Thursday, November 28, 2013

Lyric Opera in Chicago

Marrina Rebeka as Violetta in Chicago Lyric Opera's 'Traviata'.
A couple of opera firsts for me in Chicago: wearing a beanie to the opera (it was below freezing); and an opera house that provided an orderly cab queue after the performance (well done).

The company was the Chicago Lyric Opera,  the production was Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’, with the excellent Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja singing Alfredo. Our Violetta - a demanding role for a lyric soprano, the classic ‘singing while she’s dying role', a tough one to pull off well - was a Latvian soprano, Marina Rebeka; and the baritone Germont was Quinn Kelsey, a product of the Chicago Opera’s young artists program.

My verdict? I thought Alfredo was smooth, easy, rich and nuanced. I thought Violetta was a huge effort, acting needs more work, a lovely voice but could be modulated a little more (read = loud); but it’s a tough role, and a bouquet for Miss Rebeka. I thought the Germont was well sung but not inspiring. [PS I heard later that Ms Rebeka was not well. If true, she deserves a second bouquet]. On a good night at a 'Traviata', the second act (where Germont and Violetta have their big confrontation) should have me in tears. This one didn’t quite achieve that, but was nevertheless enjoyable.

The rest of the cast all seemed to be from the company and to have come up through the young artists program. The singing was patchy (what I could hear - some were too faint); and the young singers, bless them, looked like they were playing dress ups in a high school show - not comfy in their 19th century outfits. I also thought the direction lacked a little. One’s principals shouldn’t be turning their backs to the audience, or putting their hands to their mouths quite so much (as Violetta did). This was a debut opera for a theatre director, and it showed a bit. The production, a co-production with Houston Grand Opera and Canadian Opera Company, was...ok. I think designers should be braver about putting something IN the era. It doesn’t need to be ‘time-less’ to be timeless, if you know what I mean.

Act One.
It was opening night. I see that the reviewer in the Chicago Tribune agrees with me:
It would be nice to be able to report that Lyric's new production of this melodious tearjerker, which opened Wednesday night at the Civic Opera House, got such special treatment. What we had instead was an uneven "Traviata," unobjectionable on musical, dramatic and scenic grounds, that failed to touch the heart in the way exceptional performances of Verdi's middle-period masterpiece can do.... 
A striking beauty blessed with a bright, ravishing timbre and top notes like laser beams, Rebeka had what it took to nail her big aria (with its restored second verse) and florid cabaletta in Act I. The rest of her performance disappointed. The emotionally buffeted Violetta of Act 2 and the dying Violetta of Act 3 needed more oomph in the middle and bottom registers and a keener sense of dramatic involvement in the characterization. Neither Violetta's noble act of self-sacrifice nor her farewell to earthly things, the aria "Addio del passato," really tugged at the requisite heartstrings... 
Not that the emotional punch of the Violetta-Germont confrontation in Act 2 was helped by Kelsey's somewhat growly, if voluminous sound and the condescending smugness and lack of sympathy with which Alfredo's father treated his son's lover... 
Thank goodness for Calleja, a handsome Alfredo whose easy outpouring of burnished tone and ardent manner were everything one looks for in the role of the naïve country boy who seeks true love in the fleshpots of the Parisian demimonde. Calleja is the main reason to catch this new "Traviata."
Act Three: drama in red.
The Chicago Sun-Times reviewer was also unimpressed, even criticising Italian conductor Massimo Zanetti (with whom I had no quibble). He complains about Ms Rebeka:  "after Violetta’s Act 1 half-hour mini-opera, the wan singer just does not have the voice for the next two highly demanding acts. She is even almost inaudible in the famed letter-reading introduction to the Act 3 signature, “Addio del passato..” and says of Mr Kelsey that he "fails to stake his claim on the elder Germont.." and "is generally hulking, skulking and one-dimensional in both his singing and in his acting."

It's nice to find the critics agreeing with me! However, it was an enjoyable if not great 'Traviata.' I have seen Calleja sing this role with Reneé Fleming as Violetta and Thomas Hampson as Germont, and that’s a very high bar.

Act Four: the death scene.
Check out the lavish production  and a little of Verdi's fabulous music, in this trailer:

The Chicago Civic Opera House is delightful - an Art Deco and Art Nouveau confection festooned with decorative touches. The seating seems to all have good sight lines (it's not a traditional horse-shoe with the usual sight-restricted side boxes). I had front row of the dress circle, which was an excellent view, though perhaps closer might have been better. It’s a large house.

Civic Opera House, Chicago
"a giant throne..."
It’s not Chicago's original opera house - that was built in 1885 but demolished after a number of fires in 1913.  The current building, the Chicago Civic Opera House, was built in 1929 (and restored in 1996), and is described on its website  as “one of Chicago's historic landmarks and among the world's most beautiful buildings...a hybrid of Art Nouveau and Art Deco designs”. Here’s a description of the Opera House (which is topped by offices) in rather purple prose:
The Civic Opera Building is a majestic limestone skyscraper with a 45-story office tower and two 22-story wings. Shaped like a gigantic throne facing the Chicago River between Washington and Madison streets, it was completed after just 22 months of planning and construction. The auditorium and its backstage areas occupy approximately one-third of the total space of the building. The distinguishing feature on the Wacker Drive side of the Civic Opera Building is the colonnaded portico that runs the entire length of the building. 
At the south end, large bronze doors open onto the grand foyer of the Civic Opera House, whose gilt cornices glitter beneath the sparkling lights of Austrian crystal chandeliers and elaborately stenciled ceilings. The magnificent space features a floor and wainscoting of pink and gray Tennessee marble, and fluted Roman travertine columns and pilasters. The 40-foot-high columns are topped with carved capitals covered in gold leaf. ..An imposing grand double staircase leads to the mezzanine foyer, where there are thirty-one boxes. Above this box level are two more balconies, each with 800 seats. The Civic Opera House seats 3,563. 
That’s BIG.

Michael Black
In other news, the program informed me that the chorusmaster from Opera Australia, Michael Black, has decamped to Chicago to become concertmaster for the Lyric. That will be a loss to the Sydney company. In an article about Black, the program expressed surprise that Opera Australia produces about 500 performances a year, and that Australian public schools place so little importance on music. Yup. Apparently Black worked as 'interim chorusmaster' in Chicago in 2011, and is now back full time - they liked him.

As with so many great US opera companies, there’s an impressive list of donors and supporters. And an advertisement in the program headed: “Let’s Leave It All To Lyric!” Given the size and scope of Chicago Lyric Opera, and the fact that it has Reneé Fleming as its artistic advisor, I was a bit surprised to read a comment in an program article insisting that, in comparison to other US and European houses, “we can hold our head high, high, high. We’re every bit as fine as any of them.” Hmm...who would have thought that wonderful, brash, fabulous Chicago would have a bit of a  cringe complex?

Art Deco meets Art Nouveau in the Chicago Civic Opera House (source)

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