeShong as the young priestess Adalgisa -- a part almost as demanding as that of Norma.
Riccardo Frizza made an impressive Lyric conducting debut and stage director Kevin Newbury brought the drama to vivid life. Under Michael Black's direction, the chorus was splendid, as always.
This Norma was as pleasing to the eye as it was to the ear, with David Korins's sets and Jessica Jahn's costumes evoking a kind of Game of Thrones version of Roman Empire-era Gaul.
Norma ended its run on Friday, February 24, but the Lyric Opera season continues until late May, with productions of Carmen, Eugene Onegin, and beginning in late April, My Fair Lady. All performances are at the Civic Opera House in the Chicago Loop.
It was all Bach all the time this weekend at the St. Louis Symphony as Bernard Labadie returned to conduct all four of the composer's orchestral suites. Working without a score, Mr. Labadie gave us lively and nuanced interpretations of these works, and he got excellent playing from the orchestra.
Like many of the great composers of his time, Bach often worked for the government. Three of the four orchestral suites, in fact, were most likely written originally for the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen (where Bach was the resident composer and music director from 1717 to 1723) and then revised for the Leipzig Collegium Musicum (a semi-professional ensemble that the composer directed from 1729 through 1741). The fourth (the Suite No. 3, BWV 1068) was written expressly for the Collegium.
All four are essentially dance suites, a form that was highly popular in Bach's day. Each of the suites begins with a short "French overture" (the name possibly refers to the fact that the form first appears in the operas of Jean Baptiste Lully) consisting of majestic opening followed by a fast fugal section. That's followed by collection of popular dances of the period -- Courante, Gavotte, Menuet and so on.
If some of the recordings of the Bach suites in my collection are any indication, it's easy to treat this music as weighty stuff. Even in his "light" music, after all, Bach couldn't stop being a genius at counterpoint. But Mr. Labadie's fleet-footed and engaging interpretations never allowed us to lose sight of this music's terpsichorean roots.
Each of the four suites had its share of delightful moments. In the Suite No. 1 in C major, for example, I was very taken with the wonderfully precise work from oboists Jelena Dirks and Michelle Duskey and bassoonist Andrew Cuneo in the "Overture" and "Bourée" of the first suite. I loved the whirling energy of the "Fourlane" movement as well.
Next was the Suite No. 3 in D major, which included an impressive solo by Concertmaster David Halen in the fast section of the "Overture" and solid work by Mike Walk and the other members of the trumpet section. The famous second movement "Air" got a loving, almost Romantic treatment from Mr. Labadie, which made for a nice contrast with the brisk "Overture" that preceded it.
After intermission, Principal Flute Mark Sparks took the spotlight for the Suite No. 2 in B minor. Scored for strings, harpsichord, and solo flute, the suite feels more like a concerto and offers plenty of opportunities for the soloist to strut his stuff -- which Mr. Sparks did with great authority. The intimate "B" section of the "Polonaise," with Mr. Sparks backed up only by the continuo (harpsichord and cello), was especially lovely, and the "Badinerie" finale, taken at a somewhat faster tempo than usual, was a real tour de force.
The evening came to a rousing conclusion with the Suite No. 4 in D major. With added oboes, trumpets, and tympani it is, as Paul Schiavo writes in his program notes, "the most lavishly scored of his four suites." Encountering it at the end of an evening of works scored for smaller ensembles (and immediately after the far more intimate second suite), it was easy to understand how it might have sounded to an eighteenth-century audience: big, bold, and festive. Mr. Labadie and the band gave it an appropriately energized and appealing treatment, with great playing all the way around.
Next at Powell Hall: Stéphane Denève conducts the orchestra along with piano soloist Steven Osborne in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 and Richard Strauss's massive Alpine Symphony on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., March 10 and 11. The concert takes place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center.
Or perhaps, the Bible meets Shakespeare. If you think about it, both Shakespeare and the Judeo-Christian Bible present a vast panorama of the human condition. The drama and pathos of what it means to be human were vividly portrayed in the three works comprising the program: the Overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor by Otto Nicolai, Edward Elgar's Falstaff: Symphonic Study in C Minor, and the oratorio Belshazzar's Feast by William Walton.
The three works were also united by a British thread that wove them together. Both The Merry Wives of Windsor and Elgar's Falstaff derive from Shakespeare's plays, and Elgar and Walton both hailed from England. Although both the Nicolai and Elgar works portray the life of Sir John Falstaff, each depicted very different aspects of his life. Nicolai's tuneful, soaring overture contrasted beautifully to the rhythmic and dramatic boldness of Elgar, with the pairing illustrating the fact that human life is indeed complex, often filled with comedy, tragedy and the entire host of emotions.
William Walton's grand oratorio, however, fairly well burst with high drama, shock and awe as it recounted the biblical story of a great king brought to his knees by the judgment of God, demonstrating once again the unparalleled ability of music to bring human experience to life as no other medium can. The irrepressible energy of the work, ignited by a battery of percussion and brass and narrated by a dynamically charged chorus and bass soloist, made it easy to forget that the action of the story must be viewed in the listener's own head, not on stage.
