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.

 

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. 

 

"It's not where you start," runs a Dorothy Fields lyric from the 1973 musical Seesaw, "it's where you finish. It's not how you go, it's how you land." If the fifteenth and final symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich is any indication, the great Russian composer's own landing was bleak and despairing, but this past weekend's performance by the dynamic Russian conductor Andrey Boreyko and the St. Louis Symphony was gripping nevertheless.

That's impressive because Shostakovich's Symphony No. 15 in A major -- written in 1971 from a hospital bed as the composer was being treated for the lung cancer that would kill him four years later -- is not easy music for the listener or the performers. 

For the musicians, the Shostakovich fifteenth consistently calls for nothing but the best playing. That's because, although written for large orchestra with a massive percussion section, the symphony contains long stretches of delicately scored passages for solo instruments or small ensembles. There's nowhere to hide for musicians who aren't top drawer.

For the listener, the challenge is to accept the music's many outpourings of anguish without being overwhelmed by them. This was the final big statement by a man who had survived all the horror the Soviet Union could throw at him, and it's filled with remembered desolation. Uplifting socialist realism is nowhere to be found.

Fortunately, the musicians of the St. Louis Symphony were more than up to the challenges Shostakovich created. Under Mr. Boreyko's skilled baton -- or just his hands, for the more delicate passages--they played their hearts out in flawless, virtuoso performances. 

There was wonderful work here by Principal Flute Mark Sparks (most notably in the first movement), Principal Clarinet Scott Andrews, and Principal Bassoon Andrew Cuneo. Ditto Principal Trombone Timothy Myers in his long second movement solo. In that same movement, Principal Cello Daniel Lee brought out all the anguish in the solo that pushes the instrument to the very top of its range. Concertmaster David Halen demonstrated his skill in multiple passages, as did Principal Bass Erik Harris.

Shostakovich gives an important role to the percussion section, mostly notably in the enigmatic coda in which castanets, snare drum, wood block, xylophone, and triangle clatter away in what sounds to me like a reference to the hospital machinery that was probably in the background as the symphony was written. Principal William James and the rest of his crew brought it all to life brilliantly.

For his part, Mr. Boreyko pulled everything together in an absolutely riveting interpretation that honored both the sound and the silence of Shostakovich's enigmatic sonic tapestry. The pain, the nostalgia, and the sarcasm all came through powerfully. So did the dark humor of the first movement (originally subtitled "The Toyshop") with its not-quite-funny quotes from Rossini's William Tell Overture. And the final percussion toccata was appropriately chilling. Mr. Boreyko paused at the end just long enough for everyone to hear the silence.

The concerts opened with a positively dynamic reading of that Rossini overture, distinguished by a fine cello solo from Daniel Lee and an especially fiery coda that accelerated to a breakneck finish. I think it must be difficult to put one's own stamp on a piece as famous (and frequently parodied) as the William Tell Overture, but Mr. Boreyko did so nevertheless.

Between the Rossini and Shostakovich, Mr. Boreyko and soloist Till Fellner gave us a delightfully crisp and graceful performance of the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 19, by Beethoven. Written before but published after the Concerto No. 1, it marks the beginning of Beethoven's dual careers as pianist and composer of concerti for his instrument of choice. The influences of Mozart and Haydn are easy to hear, but ultimately it's all Beethoven. That's particularly obvious in the dramatic cadenza, written around 14 years after the concerto.

Soloist Till Fellner did especially well by that cadenza, positively burning up the keyboard. He and Mr. Boreyko were every bit as compelling in the rest of their performance, which included a heartfelt Adagio and a glittering, jolly Rondo finale. Mr. Fellner's program bio refers to his "scrupulous musicianship, purity of style, and sparkling keyboard command" and, while it's usually best to take such things with a grain of salt, I have to say I heard all of those qualities in this very gratifying reading.

Next at Powell Hall: David Robertson conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and trumpet soloist Håkan Hardenberger on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., January 27-29. The program consists of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, Copland's Appalachian Spring Suite, and the local premiere of Fisher King (Trumpet Concerto) by contemporary Norwegian composer Rolf Wallin. 

 

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.

