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Commentary: This is Chicago, a city famous for spoken-theater companies that push drama to the ragged edge, finding new ways into the classics of Sophocles, Chekhov, Ibsen, O’Neill, Miller, Williams, Albee, and Shakespeare. As it proved again with its stunning November production of Janáček’s “Jenůfa,” the lightning-bolt of the fall season, Lyric Opera of Chicago in recent years has become likewise aggressive at offering novel approaches to opera’s greatest hits. I say bring it.
Review: “The Triumph of the Octagon,” a Sept. 28 world premiere commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association for Riccardo Muti, honors the esteemed conductor’s transition from music director (a title he held from 2010 until June 2023) to his new role as music director emeritus for life. The tone poem by Philip Glass, with its quiet undulations, beautifully commemorates the CSO’s season of transition: the orchestra’s capacity for singularly tranquil, unhurried and quite magical effects will linger as earmarks of Muti’s legacy.
Review: Before an exuberant and youthful crowd at Orchestra Hall, the 34-year-old Israeli guest conductor Lahav Shani and the 30-year-old Italian pianist Beatrice Rana, enormous talents, made eclectic – and electric – Chicago Symphony Orchestra debuts.
Review: There’s never a time when producers and directors of new shows fail to think, in the final days before opening, “We could really use another month.” But there’s also no denying the tantalizing potential of a new hit on brew at the Harris Theater, where the Lyric Opera of Chicago has unveiled a first look at “The Factotum.” ★★★★
Commentary: No Chicago arts presenter deserves the success of its current season more than Lyric Opera, which in March of 2020 was forced, by the onset of Covid, to cancel its “Ring” cycle, a gargantuan undertaking involving Richard Wagner’s four-chapter mythical saga. The company capped its autumn offering with a dazzling go at Rossini’s comedy, in Bartlett Sher’s Metropolitan Opera production, designed by Michael Yeargan and revived here by Kathleen Smith Belcher.
Review: The fascinating problem with the Lyric Opera production of Verdi’s “Don Carlos” – beautifully conducted by music director Enrique Mazzola, especially in the mystical, delicate parts – is that there is almost too much of it. A Thanksgiving feast comes to mind, that overwhelmed sense that can develop before the third helpings are passed and desserts loom. The fifth and final act ends, as it must, in defeat and death, with Verdi’s music at its most painfully exquisite.★★★★
Review: Giuseppe Verdi’s 1844 opera “Ernani” could hardly be conducted, directed or sung more beautifully than it is at Lyric Opera of Chicago, where a quartet of lead singers make some all but impossible scenarios ring true under the leadership of music director Enrique Mazzola and theatrical director Louisa Muller. The opera classic has been sharing the Lyric stage with the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” in a riveting directorial treatment by the Australian Barrie Kosky, whose “Fiddler” puts the 19th-century story in a 21st-century envelope. Both shows: ★★★★
Preview: In 2014, the Chicago-based American Music Project (AMP) launched a new program to periodically showcase all-but-forgotten gems by American composers of the 20th and 21st centuries, and to commission new musical works, as well. After a Covid-induced hiatus, the Project will relaunch June 5 at Ganz Hall with a concert by the Chicago-based Kontras Quartet in a wild mix of music by composers old and new. The agenda includes a world premiere by Chicago composer and pianist Amy Wurtz, whose String Quartet No. 3 is the Project’s latest commission.
Review: The Lyric Opera of Chicago has had its share of tough breaks in recent years, with ambitious projects felled by Covid including an international Wagner “Ring” festival that had been many years in the making. But what this determined company has accomplished since then is balm to the soul in an uneasy world. On the boards now through April 8 is a stunning success, a not-to-miss opera with a magnificent heart, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.” ★★★★★
Review: What profound, disturbing harmonies permeate the Lyric Opera House in its current production of “Tosca.” It is wartime Rome, combustible and turbulent. The painter Cavaradossi and his lover, the opera star Tosca, are trapped in history’s maw. Soprano Michelle Bradley as the charismatic diva, tenor Russell Thomas as Cavaradossi and baritone Fabián Veloz as their conniving nemesis Scarpia make a compelling threesome in this vintage Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production. ★★★★
Perspective: It has been a brutally challenging concert season, but on that cold night of Feb. 18, the Windy City got its classical groove back. The house rocked to its feet as 85-year-old Philip Glass, the composer that people still like to call “a minimalist,” stepped onto the stage with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 80-year-old music director Riccardo Muti to take repeated bows for Glass’ Eleventh Symphony, written in 2016. Nights at Orchestra Hall have rarely felt so young.
