‘Dead Man Walking’ brilliantly thrusts opera into the contemporary genre

4 stars

Patricia Racette top center, Ryan McKinny bottom left, Susan Graham bottom right and parents of murdered teens bottom center at Angola in Dead Man Walking at the Lyric Opera of chicago. (Ken Howard photo)
Patricia Racette top center, Ryan McKinny bottom left, Susan Graham bottom right and parents of murdered teens bottom center at Angola in Dead Man Walking at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Ken Howard photo)

Every season opera houses around the world include at least one story of murder and often, its consequences.  But whether clothed in lyrical or dramatic music by famous composers, their librettos typically focus on mythology or historic tales. Those productions seldom produce the kind of gut-wrenching reactions and post opera discussions sparked by “Dead Man Walking,” now at the Lyric Opera of Chicago through Nov. 22, 2019.

Written by composer Jake Heggie and librettist/playwright Terrence McNally and first produced by the San Francisco Opera at the War Memorial Opera House in October, 2000, the opera is based on a 1993 non-fiction book of the same name by Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun.

Sister Helen, a member of Sisters of Saint Joseph of Medaille in New Orleans, was against capital punishment and served as a spiritual adviser to two convicted murderers on Death Row. The phrase “dead man walking” was commonly used in American prisons for a man who received the death penalty for his crime.

L-C A gold light on the prison floor stands for the separate places that Sister Helen (Patricia Racette) and Jospeh De Rocher (Ryan McKinny) can speak to each other in Dead Man Walking at Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Ken Howard photo)
L-C A gold light on the prison floor stands for the separate places that Sister Helen (Patricia Racette) and Jospeh De Rocher (Ryan McKinny) can speak to each other in Dead Man Walking at Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Ken Howard photo)

Heggie and McNally’s opera is not about the innocence of murderer Joseph De Rocher, dramatically portrayed by bass baritone Ryan McKinny. He is convicted of raping and then brutally stabbing to death a teenaged girl. His younger brother, Anthony De Rocher, received a life sentence for participating in the crime and shooting the girl’s boyfriend.

The opera, primarily taking place in the early 1980s at the Louisiana State Penitentiary known as Angola for its site on the former Angola Plantation in Louisiana’s West Felicianna Parish, starts with the murders.

Sister Helen, soprano Patricia Racette, is leading youngsters in a spiritual piece, “Gather Us Around, ” before she announces she has to go to Angola because Joseph who had been corresponding with her, asked to meet, face to face.

Joseph's mother (Susan Graham), center, pleads for her son's life as the victims' parents (Lauren Decker, Allan Glassman Talise Trevigne and Wayne Tigges) listen at a board hearing in Dead
Joseph’s mother (Susan Graham), center, pleads for her son’s life as the victims’ parents (Lauren Decker, Allan Glassman, Talise Trevigne and Wayne Tigges) listen at a board hearing in Dead Man Walking at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Ken Howard photo)

Elaine J. McCarthy projections take Sister Helen and audiences on  a long, hot drive to Angola. Some comedic relief comes in the form of a motorcycle cop who stops her for speeding, then tears up the ticket when he learns she is a nun.

There are a few other comedic moments but set against Michael McGarty’s magnificent set design, the opera really is about the interaction between Sister Helen and Joseph.

Audiences do hear the heartbreak of the teens’ parents, the Harts and the Bouchers, at a board hearing. And at that hearing, Joseph’s mother (mezzo soprano Susan Graham) pleads for her son’s life.

“Dead Man Walking” does not excuse or rationalize a horrible murder. The book and the opera is about crime and punishment, guilt and redemption.

A number of factors make the Lyric production particularly powerful. Racette and McKinny perfectly act out McNally’s cut-to-the-heart libretto. Heggie’s dramatic music is well-interpreted by conducted by Nicole Paiement of San Francisco’s Opera Parallele.

Leonard Foglia’s directing and staging with Brian Nason’s lighting and Roger Gans sound design create an edgy emotionalism that leaves the audience saying wow as they exit.

“Dead Man Walking” is at the Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Dr., Chicago, on select dates through Nov. 22, 2019. Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes. For tickets and other information call (312) 827-5600 or visit Lyric Opera/Dead Man Walking.

