Articles by Nancy Malitz
Commentary: The pool of grand opera subscribers may be slowly shrinking nationally, but one can’t help feeling optimistic about Lyric Opera of Chicago’s long-term prospects as the company continues to refine and redefine itself. The Opera’s nimble branch – Lyric Unlimited – attracted two crowds of 1,100 each to the Harris Theater on March 15 and 17 for its latest chamber opera presentation, “An American Dream.” A loudly enthusiastic audience was the latest evidence of the hard work that Lyric has put into its own expanded vision.
Review: The Ninth Symphony of American composer William Schuman, which Chicago Symphony music director Riccardo Muti conducted for the first time, commemorates a painful moment in modern Italian history – the systematic murder of 335 Italian civilians, with one shot each to the back of the head, by German soldiers in the last weeks of World War II.
Review: One of the world’s preeminent orchestras, the Amsterdam-based Concertgebouw is accustomed to touring, tallying 40 concerts away from home each year. But the brief U.S. tour included Chicago among only four cities treated to its renowned specialities. Richard Strauss’ highly personal 1897 fantasy for enormous orchestral forces “Ein Heldenleben” (A Hero’s Life) exploded with sound reverberating from the depths, gloried in woodwind sparkle and boasted the awesome grandeur of the Concertgebouw’s brass and battery.
Report: A monumental tribute to the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth highlights the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 2019-20 season, its 10th under the stewardship of music director Riccardo Muti. In a season-long Beethoven immersion, Muti will conduct all nine symphonies and six different pianists will make their way collectively through the 32 sonatas. Muti will also preside over four world and U.S. premieres.
Preview: The consummation of a four-year project to produce Wagner’s “Ring” cycle and the beginning of a “five- or six-year” exploration of early Verdi highlight plans for the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2019-20 season, which also marks the 20th anniversary of Andrew Davis’ tenure as music director. After annual creations of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold,” “Die Walküre” and “Siegfried,” the Lyric will cap the “Ring” cycle with “Götterdämmerung” in April 2020, then pull the whole enterprise together with three turns through the complete tetralogy.
Review: When people talk about high-energy spectacle and romantic intensity in Italian opera, “Il Trovatore” is the classic Exhibit A. An instant hit when it opened in Rome, it’s still a winner. Lyric’s three-way production with the San Francisco Opera and the Met is a concept that remains dynamic and fresh, from the flash and wham of gypsy smithies hammering away at their swords in the extravagant Anvil Chorus, to the tragic love triangle that complicates a civil war unfolding. ★★★★
Review: It’s not often that you can pull a forgotten gem out of the trunk, showcase it in a tasteful setting, and reveal it for the magnificently neglected thing that it is. Chicago Opera Theater has succeeded in doing us that favor with Tchaikovsky’s dreamy, naturalistic 1892 opera “Iolanta” – the composer’s last – performed by able forces at the Studebaker, a lovingly refurbished 740-seat jewel-box on Michigan Avenue that also dates from that same last decade of the 19th century. ★★★
Review: In the aftermath of a California gunman’s rampage, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus delivered heart-stirring performance, resplendent with awe and penitence, delicately threaded with human doubt, and led by the world’s finest living interpreter of this work.
Review: The first sign of the enemy in “Siegfried” was a shiny-red three-toed claw, beckoning from under Lyric Opera curtain, as if to say, “I’m Fafner the Dragon, and I’m ready to rumble.” The crowd rippled with mirth and stayed on top of the details in Wagner’s lively saga about the great god Wotan, played by bass-baritone Eric Owens, and the brash young Siegfried, whose help is needed if Wotan’s plan to save the gods has half a chance. ★★★
Review: Amid a roaring ovation for his eloquent account of Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 89-year-old Bernard Haitink lost his footing on the step at the side of the podium and doubled over onto the Orchestra Hall stage. In an instant, the audience’s elation turned to a mass gasp of horror. But minutes later, the venerable maestro was gesturing to the relieved players and cheering public to assure them that all was well.