Review: What is one to make of the musical “Oklahoma!” in the current stripped-down, aggressively modernized and message-laden version that is twanging merrily away at the CIBC Theater? In short, this traveling musical comes across as brashly aggressive in its contemporary aim, yet surprisingly thin on delivery. ★★
Review: For the third time this fall, Lyric Opera of Chicago has given its audience a production to talk about. Currently on the boards is “The Magic Flute” in a now famously brash production that plays out against the facade of a great wall that acts like a silent movie screen, the camera’s flickering white light and all. Little windows and ledges in the wall pop open to allow singers to lean or step out and sing as they interact with fanciful cartoons of giant bugs, fairies, skeletons, even pink elephants – oh, my! ★★★★
Review: In a concert that turned out to be a memorial to the eminent conductor Bernard Haitink (1929-2021), who was long and closely associated with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, James Conlon led Shostakovich’s somber Chamber Symphony, an arrangement of his Eighth String Quartet. The effect was wrenchingly beautiful, the experience cathartic, a fitting remembrance of Haitink, who had led his CSO colleagues at Orchestra Hall, at Ravinia, and throughout Europe and Asia on tour.
Review: Of all the composers-in-residence appointed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra during music director Riccardo Muti’s tenure, Mazzoli is the one whose interests are most in sync with his. She has several successful operas and lyric works under her belt already. Muti led Mazzoli’s intense yet dreamlike “These Worlds in Us” on Oct. 8 at Orchestra Hall. Her tenure as CSO composer in residence, disrupted by Covid, had ended June 30.
Report: Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has issued a proclamation recognizing July 28, 2021, as “Riccardo Muti Day” in the city of Chicago, in honor of “an extraordinary man” on the occasion of his 80th birthday. “I could not be more proud to join his family, friends, colleagues, and fans in commemorating this occasion,” stated Mayor Lightfoot, while noting Muti’s multiple Grammy Awards with the CSO and his work to bring music to all Chicagoans including seniors, veterans, students and incarcerated youths.
Report: Some 14 months after giving its last performance at Orchestra Hall, so long banished from its home and audience by the pandemic, the Chicago Symphony begins and ends its 2020-21 season with a three-weekend flurry of concerts under three different conductors starting May 27 with a showcase for the orchestra’s vaunted brass section.
Report: Confronted by the pandemic’s stark outlook, Lyric Opera of Chicago has announced cancellation of all productions through December, the entire autumn portion of it 2020-21 season. For now, the company plans to resume operation in January with the new opera “Blue,” a riveting tragedy about a black policeman’s family facing violence and heartbreak by Tony Award-winning composer Jeanine Tesori and playwright Tazewell Thompson. “Blue” was named Opera of the Year on June 17 by the Music Critics Association of North America.
Interview: While Chicago Symphony Orchestramusic director Riccardo Muti has been sidelined at this home in Ravenna, Italy, the time on his hands has allowed him to plow more deeply into treasured masterworks and explore the archive of Chicago Symphony concert recordings to curate an ongoing series of concerts broadcast by WFMT (98.7 FM) and streamed at wfmt.com. In a long-distance chat with Chicago On the Aisle, Muti talked about his programming choices and looked ahead to his post-virus return to Orchestra Hall.
Antidotes: If the COVID-19 virus temporarily froze operations at the nation’s classical music capitals including Chicago, there are definitely signs the industry is getting its groove back. Available for streaming is a concert performed live from the University of Chicago, with no audience in the hall, by Chicago’s outstanding Third Coast Percussion. The Chicago Symphony’s prestigious Civic Orchestra training ensemble marks its 100th anniversary with some Tchaikovsky, digitally assembled from dozens of individual recordings made on smartphones and Zoom audio recorders. Two familiar faces at Lyric Opera of Chicago, Ryan McKinny and Isabel Leonard, offer an alluring cell phone duet from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” And – wait for it – we have a priceless slice of Beethoven whimsy for you at our story’s end.