Jodie Jacobs

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

Seville barber starts Lyric season with a good chuckle

 

Adam Plachetka, Marianne Crebassa and Lawrence Brownlee in the Barber of Seville at the Lyric Opera House. (Todd Rosenberg photo)
Adam Plachetka, Marianne Crebassa and Lawrence Brownlee in the Barber of Seville at the Lyric Opera House. (Todd Rosenberg photo)

3 ½ stars

What a joy to see and hear an opera that pokes fun at opera but does so using top tier voices and leads who know how to act.

And so Lyric Opera of Chicago opened its 2019-20 season with Gioachino Rossini’s  “The Barber of Seville,” a wildly popular opera buffa.

After first debuting as “Almaviva, o sia L’inutile precauzione” in 1816 in Rome, the opera took on the title of The Barber of Seville, or the Useless Precaution” with an Italian libretto by Cesare Sterbini that is based on the 1975 comedy in French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais’ trilogy.

Presented as a Rob Ashford production with a revival under the direction of Tara Faircloth, the scenes move from one delightful, chuckle moment to the next beginning with when Figaro has trouble getting rid of musicians asked to help Count Almaviva serenade the beautiful Rosina to when Almaviva and Rosina try to touch fingers in the balcony scene.

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‘Ariodante:’ love and lust, deception and trust

 

'Ariodante'in a shadow-box type set woks well at Lyric Opera of Chicago (Photo by Cory Weaver)
‘Ariodante’ in a shadow-box type set woks well at Lyric Opera of Chicago (Photo by Cory Weaver)

4 Stars

The Lyric Opera’s “Ariodante” by George Frideric Handel (of “Messiah” fame) satisfies the sensibilities of a modern audience.

The storyline of this eighteenth century Baroque opera has elements familiar to a twenty-first century TV audience including love, sex, drugs, infidelity, deception and a missing person. Oh! and puppets.

The plot-line would benefit from a chart. But essentially, Ginevra and Ariodante are in love and soon to be married, however, the villainous Polinesso is also in love with Ginevra who incidentally, can’t stand the sight of him.

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Emotional and explosive ‘Elektra’

Nina Stemme as Elektra at Lyric Opera of chicago. (Photo credit Cory Weaver and Lyric)
Nina Stemme as Elektra at Lyric Opera of chicago. (Photo credit Cory Weaver and Lyric)

3 1/2 stars

A stormy Nina Stemme filled the Lyric Opera House with a powerful interpretation of Richard Strauss’ “Elektra,” Feb. 6.

Known to the Met and European house for her vibrant vocals in Wagner and Strauss operas the Swedish soprano is making her Lyric debut this month as the tragic Elektra whose only motive for living is to avenge the death of her father, Agamemnon.

Stemme not only brings the expected explosive passion to the role, she also tempers the portrayal with wistfulness and contemplative anguish.

A one-act opera, there are no gaps for well-deserved applause and bravo! after each of Stemme’s arias.

The other two important female roles are Elektra’s sister, Chrysothemis, sung beautifully by acclaimed South African soprano Elza Van Den Heever and their mother, Klyamnestra, expressively sung by internationally known American mezzo-soprano Michaela Matens.

The two male characters vital to the story, Elektra’s, long lost brother, Orest, and the queen’s lover, Aegisth, don’t appear until the end. Scottish bass-baritone Iain Patterson who was recently Creonte in Medea at the Berlin State Opera sounded right at home in this dark mythological tale as was American tenor Robert Brubaker, a frequent artist at the Met.

Michaela Martens as Klytamnestra with confidante Whitney Morrison and train bearer Emily Pogorelc in Elektra at Lyric Opera of chicago (photo by Cory Weaver)
Michaela Martens as Klytamnestra with confidante Whitney Morrison and train bearer Emily Pogorelc in Elektra at Lyric Opera of Chicago (photo by Cory Weaver)

Directed by Nicolas Sandys as a revival of Director David McVicar’s production, the 2019 “Elektra”  is not a stand and sing to the audience opera. Instead, it is dramatic theater that combines exceptional singing and acting  with Strauss’ turbulent music played by the Lyric Opera Orchestra conducted by Donald Runnicles.

What audiences may not recall from this tale based on Sophocles’ Electra, is that the queen was enraged by Agamemnon’s supposedly appeasing a goddess by sacrificing another daughter, Iphigenia, before he left for Troy.  But no matter the motivation, Greek mythology makes potent opera.

My only problem with the production was the costumes of Klyamnestra and her court. The rubble in and around the courtyard where the action takes place and the ruinous state of the palace,  itself, seem to symbolize decay. I got that. However, the queen and her court appear to be over grotesquely costumed in apparel from a 1931 “Cabaret” nightmare so they distract from the opera’s action.