Guest conductor Sir Andrew Davis led the orchestra, the Symphony Chorus and bass John Relyea. Davis is an extremely expressive conductor, and also an introspective one, probing deeply with refined gestures almost like a skilled sculptor. One got the feeling that at times the musicians found it difficult to follow his every move, but Davis produced an overall effect of power and intense energy. Despite the common themes of the selections on the program, they represented a varied lot. Davis demonstrated his versatility as a conductor as he worked his way from melodic Romantic moments into 20th century idioms.
Under the guidance of director Amy Kaiser, the Symphony Chorus through the years has tackled increasingly difficult works. Belshazzar's Feast made strong dynamic and rhythmic demands on the singers. Many choruses would have found this work daunting, but the Chorus performed the work handily. Walton's work exudes moments of profound originality and subtle craftsmanship, yet at other times he narrowly escapes falling into the trap of the bold yet forgettable rhythms of the mid-20th century that became banal despite their brashness. However, the Symphony Chorus maintained a steadiness of tone, diction and sheer strength that never failed to support Walton's musical ideas.
Bass soloist John Relyea possesses an ideal voice for works such as Belshazzar's Feast. His registers are full-bodied, and more colorful than we sometimes expect from a bass. He projected well in Powell Hall and connected well with the audience. At this performance, his voice seemed to embody drama more thoroughly than tonal warmth, but it could be argued that that is precisely what the score called for.
The beauty of the works selected lies in the fact that they challenge the ears and the intellect but do not alienate them. Audiences are remarkably resilient if they understand what composers are attempting to accomplish. Although the literary allusions helped convey the musical effect, each work on this program spoke with its own voice, standing upon the foundation of traditional musical language, yet building upon it and expanding it, each in its own way.
My wife Sherry once observed that the phrase "men behaving badly" could summarize the stories of most of opera's core repertory. Tchaikovsky's 1879 Eugene Onegin, a powerful production of which runs through March 20 at Lyric Opera of Chicago, would certainly be a classic example.
The self-absorbed protagonist, to quote Wikipedia's pithy plot summary, "lives to regret his blasé rejection of a young woman's love and his careless incitement of a fatal duel with his best friend." He could easily become tiresome, but the fact that Pushkin was able to make this callow fellow the basis for a beloved verse novel is a tribute to his genius. The fact that Tchaikovsky and his librettist Konstantin Shilovsky turned that novel into a moving work for the stage is a tribute to theirs.
Lyric Opera's production originated with the Met in New York back in 1997. It has been revived often since then and even set down for posterity on DVD in 2007. Paula Suozzi is credited with directing the current production, based on Robert Carsen's original, and the results are impressive, to say the least. Blocking flows from and enhances the characters, pacing is always right, and the stage pictures created are visually striking.
Michael Levine's minimal set contributes a great deal to the compelling look of this show. Using only furniture on a bare stage to indicate time and place, it forcefully underscores the emotional aridity of Onegin's world. Covering the stage with brightly colored autumn leaves for the opening scenes in the countryside, meanwhile, emphasizes the contrast of that world with Onegin's.
Those wonderful visuals wouldn't be worth much without a great cast, of course, and Lyric certainly has that. Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecheń's Onegin is properly cool and even a bit arrogant at first as he rejects the amorous advances of the young and naïve Tatiana, which makes his emotional breakdown at the end of the opera that much more effective. His potent voice rings with true authority.
Tenor Charles Castronovo is his friend Lensky, whom Onegin kills in a duel after an absurd argument caused by an innocent bit of flirtation on the part of Onegin and Lensky's love Olga. His first act confession of love for Olga was heartfelt and beautifully sung, as was the famed second act monolog in which he contemplates his impending death in the duel. Both were enthusiastically received by the audience at the premiere, with shouts of "bravo" after the latter.
Perhaps the best-known number in the entire opera in the Act I "letter" scene in which Tatiana recklessly declares her infatuation with Onegin. Tchaikovsky is said to have very much identified with Tatiana's hopelessly thwarted passion (being gay in a sexually repressive culture will do that to a person) and has given the character some of the most dramatic and compelling music in the opera.
Soprano Ana María Martínez is Lyric's Tatiana and while she clearly looks much older than the character's nineteen years in Act I, she acted the role with complete conviction. When she dashed about the stage in giddy abandon after pouring out her heart in her letter to Onegin, she was so obviously the hormone-fueled adolescent that suspension of disbelief was automatic. She also used all the colors of her wide-ranging voice to brilliantly illuminate this crucial scene.
Russian mezzo Alisa Kolosova was equally credible as Tatnia's sister Olga, brimming with youthful optimism. Her cool, fluid voice was a perfect fit for the part.
Eugene Onegin opens with a bit of wistful comedy as Tatiana's mother Larina and the family nurse Filipyevna peel apples and reminisce about the former's days as a fashionable young girl, before marriage turned her into a member of the landed gentry in the country where "heaven sends us habit to take the place of happiness". Mezzos Katharine Goeldner and Jill Grove, respectively, were impeccable in those roles, hitting just the right balance of humor and nostalgia.
