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Light the lights! Lyric Opera stirs a musical into the mix

Submitted by on Sep 28, 2011 – 1:45 pm

Eight operas for 2011-12 include new productions of “Showboat,”Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” and Handel’s “Rinaldo.” The new season opens Saturday night with Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann.”

By Lawrence B. Johnson

The eight productions plotted this season by the Lyric Opera of Chicago share one striking feature: splendor. The Lyric’s 2011-12 lineup is a showcase for all that’s grand in opera.

Yet the season, which includes three new productions, also offers appealing variety, real challenges and the novelty of a musical — Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s “Showboat.”

Let’s make that two musicals. If Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”  is more familiar fare on the opera stage, it’s a musical all the same: a spoken play punctuated by singing. That, after all, is exactly what Mozart and his librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, called it – not an opera but a Singspiel, or sung play.

It seems like a distinction worth making since there are bound to be raised eyebrows at the idea of an opera company descending into the populist genre of the Broadway musical. But more than a caprice, it’s a commitment by the Lyric to embrace the American version of the Singspiel. Part of soprano Renée Fleming’s new role as creative consultant with the company involves developing a regular component of musicals, including a new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” in 2013.

Personally, I’m thrilled to find the Lyric heading down that road. I can’t wait to see the wonderful potential of the American musical realized by a producing company with worthy artistic resources: great singers, a high-quality chorus, a full orchestra and expert musical leadership.

Musicals are hard to do well. Witness the recent unhappy distillations – perhaps contractions is a better word – of Bernstein’s “Candide” by the Goodman Theatre and Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” by the Court Theatre. While both displayed the high theatrical standards typical of those two companies, neither came even close to the hitting the musical mark, vocally or in the cut-down, barely functional instrumental support. For that matter, I’m often disappointed by musical productions on Broadway, which frequently suffer from a paucity of real singing and the insufficiencies of minimal pit ensembles.

That said, the Lyric’s métier remains opera, and before the company gets to “Showboat,” next February, it will have made its way through a half dozen operatic masterworks, starting Oct. 1 with the rose-colored poignancy of Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann.” Tenor Matthew Polenzani stars as the luckless Hoffmann, who keeps making really bad choices in girlfriends. As the three unreachable objects of his affection will be sopranos Anna Christy as the mechanical doll Olympia, Erin Wall as the fragile Antonia and Alyson Cambridge as the courtesan Giulietta. Bass-baritone James Morris will portray Hoffmann’s assorted nemeses, and Emmanuel Villaume will conduct.  “Hoffmann” runs through Oct. 29.

The retired soprano Catherine Malfitano makes her Lyric directorial debut with a new production of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” (Oct. 10-Nov. 5), with soprano Susanna Phillips in the title role of the Scottish lass whose idyllic love careens into tragic madness and murder. Her beloved Edgardo will be sung by tenor Giuseppe Filianoti with baritone Gabriele Viviani as the girl’s darkly purposed brother Enrico. Massimo Zanetti conducts.

Ferruccio Furlanetto as Boris Godunov at the Lyric Opera of ChicagoTragedy on an epic scale unfolds in Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov,” which brings basso Ferruccio Furlanetto to the Lyric as the ill-starred Russian czar Nov. 7-29, with Sir Andrew Davis conducting.  Not only is Boris one of the most imposing basso roles in opera, but the monumental work itself  makes enormous demands on orchestra, chorus and production team. It is a peak moment in any opera season.

The Lyric calendar reaches its midpoint with Richard Strauss’ ever-stylish romp “Ariadne auf Naxos” (Nov. 19-Dec. 11), a mad clash of comic and tragic plays that circumstances force into simultaneous production. As the importuned Prima Donna who plays Ariadne will be soprano Amber Wagner, whose triumph in the 2007 Metropolitan Opera vocal sweepstakes is famously documented in the video “Audition.”

“The Magic Flute” (Dec. 6-Jan. 22), Mozart’s insanely comic paean to moral rectitude, will find the handsome young Prince Tamino in two different personas – Charles Castronovo (Dec. 6-Jan. 6) and Alek Shrader (Jan. 9-22) – setting out to rescue soprano Nicole Cabell’s Pamina. Baritone Stéphane Degout gets to cut up as the bird-brained bird catcher Papageno, with soprano Kathleen Kim as the vengeful, vocally high-flying Queen of the Night and basso Günther Groissböck as that paragon of reason and righteousness, Sarastro. Sir Andrew Davis conducts.

Two different casts will divide the run of Verdi’s “Aida.” For the opening stretch Jan. 21-Feb. 8, mezzo-soprano Sondra Radvonovsky will sing the title role, with tenor Marcello Giordani as Radames and soprano Jill Grove as Amneris. Performances March 6-25 will see Hui He as Aida and Anna Smirnova as Amneris with the Radames still to be determined. Renato Palumbo will conduct.

The emotionally swirling waters of “Show Boat,” which offered a bold look at racial and social issues in its 1927 premiere, wash over the Lyric stage in a new production Feb. 12-March 17.  Baritone Nathan Gunn portrays the dashing, if derelict, riverboat gambler Ravenal with soprano Ashley Brown as Magnolia, the aspiring actress who sees a life beyond the river. Baritone Morris Robinson plays Joe. The show’s musical bounty embraces songs like “Ol’ Man River,” “Make Believe” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” John DeMain conducts.

Handel’s “Rinaldo” caps the season Feb. 29-March 24 in Lyric’s third new production. The valiant knight Rinaldo is up against war and love at the same time, and nothing’s quite fair. Charged with this vocally splendorous assignment is countertenor David Daniels, with baritone Luca Pisaroni as the dastardly King Argante and soprano Elza van den Heever as his bewitching lover Armida. The noted Baroque specialist Harry Bicket conducts.

Photo captions and credits:  Top: Three child spirits will guide the young hero Tamino in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” (Dan Rest, Lyric Opera of  Chicago.)  Middle: Ferruccio Furlanetto is the tormented ruler Boris Godunov in Mussorgsky’s opera. (Ken Howard, San Diego Opera.)  Below: Priests and priestesses worship the goddess Isis in Verdi’s “Aida.” (Robert Kusel.)

Lyric Opera of Chicago production of "Aida"
Related link:

Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Drive. www.lyricopera.org. (312) 332-2244.

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