Review: Two over-riding themes of music director Riccardo Muti’s current Chicago Symphony Orchestra season met in harmony in sold-out concerts Feb. 20-25 at Orchestra Hall – a cycle through all nine Beethoven symphonies and Muti’s desire to highlight the CSO’s key players with solo spotlights, often in world premiere concertos by composers the musicians helped to choose. Thus Muti introduced the CSO’s highly regarded bass clarinetist J. Lawrie Bloom in a new work called “Ophelia’s Tears” by French composer Nicolas Bacri, and generously framed the premiere with two Beethoven symphonies, including the Symphony No. 5 in C minor.
Review: “The Queen of Spades” (or as the Russians say, “Pikovaya dama”) is without question a great opera, among Tchaikovsky’s best works of any kind, with enthralling tragedy and voluptuous, soaring music. He even wrote that he considered “The Queen of Spades” to be the culmination of his life’s work. Yet gloriously conducted though it was at Lyric Opera, and sung brilliantly by tenor Brandon Jovanovich as an obsessive gambler in a tailspin and soprano Sondra Radvanovsky as the blossoming noblewoman who falls for him, the production is willfully shocking and ultimately confusing.★★★
Review: Pietro Mascagni’s opera “Cavalleria rusticana” led by music director Riccardo Muti and starring the sensational 36-year-old Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili amidst an outstanding cast, was a performance for the ages.
Commentary: Back in the 20th century, opera companies looked to be in danger of obsolescence. The canon of works was European, old and getting older, and sung in foreign languages. The stars with the greatest vocal gifts didn’t necessarily look their parts compared to standards set by Broadway. Amplification was in. DJs were hot. Film made fantasy impossibly real. Opera cost a lot. But now we’re at the onset of opera’s Roaring Twenties, not least here in Chicago, where a young and fearless theater audience is up for anything if the story-telling is good. Here’s a look at what’s ahead.
Report: Tops in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s massive season release detailing the upcoming 2020-21 season is the welcome news that the CSO’s tribute to Beethoven during the 250th anniversary of his birth in 1770 will conclude with his mightiest sacred work, the Missa Solemnis, led by music director Riccardo Muti.
Review: With the bubbling impertinence of John Adams’ foxtrot for orchestra, “The Chairman Dances,” the air turned absolutely electric in the holiday crowd at Orchestra Hall, which was stacked with a younger than usual audience mix on Dec. 19 for a fabulous throwback concert that offered some mid-20th century moments to remember. Rarely has the first half of any concert delivered a more exhilarating blast.
Review: A familiar face and voice in many roles at the Lyric Opera of Chicago over the years, the legendary soprano combines warm singing and strong acting in her role as an American mother on holiday in Florence with a daughter who’s ready for love but is more fragile than she knows. The new production of this 2005 Tony Award winner started out in London and moves on to Sydney, Australia in the New Year. ★★★
Review: As we sit in Hyde Park’s Court Theatre arena, where Sophocles’ ancient drama “Oedipus Rex” unfolds, the audience becomes part of an urgent thriller. Actors prowl the aisles, murmuring that our city Thebes is sinking under “waves of death.” The explanation for this plague and pestilence? Unknown. The king accepts his citizens’ desperate plea to figure out what’s going on, but as he looks into it, he finds evidence pointing to himself. ★★★★
Review: John Frederick Lampe’s opera “The Dragon of Wantley” is a double send-up, which makes it ancient kin to Broadway’s “Spamalot.” The 1737 comic opera was based on a rustic Yorkshire legend about a dragon that devours children “as one would eat an apple,” and the monster’s slaying by a Falstaffian braggart and boozer who gets lucky with a sword. But “The Dragon of Wantley” is also a deadpan musical spoof of Handel, who was huge in London opera at the time. The droll burlesque bubbled out of the pit in a superb revival by Chicago’s vest-pocket Haymarket Opera Company. ★★★★
Review: Hard to know if it was in the spirit of the Chicago Marathon or what, but the Russian-American pianist Kirill Gerstein opened the Chicago Symphony Center’s nine-part season-long Beethoven 250 celebration of the composer’s 32 piano sonatas with a recital Oct. 13 that definitely went the extra mile. Having delivered a fresh, rhythmically electric and often playful account of five relatively early Beethoven sonatas, Gerstein unleashed – as an encore, no less – Beethoven’s formidable “Eroica” Variations.