Bel canto opera stands or falls on the strength of the singing, and by that standard Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production of Donizetti's 1835 tragedy Lucia di Lammermoor stands very tall indeed. From the starring roles down to the chorus, this is a cast that can handle the most demanding material with ease.  

And a good thing, too, because the score is one of Donizetti's richest and most dramatic. From the teeth-rattling choruses that conclude the second act, to the often imitated and even more often parodied aria "Il dolce suono" (a.k.a. "the mad scene"), to the legendary sextet -- a piece so famous that even the Three Stooges and the Warner Brothers cartoon crew knew they could make fun of it without losing the audience -- Lucia provides a treasure trove of great music. The Lyric cast does it full justice with a great performance.

Soprano Albina Shagimuratova is a radiant Lucia, handling Donizetti's most demanding passages with ease. Her mad scene was a thing of vocal beauty, wonderfully controlled and yet thoroughly expressive. Matching her in power and dramatic conviction is tenor Piotr Beczała as Lucia's tragic lover Edgardo, as effective in his tender love duets with Ms. Shagimuratova as he is in the violent Act III tower scene (which is, by the way, as good an example of testosterone poisoning as you'll find anywhere in operatic literature).  

His opponent in that tower scene is Lucia's scheming brother Enrico, sung with menacing force by baritone Quinn Kelsey. I don't think director Graham Vick's decision to make him a shambling drunk adds anything useful but it doesn't really detract either, so overall I can't complain.  

Somewhat less credible is Mr. Vick's decision to make the small role of Arturo -- whom Lucia is forced to marry with tragic results -- into a kind of foppish scarecrow with his arms permanently outstretched as though posing for a painting. It turns his sword fight with Edgardo into inappropriate low comedy. Tenor Jonathan Johnson looks and sounds great in the part, though, which helps.

Bass Adrian Sâmpetrean puts a sympathetic stamp on the role of the chaplain Raimondo. The character is the moral center of the opera and needs to be credible, especially in "Ah, cedi, cedi!" the Act II aria in which he persuades Lucia to agree to the arranged marriage with Arturo. Mr. Sâmpetrean fully delivers the goods.

Tenor Matthew DiBattista, who has done such great work here at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, once again rises to the occasion as the scheming Normanno, whose forged letter from Edgardo helps persuade Lucia to accept the marriage contract with Arturo. Mezzo Linsday Metzger has less vocal power than her fellow cast members but is otherwise a very appealing Alisa, Lucia's confidante.

In his director's note in the program book, Mr. Vick says that he sees Lucia as "a late-classical work." It's an interesting point, but given that the Romantic movement in music was well underway in 1835, I'm not sure I buy it. In any case, his implementation of that view appears to involve fairly static staging and a monochromatic set by designer Paul Brown that consists largely of multiple levels of gray flats that are used to represent all the indoor scenes, from the Great Hall at Lammermoor Castle to the tower of Edgardo's Ravenswood.  

Behind them is a "blasted heath" that Macbeth would have recognized, complete with a eerily crooked tree and an unnaturally large, featureless, and sometimes distractingly mobile moon. Mr. Vick seems fond of that heath, placing much of the opera's action there, even in scenes that are explicitly indoors, like the Act II wedding contract and Lucia's "mad scene." It's especially odd in the latter, since Lucia is supposed to be hallucinating the heath, not wandering about on it.

Mr. Brown's costumes, though, are right on the money. I thought decking the entire Bucklaw clan in blinding white and gold was a nice touch, contrasting strongly with the earth tones of the Lammermoors and Edgardo.

At the podium is Enrique Mazzola, an Italian conductor who, to quote his program bio, is "greatly admired internationally in bel canto." If his work here is any indication, that admiration is richly deserved, as he leads the Lyric Opera Orchestra in an assured and well-paced reading of Donizetti's score.  

Donizetti assigns an important narrative role to the choir, so Chorus Master Michael Black also deserves praise for the powerful and articulate sound of his singers.

The important point is that if bel canto is your thing, you can't go wrong with a production like this one in which all the musical elements are so strong. And despite my misgivings about some of Mr. Vick's decisions, there's no denying that this Lucia packs a real wallop overall. Performances of Lucia di Lammermoor continue through November 6 at at Lyric Opera's home in the magnificent Civic Opera House in the Chicago Loop.

 

It's always good to see a well-sung and expertly played production of Wagner's Ring cycle and the Lyric Opera of Chicago's mounting of Das Rheingold, which opens a four-season run through the entire thing, is certainly that. In addition, the libretto's focus on the cost of abusing power and personal trust feels very relevant in our current political environment.