Review: If there was a moment during the season-ending concert that summed up the singular achievement of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under the long-term influence of Riccardo Muti, it came near the end of Rossini’s “Stabat Mater,” a Catholic hymn to Mary that pulls the listeners into the mother’s grief at the foot of the cross and offers transcendence. The three-line prayer “Quando corpus morietur” (“When my body dies, let me live in Paradise, too”) is so very human and humble that the listener might not notice how treacherous it is to sing. The Chicago Symphony Chorus imbued it with a powerful emotion that filled the hall, yet with sound so soft it barely hung on a thread.
This Just In:: Music director Riccardo Muti has selected American composer Missy Mazzoli as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s new Mead Composer-in-Residence, beginning a two-year term on July 1 and continuing through June 30, 2020. Mazzoli, 37, is already the recipient of prestigious grants and awards, including a Fulbright Grant and the Best New Opera Award for 2017 from the Music Critics Association of North America, for “Breaking the Waves.”
Review: A Grant Park Music Festival concert celebrating singers and song featured the world premiere setting of Native American songs and stories about a star cluster called “The Pleiades,” which is visible to the naked eye in colder months. Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds wrote it to be performed during the Chorus America Conference, which brought hundreds of the nation’s choruses large and small to Chicago. It played nicely in the out-of-doors in preamble to starlight and fireworks on the night before the summer solstice.
Review: Sam Shepard’s darkly funny tale is not so much about the decline of an American way of life as it is about us humans losing sight of ourselves in a blur of treachery, self-denial and retribution that threatens to extend through the generations backward and forward. As directed by Kimberly Senior in a superb production, Shepard’s realm is a ramshackle pasture of the heart, where truths too painful to confess refuse to stay buried no matter how much mind-numbing alcohol, or sexual abandon or vagabondage are applied. ★★★★
Review: The MusicNOW endeavor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is in the middle of a roaring spring expansion under the cultivating flair of composers-in-residence Samuel Adams and Elizabeth Ogonek. The latest MusicNOW shoot was an experiment within three different spaces at the rambling Art Institute of Chicago, including Chagall’s America Windows room. And that was preamble to the MusicNOW grand finale, featuring two world premieres, on May 21 at Orchestra Hall.
Review: It has been coming on for a while, the increasing élan with which Chicago’s Lyric Opera presents its springtime musical productions. This year’s outsize rock opera, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” launches with the shock and the thrill of a revolution underway, as dozens of young men and women in their athletic prime charge down the aisles and leap joyfully onto the klieg-lit stage.
Interview: I first encountered the amazing 27-year-old Polish countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński on a Youtube video. After listening to him sing Vivaldi and Cavalli and Pergolesi in a hearty falsetto with great energy and musicality, I came upon another, equally captivating Orliński video. He was breakdancing. But it will be his phenomenal voice on display with Music of the Baroque on April 22 and 23 at the Harris Theater.
Review: You could hear the chuckles of recognition running through the Oriental Theatre audience when “Pretty Woman: The Musical” opened its largely delightful pre-Broadway run. It’s officially a world premiere that will play Chicago through April 15 before packing up for New York, where another round of development precedes the Broadway opening. The method of “Pretty Woman’s” transformation from the movie that half the American population has memorized line-for-line, into a staged production with entirely original music, is reliably loyal in its adaptation and solidly mainstream. ★★★★
Preview: The final countdown is underway: “Pretty Woman: The Musical,” which has been taking cues from its Windy City preview audiences in adapting of one of the most popular and highest-rated romantic comedy films ever, is about to open officially March 28 at the Oriental Theatre with experienced Broadway veterans in some iconic roles, If you saw “Legally Blonde” or “Kinky Boots” on Broadway, you may recognize hooker Kit and hotel manager Mr. Thompson. With the curtain going up on Chicago’s pre-Broadway world premiere, a New York opening is set for August.
Review: A world premiere by Chicago Symphony violist-composer Max Raimi, who set to music the poetry of a 94-year-old Pulitzer Prize winning poet in the city’s midst, was part of a special showcase honoring the orchestra’s own: The Chicago Symphony Chorus, celebrating its 60th anniversary this season, sang a Schubert magnum opus not heard in Orchestra Hall since 1975.