There are a couple of plum cameo parts in the opera as well, the most notable being that of Prince Gremin, the middle-aged general whom Tatiana, following in her mother's dutiful footsteps, eventually marries. Russian bass Dmitry Belosselskiy captured all the character's emotional warmth and calm, ethical center as he tells Onegin of his love for Tatiana in a touching and lyrical aria. At passionate length, he muses that she is a welcome change from the shallow, insincere, and morally questionable characters that he's obliged to deal with on a regular basis -- characters, in short, rather like Onegin. It was a truly memorable performance, sung with great authority and real power even in the lowest notes.
The other great cameo is foppish Triquet, whose little French language serenade to Olga at her name-day party offers a brief respite from the raging hormone- and vodka-fueled battle that leads to the fatal duel between Lensky and Onegin. Tenor Keith Jameson sang the role with just the right light lyricism and made the character just affected enough to be amusing without falling over into cheap comedy.
The chorus serves an important narrative function in Onegin, especially in the famous Act II waltz, so kudos to Chorus Mater Michael Black for getting such a clear and crisp sound from his thoroughly professional singers. Down in the pit Alejo Pérez, making his American debut, conducted a warm and very convincing account of Tchaikovsky's score.
When Tchaikovsky wrote what he described as "lyrical scenes" from the famous novel (he declined to label it an opera), it was with the understanding that his Russian audience would fill in all the narrative gaps and backstory between those scenes. Now, the place and culture that produced Eugene Onegin may be forever beyond our grasp, but Lyric's excellent production bridges the gap and brings the powerful emotions home.
Performances of Lyric Opera of Chicago's Eugene Onegin continue through March 20 at the Civic Opera House in the Chicago Loop.
This weekend's St. Louis Symphony concerts (January 27-29) are the last regular subscription series programs before Maestro David Robertson and the orchestra leave for a tour of Spain in February. If what I heard Friday night is any indication, they'll do so (to quote Mr. Wordsworth) "trailing clouds of glory."
The evening was classic Robertson in every respect, beginning with the order structure of the evening: two audience favorites surrounding a new work getting its American premiere, thereby guaranteeing that the audience would at least give the new piece a chance.
It was smart programming, because the work in question -- Rolf Wallin's 2011 Fisher King for trumpet and orchestra -- doesn't have a lot of immediate appeal. In a program note on his publisher's web site Wallin, a trumpet player himself, notes that the work deals in part with "the love/hate instrument of my childhood and youth" and is "about visiting some dark places."
I found the piece suffused with an underlying sense of anxiety, with horror movie-style gliding passages in the strings and a challenging solo part with lots of nervous trills and aggressively rapid passages calling for plenty of double-tonguing and nimble fingers. There are even sections in which the score indicates a range of notes and it's left up to the soloist to decide which ones to actually play. It's fascinating stuff, especially for a former brass player like yours truly, but if the conversations I overheard in the lobby during intermission were any indication, it was not particularly well received by the audience, who apparently found it a bit monotonous.
But what a remarkable performance it got from the orchestra and soloist Håkan Hardenberger! Working with two different trumpets (a standard instrument for most of the concerto and a piccolo trumpet for the brief coda), Mr. Hardenberger navigated this difficult score with ease and authority. His tone, in the rare moments when his instrument was unmuted, was clean and clear. For the most part, though, we heard it filtered through a variety of mutes, reflecting the composer's desire to counteract the instrument's extroverted musical personality.
The two familiar works bracketing Fisher King were the 1945 suite from Aaron Copland's 1944 ballet Appalachian Spring and Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A major, op. 92. Both were performed with that mix of attention to orchestral detail and keen understanding of musical architecture that we have come to expect from Mr. Robertson over the years.
The Copland was classic Robertson, with enthusiastic yet precise podium choreography and pristine playing by the orchestra and impeccable solos from the principals. From the serene opening pages to the big treatment of "Simple Gifts" to the quiet finale, this was a performance that will represent the orchestra well when it's presented in Madrid next month.
It was the Beethoven that really brought down the house, though. Conducting without a score, Mr. Robertson brought this familiar music to new life, finding novel approaches to the piece without in any way imposing on it. Playing the Allegretto second movement attacca (without pause) after the first, for example, shed new light on both movements--and provoked spontaneous applause both Friday and Saturday night. Crescendos were beautifully shaped and tempo choices were relaxed enough to make every detail clear but still brisk enough to keep Beethoven's momentum going.
This was, in short, exactly the sort of thing that made Mr. Robertson so welcome when he joined the SLSO as music director in 2003, and it's why I will be sorry to see him go in 2019. His work with the orchestra reminds me in many ways of the good old days of Leonard Slatkin, and that's saying something.
The concerts conclude with an unscheduled encore, which is presumably going to Spain with the orchestra as well: the "Ritual Fire Dance" from de Falla's ballet El amor brujo. That got a rousing round of applause as well.
The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra leaves the first week in February for its 2017 Spain Tour with dates in València, Madrid, and Oviedo. Regular concerts resume February 24 and 25 as Sir Andrew Davis conducts the orchestra and chorus in Walton's Belshazzar's Feast along with Elgar's Falstaff and the overture to Nicolai's Merry Wives of Windsor.