A high-powered cast is led by bass-baritone Eric Owens, whose solid and voice and dramatic conviction give real gravitas to the role of Wotan, who wakes from his dream of power to learn that the giants Fasolt and Fafner have finished the construction of Valhalla. Bass-baritone Samuel Youn is also compelling as the dwarf Alberich. He's a complex character -- an unscrupulous bully but also wronged by the gods and less deluded than they about the cost of the Ring’s power -- and Mr. Youn gives him real nuance.

Tenor Štefan Margita is a wonderfully wily Loge, making the most of the character's dry, self-aware humor. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner gives impressive voice to Fricka's misgivings over her husband's infidelity and dubious bargains. And tenor Rodell Rosel makes a strong impression as the querulous dwarf Mime.

Soprano Laura Wilde as Freia, tenor Jesse Donner as Froh, and baritone Zachary Nelson as Donner round out the cast of gods very effectively. Soprano Diana Newman, mezzo Annie Rosen, and mezzo Lindsay Ammann perfectly captured the allure and cruelty of the Rheinmaidens. And mezzo Okka von der Damerau was appropriately ominous as Erda.

That said, I wish director David Pountney and his design team had taken the whole project a bit more seriously. They have elected to make all the mechanics visible, bunraku style, so that (for example) the Rheinmaidens in the first scene float around on massive metal platforms manipulated by visible stagehands.

It works well there and in the Nibelheim sequence, which looks fittingly hellish; less so for the giants Fasolt and Fafner, who are nothing but huge platforms with plastic heads and inflatable arms that flop around absurdly. Fafner's murder of Fasolt ought to be chilling, as it's the first evidence of the ring's curse. Here, as the stagehands toss around inflated arms and boots, it just looks goofy. So does having Wotan tear Alberich's arm off to get the ring. Giving the audience a cheap laugh at that point makes no dramatic sense.

Other moments of imposed comedy feel equally out of place. But the concluding entry of the gods into Valhalla retains all of its musical and visual power, with the orchestra's brass ringing out as the gods literally ascend towards their gleaming (if skeletal) home. I'm willing to forgive a lot for that. Besides, the orchestra under the sure hand of Sir Andrew Davis does very well by Wagner's score throughout the evening, and that's a huge plus.

In an interview at the Lyric Opera web site, Mr. Pountney says that his staging of the Ring operas will be “united by a single theatrical device. We keep trying to go back to an empty stage to show, in the end, that this is all just a stage, just a theater. However splendid the effects are, when we roll them up and whisk them away, we go back to an empty stage." I'm not convinced that kind of Brechtian distancing serves Wagner all that well. We'll see how it works for Die Walküre next year.

Performances continue through October 22 at Lyric Opera's home in the magnificent Civic Opera House in the Chicago Loop. Information on Das Rheingold and the rest of the current season is available at their web site.

 

In his own words, contemporary composer John Adams describes his Violin Concerto, written in 1992, as an effort toward a renewed emphasis on melody -- "hypermelody" as he called it.  Adams did not clarify exactly what he meant by the term hypermelody, but it seems he meant it to refer to the effusiveness of the violin figurations that coast above the more muted orchestral underpinnings throughout the work. With Beethoven's Eroica on the second half of the program, the program seems to set up a relationship between heroic boldness and deep introspection. Conductor David Robertson led the St. Louis Symphony in performances of these works, with the phenomenal solo violinist Leila Josefowicz, who has made the Adams concerto her signature work. 

Adams is an enigmatic composer in many ways. He is prone to quoting other composers and has a penchant for dream-like titles that sometimes reference his own family members. It was not long ago that his opera The Death of Klinghoffer, dealing with the murder of an American Jew by Palestinian terrorists on board an Italian cruise ship, triggered a storm of protest at the Metropolitan Opera, since it was perceived by many to favor the Palestinian cause over that of the Israelis. David Robertson conducted Klinghoffer at the Met and has been one of Adams' strongest champions. Adams' work has ranged from meditative minimalism to conventional (banal?) atonalism to innovative melodies and even to occasional touches of traditional harmonies and melodies. However, his Violin Concerto is surely one of his greatest works, building to a phenomenal climax at its close after rising on an ocean of movement in the earlier sections. Among American orchestras and music schools today he seems to hold an almost cult-like significance, but works such as this concerto are worthy of listeners' attention.

With both Canadian and American roots, Leila Josefowicz is one of the most prominent virtuosos onstage today. She plays with fervor, confidence and conviction. It takes a performer such as she to bring life to any contemporary work. She performed the challenging score from memory, demonstrating her total mastery of all its intricacies.  

This concerto is surely challenging to both orchestra and soloist. It requires a firm and confident conductor as well. Robertson clearly understood the work and remained unwavering, as we have grown to expect. There seemed to be some balance problems in the hall. Although Josefowicz has performed this work with eloquence and a deep lyricism, it was sometimes difficult to hear the voice of the violin against the orchestra, primarily in the opening movement. This gave the performance a bit of a rough edge, but it is important to bear in mind that concert halls sometimes offer poor acoustics, despite the best efforts of conductors and engineers.  

