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Two sparkling treasures to stuff a stocking: CSO’s ‘Messiah’ and Joffrey’s ‘Nutcracker’

Submitted by on Dec 13, 2015 – 7:04 am
Top-of-story3Review: Handel’s “Messiah,” Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Bernard Labadie conducting, through Dec. 20; Joffrey Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” through Dec. 27.
By Lawrence B. Johnson

’Tis the season when the mere names of Handel and Tchaikovsky conjure two of the most beloved works for concert hall and stage in Western culture. That affection radiates through splendorous productions of Handel’s “Messiah” by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus at Orchestra Hall and the Joffrey Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” at the Auditorium Theatre.

Ketelsen1The CSO’s “Messiah” offers a stunning reminder that Handel’s chestnut stands among our greatest musical treasures. This stylishly eloquent account takes life from the hands of Canadian conductor and Baroque expert Bernard Labadie, founder of Montreal’s celebrated Violons du Roy. Sans the distraction of a score, Labadie draws playing of breathtaking finesse from a chamber-size version of the CSO.

But no less thrilling is the achievement of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, whose perfect pitch, razor-sharp diction and attacks and general expressive sensibility add up to one marvelous choral number after another. From the lightness and agility of “For unto us a child is born” to the dramatic proclamation of “Behold the Lamb of God” to the buoyancy and precision of the crowning “Amen” fugue, Handel’s choral music pours forth here in a glittering stream of unbroken grandeur. All told, a momentous tribute to choral director Duain Wolfe.

soprano1As so often seems to befall “Messiah,” the quartet of solo voices was uneven in the performance I heard, though one could scarcely ask for more brilliant singing than soprano Lydia Teuscher and bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen delivered at the top and bottom of that foursome. Teuscher brought radiant sweetness to the revelatory sequence that begins with the recitative “There were shepherds abiding in the field” and ends with the virtuosic sparkle of “Rejoice greatly.” Ketelsen, a late substitute, was nothing short of tremendous, his voice dark and resonant, focused and assertive. His recitative and aria, “Behold, I tell you a mystery” and “The trumpet shall sound” bore celestial authority.

One could only regret, as it turned out, that Ketelsen was not given the early aria “But who may abide,” after he had sung the preceding recitative “Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of Hosts.” Handel, who led some 50-odd performances of “Messiah,” constantly re-assigned arias from one voice to another. Still, I have always preferred hearing the bass sing “But who may abide.” In this case it fell to mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy, whose agreeable voice of dark liquidity projected very little energy or dramatic engagement here or anywhere else. While tenor Jeremy Ovenden also offered an appealing sound, in the dramatic set-up recitative and aria “Comfort ye” and “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted,” he did not quite convey the essential tone of the message – that personal call to attention, at once angelic and, in its epic sense, Homeric: “Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem: her warfare is accomplish’d.”

Clara1The Joffrey Ballet’s elegant “Nutcracker” is a Chicago tradition that’s about to slip among the sugar plums of memory. This year’s presentation is the last hurrah of Robert Joffrey’s 1987 choreography. It will be supplanted in 2016 by the world premiere of a “re-envisioned” “Nutcracker” from Christopher Wheeldon, who won the 2015 Tony Award for Best Choreography for his work on “An American in Paris.”

Yet this production bows out in splendid shape. The time-tested, family friendly concept still beats with a generous heart. Indeed, this “Nutcracker” tones down both the story’s darkness, in the mysterious figure of Drosselmeyer (Lucas Segovia), who gives Clara (Cara Marie Gary) the magical Nutcracker as a Christmas gift, and in the angst between the adolescent girl and her spiteful brother. It is a kinder, gentler “Nutcracker.”

Pas-de-deux1But it’s also quite beautiful. Solo dancers rotate, and in the performance I saw, Gary’s charming, graceful Clara, a girl on the verge of woman, found her dream-prince in the tall, athletic form of Dylan Gutierrez. He is a magisterial dancer whose Act II partnership with Jeraldine Mendoza’s lighter-than-air Sugar Plum Fairy offered a pas de deux of thrilling power and finesse.

The Joffrey’s Divertissements remain a many-splendored, multi-cultural treat, from Amber Neumann’s soaring Spanish dance (Chocolate) and the spectacular Tea (for two) of Valeriia Chaykina and Elivelton Tomazi to the teetering merriment of Francis Kane’s Mother Ginger.

Still, nothing on view more firmly grasps the imagination than the glittering ensemble dances for Flowers and, especially, Snowflakes. The latter spins out under a heavy, extended snowfall that will beguile the child’s heart in any observer. And what a creamy dollop atop it all to have the Chicago Philharmonic’s polished account of Tchaikovsky’s music led by Joffrey music director Scott Speck. Little wonder the magic on stage sparked so much visible delight in the packed house.

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