Review: Tenor Jonas Hacker stars as a young man experiencing the loss of innocence during the “lavender scare” of 1950s Washington, D.C. A homosexual purge in the federal government was an element of the McCarthy Era’s notorious anti-communist activities. Although “Fellow Travelers” is specific with regard to the Fifties event, its themes are universal – about one’s own irrefutable personal imperative, and the magnificence of love in bloom, as well as the soul-bruising compromises that befall at certain times of life. The opera is presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago at the Athenaeum Theatre. ★★★★
Review: As Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s irrepressibly grand 234-year-old “Linz” Symphony swept through the Chicago Symphony from stand to stand, at Orchestra Hall, one might have taken the music for yet another example of the brilliant young composer being inspired by Franz Joseph Haydn, his esteemed elder. But as music director Riccardo Muti and the CSO deftly demonstrated, the 24-year difference in their ages does not imply a one-way flow of influence from elder to younger. The influence worked both ways.
Interview: Italian maestro Riccardo Muti is back in town and eager for another dive into Mozart with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Chicago and Wheaton March 15-17. The program, which features Mozart, fits right into the CSO music director’s primary artistic goals. Musing on the significance of a two-year extension that prolongs his responsibility to the orchestra through August 2022, Muti made it clear the job is about more than conducting alone. He pronounced himself ready to take on the work of keeping the 127-year-old orchestra whole, fit, and facing its future.
Review: Leonard Bernstein’s “Trouble in Tahiti” may have been prophetic when it first soared into living rooms via black-and-white TV in 1952, but it can hardly have felt convenient. Married couples of the time – the ones creating the babies of the postwar suburban baby boom – might have felt awkwardly alarmed by the troubles of Dinah and Sam, brought to life by mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and baritone Nathan Gunn, two of opera’s finest singing actors at the height of their powers, in a wry comedy of cold clarity but also generosity of spirit.
Review: The new “Faust” at the Lyric has a strong visual aesthetic and modern psychological insight, conceived by the visionary California artist John Frame and brought to the stage by a young production team led by director Kevin Newbury and set-costume designer Vita Tzykun. The impressive cast under the baton of French conductor Emmanuel Villaume stars tenor Benjamin Bernheim – in his American debut – as the doomed Faust and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as Hell’s provocative emissary, bent on his destruction. And although the conductor and the impressive star tenor are French, this “Faust” has a bracing American vibe and cinematic feel. ★★★★
Review: Week after week, the Wolves, a teen girls’ soccer team, coalesces into a fighting force. Meanwhile, that other towering season – adulthood – looms inevitable. Both are transformations thrilling to contemplate. An extraordinary new play by a millennial playwright depicts self-confident girls who intend to romance the world on their own terms. ★★★★
Review: In an imaginative whodunnit, Chicago writer Calamity West proposes the hypothetical solution to an unsolved mass murder from 1922. Bavaria’s counterpart to the Lizzie Borden story (in notoriety if not in detail) involves six people on a farmstead in Munich’s remote outback. All were found hacked to death. ★★★
Review: No one doubted that Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova would be back at the Lyric Opera of Chicago after doing such a superb job of going mad the first time around. In 2016 she portrayed the innocent Scottish lass Lucia, of Lammermoor, forced into an arranged marriage despite her betrothal to someone else. She emerged from the wedding chamber armed with psychotic coloratura, compliments of Donizetti, and a knife dripping in blood. Now she’s back as the Puritan maiden Elvira, who is mentally shattered by her fiancé’s abrupt departure on her wedding day. Cue the coloratura. ★★★
Review: The Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä has been the go-to guy for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on more than one urgent occasion in recent history, valiantly saving the day on not much more than pure adrenalin. But when he visited Chicago with his own Minnesota Orchestra, the maestro and his thoroughly prepared band projected a more serene mindset entirely.
Around Town: Lyric’s onsite restaurants are fiercely dedicated to the principle that Yes, you absolutely will make curtain, and Yes, you can come back to your table at intermission for coffee, dessert, and the rest of the wine.