Both Adams and Beethoven provide evidence that politics can be risky business for composers. Like many in Europe, Beethoven initially admired Napoleon, seeing him as a savior of the citizens who were oppressed by the crushing weight of the nobility and monarchies. His Symphony No. 3 was dedicated to Napoleon. To Beethoven's horror, Napoleon went on to declare himself an emperor. In disgust, Beethoven ripped the dedication from his copy of the score, declaring, "So he is no more than a common mortal!" However, the symphony remains as one of his greatest works, and one of his most innovative. The grinding dissonant chord in the first movement and the ruminative funeral march have made the symphony famous, along with its soaring themes.

Although both the Adams concerto and the Eroica are characterized by boldness, there is also a great deal of quietness and reflection in both works. Boldness requires confidence and confidence is the product of self-examination. The SLSO captured the essence of both.

Sometimes when the Symphony prepares a particularly challenging contemporary work it becomes noticeable that the more traditional works in the program seem to get short shrift. That did not seem to be the case in this program. The orchestra performed as a unified whole with riveting accuracy. Although every section of the orchestra is magnificent, the horn section and the woodwind section were particularly electrifying in this performance. The audience, although not as large as one might have liked, responded with great enthusiasm to both halves of the concert. The heroes of this program were the performers themselves.

 

 

 

Choral music, particularly when performed by a superb chorus and enhanced by a top-notch orchestra and conductor, can be electrifying. The ocean of sound engulfs the audience, grabbing not only the auditory sense, but the intellect and even the visual sense.  For 76 seasons now, the Bach Society of St. Louis has been providing this experience to enthusiastic audiences in our region. The season opener on October 9, held at the First Presbyterian Church in Kirkwood, was no exception, providing a memorable performance of Mozart's Mass in C Minor, K. 427.

Conductor A. Dennis Sparger, in his 31st season with the Society, has provided solid, recognized leadership and a knowledge of the works performed that goes beyond the mere printed score; in addition to conducting, he writes the program notes for the programs and provides additional items of note from the stage.  

One of the challenges faced by directors of combined large ensembles is the need to achieve balance and blend. Both the chorus and orchestra maintained an elegant organic union throughout the performance, never overpowering each other. Under the direction of Sparger and Assistant Conductor Stephen Eros, the chorus sang as one voice, yet contrapuntal sections were clearly distinguishable and well executed.  

The first half of the program consisted of Beethoven's "Hallelujah" from The Mount of Olives, Op. 85; Mozart's "Ave Verum Corpus"; "Hallelujah, Amen" from Handel's Judas Maccabeus; the "Laudamus Te" from Vivaldi's Gloria; "Wie will ich mich freusen" (How I Will Rejoice) by Bach; as well as a jewel just for orchestra, the famous "Air in G" by Bach, all conducted by Stephen Eros.  The second half of the program directed by A. Dennis Sparger, was devoted to the Mass in C Minor of Mozart, with his "Regina Coeli," K. 276 as a starter.

Eros brings a similar level of professionalism to the podium as does Sparger -- not always the case with guest conductors! Both men direct with confidence and boldness tempered by sensitivity to the music. Dynamic contrasts were noticeable and well prepared, imparting the same excitement to the hushed pianissimos as the reverberating fortissimo sections. Although tempos are often a matter of personal taste, the tempos selected by both conductors throughout the program seemed just right. It was good to hear the "Air in G" and the "Ave Verum Corpus" performed at tempos ever so slightly brisker than usual, thus adding greater definition and contour to the melodies and harmonic movement. Although the magnificent orchestra powered through the hall when necessary, it was still possible to hear violin soloist Susie Thierbach soaring above the orchestra as a single instrumental voice.  

Guest vocal soloists on the program were sopranos Juliet Pertus and Josefien Stoppenlenburg; tenor Steven Soph; and bass-baritone Dashon Burton. All are superb singers and well-matched for the tasks at hand. Very, very occasionally the female soloists were slightly overpowered in a few sections with heavy orchestral backgrounds, but the fluidity and nimbleness of their voices were never lost. Both Soph and Burton possess strong and resonant voices, yet were never lugubrious. Burton adds a strong foundation to any sort of ensemble; we heard to little of his magnificent voice (simply due to the needs of the repertoire), but we hope he will return to St. Louis soon for future performances.

The Mass in C Minor is a complex work, rather like a tapestry of countless strands woven together by Mozart. It is a work of reverence, drama and awe, yet it also carries an air of inner tension (perhaps foreshadowing Mozart's own questioning of faith and power in later life) and even of mystery. Only a genius could bring together such diverse qualities into a masterful whole. Those who are not immediately drawn to the music of Mozart may find that this enormous work provides much to ponder, and may come to see the composer (who wrote this piece while still in his twenties) in a different light. This is music that not only entertains, but challenges our brains as well.