 

 

If this past weekend's St. Louis Symphony Orchestra program provoked a strong sense of déjà vu in the audience, it's because the orchestra presented a nearly identical program three years ago. The two major works--Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Violin Concerto and Dvořák's "New World" symphony--were the same, as were the conductor (David Robertson) and the soloist (Gil Shaham).

The only difference, in fact, was in the short opening work. Three years ago is was Ingram Marshall's Bright Kingdom. This time around it was The Chairman Dances, Foxtrot for Orchestra by John Adams. But that was familiar as well, having last been performed by the orchestra under Mr. Robertson in the fall of 2013. Even Gil Shaham's unlisted encore was the same: Schön Rosmarin, Fritz Kreisler's pastiche of the waltzes of Joseph Lanner.

So how much has changed over the years? Looking back at my original review of the Korngold and the Dvořák, I'd say the short answer is "not much."  

Mr. Shaham is as thoroughly in command of this music as he was the last time he played it here, with a singing tone and a real and obvious joy in his performance. He flew through the virtuoso fireworks of the first and third movements easily and brought out all the yearning of the second movement Romance. Back in 2014, I commented that Mr. Shaham was sometimes swamped by the orchestra, but I heard not such balance problems this time around--probably because I was seated on the orchestra floor as opposed to the dress circle. In Powell Hall, location can be everything when it comes to vocal and instrumental soloists.

In an interview during the intermission of Saturday night's broadcast of the concert, Mr. Robertson noted that, although the concerto is scored for a large, late-romantic orchestra, performing it requires the kind of intimate give and take between the soloist and the ensemble that is more characteristic of chamber music--and which makes each performance a unique event. You could see that in the close communication between Mr. Shaham and Mr. Robertson when we attended the concert on Sunday afternoon. They were physically close as well, with Mr. Shaham sometimes playing very close to the podium.

They were, in sort, a joy to see and hear.

Three years ago, I dubbed Mr. Robertson's Dvořák 9th a "world class" interpretation, and I'm just as enthusiastic this time around. His approach has, if anything, gotten even more nuanced and refined over the last few years, with wonderful little details that I don't recall hearing in 2014. The profound hush of the transition to the second subject in the Largo second movement is a good example, as are the many subtle shadings he brought to the exuberant Scherzo third movement.

The orchestra played very well, some issues in the horns not withstanding, and all the important solo passages were sheer perfection. That includes the flute passages in the first movement by Mark Sparks and Jennifer Nichtman, Scott Andrews fine clarinet work in the fourth movement, and Cally Banham's plaintive rendition of The Most Famous English Horn Solo in the World in the Largo. 

As for The Chairman Dances, Mr. Robertson and his forces brought out the whimsy in this odd little number, which was cut from the 1987 opera Nixon in China. It was originally intended to accompany a surrealistic scene in which a painting of Chairman Mao comes to life and dances with his widow during a state dinner. 

There's a kind of quirky nostalgia to the music, which rises to a big orchestral climax before slowly fading out to the sounds of woodblock and sandpaper, as though Mao were doing a soft shoe number as he fades away. It's rhythmically tricky stuff, and the percussion section--including Peter Henderson on piano--did a fine job with it.

The concerts concluded with another unlisted encore, the original version of the lively and tune-filled overture to Leonard Bernstein's often-revised 1956 operetta Candide. The piece seems to be a favorite of Mr. Robertson's, and he and the band gave it a cheerfully unbuttoned (but still precise) reading.

The orchestra is taking this weekend's program on its road trip to Spain next month, with performances in Valencia, Madrid, and Ovieto. If what we heard Sunday is any indication, they'll represent both our town and our nation well.  

I also have to say that, given the poisonous nature of our current political climate, it's good to see that while all the works on this program were written on these shores, three of the five composers represented were born elsewhere. And two of them were immigrants fleeing fascism. It's a reminder that America has always been a far more heterogeneous nation than some people want to admit.

The regular symphony season continues next weekend as Andrey Boreyko conducts the orchestra and pianist Till Fellner in Shostakovich's eccentric Symphony No. 15 and Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2. Performances are Friday at 10:30 a.m. and Saturday at 8 p.m., January 20 and 21.

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