The next performance by the Bach Society of St. Louis will be the Christmas Candlelight Concert held at Powell Hall on December 22.

 

Jolly Haydn and dramatic Beethoven were on tap this past weekend at Powell Hall, in a program made up mostly of music written around 1800.

The concerts opened, appropriately, with an overture -- specifically, the one Mozart wrote for Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), the 1791 Masonic-tinged singspiel that would prove to be his last completed work for the stage.  From the three solemn opening chords to the end of the sprightly and ingeniously constructed Allegro that follows, this is music with an optimism and drive that contrasts sharply with its creator's failing health and fortunes.  

Mr. Robertson gave those opening chords a kind of dramatic poignancy that reminded me of that contrast, then followed it up with an energetic and expertly shaped reading of the body of the overture. It was the kind of performance that lends credence to critic Jeff Counts' characterization of the piece as "the most rewarding six minutes in music," especially when played with such crystalline precision.

Up next was Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37. The work had its premiere at a mammoth 1803 concert that included his Symphony No. 2 and his oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives. The orchestra was second rate and Beethoven hadn't finished writing out the piano part, playing it instead from memory as Gershwin did at the first performance of Rhapsody in Blue.  Subsequent performances were better received, and the concerto is now widely seen as the composer's first truly mature work for piano and orchestra.

The Beethoven revealed here is the dramatic and heaven-storming Beethoven of popular legend. The hushed expectation of the ascending string motif at the beginning soon gives way to high drama with the entrance of the soloist playing music which, as the movement progresses, pushes the capabilities of 1803 piano technology to its limits.  The lyrical second movement and energetic finale, with its unexpected fugal passages, are clearly the work of a composer fully in command of his idiom.

Soloist Yefim Bronfman, whose prodigious technique has impressed me in the past, delivered everything the score promises. He gave us all the fierce intensity of that first movement, culminating in a particularly dramatic cadenza, with its tranquil final trill leading to a strikingly impassioned coda.  

The second movement, which included some fine playing by Principal Flute Mark Sparks and Associate Principal Bassoon Andy Gott, sang as it should, and the final Rondo was completely engaging. In short, Mr. Bronfman and Mr. Robertson gave us a Beethoven third that bodes well for the rest of the complete cycle of Beethoven piano concerti that the SLSO is doing this season.

The second half of the program leapt ahead in time to 1997 with Viola, Viola by English composer George Benjamin (b. 1960). This intimate piece for two violas is the product of a composer who, like Beethoven, continually revises and reworks his pieces until he's sure they're just right. Over the course of its ten minutes, the instruments converse, argue, and finally combine so seamlessly that it can be hard to tell them apart.  

It was fun to watch the impressive virtuoso interplay between the wife and husband team of Beth Guterman Chu (Principal Viola) and Jonathan Chu (Assistant Principal Viola) here, but the score itself struck me as a bit arid. I came away feeling that I had admired a neat bit of musical clockwork.

The concert concluded with a wonderfully good-humored romp through Haydn's Symphony No. 102 in B-flat major. First performed in 1795, it was written for the second of two highly successful London engagements in the 1790s. By then Haydn's audiences were increasingly drawn from the educated middle class rather than the aristocracy, and like any good showman, he knew what they wanted: novelty, invention, surprise and a healthy dollop of good humor.

"Haydn's 102nd, just like all of his London symphonies," wrote Tom Service in a 2013 article for The Guardian, "consecrates a moment in symphonic history when this composer and his listeners were in excellent, mutually appreciative accord, a bond that's renewed every time this symphony is played or listened to today." Mr. Robertson's performance honored that bond in both audible and visual ways. This was especially true in the finale, in which Haydn playfully throws snippets of the melody back and forth between sections like a game of musical tennis. Mr. Robertson followed those leaps with his head like a spectator at Wimbledon, to the obvious amusement of the audience. Purists might object to those sorts of hijinks, but I think Haydn would have loved it.

And all this was, in any case, in the service of a very knowing and idiomatic performance, with the usual high level of playing from the members of the band. I was very much taken with Principal Cello Danny Lee's work in the Adagio second movement as well as the flutes, oboes, and bassoons in the trio section of the comically off-center third movement Menuet.

Mr. Robertson clearly understands both Haydn's humor and inventiveness. I'd like to see him take on more of the composer's symphonies in the future.

Next at Powell: David Robertson conducts with violin soloist Leila Josefowicz on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., September 30 and October 1. The program consists of John Adams's Violin Concerto and Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 also known as the Eroica.  

 

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