DETAILS: “Elektra” is at the Lyric Opera House, 20 N. WackerDrive, Chicago, through Feb. 22, 2019. Running time: 1 hr, 40 min. with no intermission. For tickets and other information visit Lyric Opera.

Jodie Jacobs

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

Cendrillon perfect for family outing

Siobhan Stagg in Cendrillon at the Lyric Opera
Siobhan Stagg in Cendrillon at the Lyric Opera

4 stars

Adults and youngsters alike should easily laugh, applaud and fall in love with “Cendrillon,” Jules Massenet’s operatic interpretation of “Cinderella.”

Certainly the version now at the Lyric has been traveling the opera circuit since opening at the Santa Fe Opera in 2006, but the telling clue to its humor is that when it premiered in 1899 it was at Paris’ Opéra-Comique where it was also remounted in 1911.

That the opera is a fairy tale comes across immediately with Barbara De Limburg’s delightful storybook set design.

That this opera, unlike Gioachino Rossini’s operatic drama “Cenerentola” (Cinderella), is a lighthearted version of the familiar fairy tale,  becomes obvious with Laurent Pelly’s hysterical, balloon-shaped costumes for the step sisters and the comedic costumes worn by the step mother and other female hopefuls at the prince’s ball.

From left: Kayleigh Decker, Elizabeth Bishop and Emily Pogorelc in “Cendrillon.” (Todd Rosenberg photos)
From left: Kayleigh Decker, Elizabeth Bishop and Emily Pogorelc in “Cendrillon.” (Todd Rosenberg photos)

And that the prince also stepped out of an amusing story book comes across when Pelly, who is also the opera’s director, introduces him as somewhat peevish, uncooperative, hardly charming, pajama-wearing kid in his bed chambers.

Revival choreographer Karine Girard (and original choreographer Laura Scozzi) play up the  opera’s nose-thumbing, pseudo-sophistication side with wonderful marching steps by palace couriers and the introduction of females who hope to win the prince.

But humor aside, the Lyric’s Cendrillon is still an opera that requires fine voices. And they are.

English mezzo-soprano Alice Coote is superb in the “trouser” role of the prince and a good contrast (as it should be) to Australian soprano Shobhan Stagg’s quieter, sweet, Cendrillon in her American debut.

Bass-baritone Derek Welton, another Australian making his American operatic debut, convincingly portrays Cendrillon’s comically pathetic father, Pandolfe. And French-Canadian coloratura Marie-Eve Munger stands out in her Lyric debut as the Fairy Godmother.

Cinderella (Siobhan Stagg) far left, Fairy godmother (Maie-Eve Munger) atop the books center and Prince charming (Alice Coote) far right kneeling with cast of Cenrillon at the Lyric Opera.
Cinderella (Siobhan Stagg) far left, Fairy godmother (Maie-Eve Munger) atop the books center and Prince charming (Alice Coote) far right kneeling with cast of Cenrillon at the Lyric Opera.

In the step family, American mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop making her Lyric debut is a perfect Mme. De la Haltiere. She’s backed up by daughters Noémie sung by American soprano Emily Pogorelc, and American mezzo-soprano Dorothée sung by Kayleigh Decker, both a Ryan Opera Center members.

As with many fairy tales there still is a poignant side, but the story still turns out well.

Although Rossini’s “Cenerentola” has appeared at the Lyric, Massent’s “Cendrillon” has only now come to town. It’s magic is perfect for the holiday season or anytime.

DETAILS: “Cendrillon”  is at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Dr., Chicago through Jan. 20, 2019. Running time: 2 hrs. 45 minutes with one intermission. For tickets and other information visit Lyric Opera.

Jodie Jacobs

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

In ‘Siegfried’ playful staging mixes with outstanding voices

 

Matthias Klink (Mime) in playpen and Burkhard Fritz (Siegfried) in the third segment of Wagner's Ring cycle at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Todd Rosenberg photos)
Matthias Klink (Mime) in playpen and Burkhard Fritz (Siegfried) in the third segment of Wagner’s Ring cycle at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Todd Rosenberg photos)

3.5 stars

Opera goers who saw “Das Rheingold” in 2016 and “Die Walküre” in 2017, Lyric’s first two operas segments of Wagner’s four-part “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” will find the next segment, “Siegfried,” still has tall scenery towers bookending the stage. They deliberately remind audiences that Wagner’s The Ring cycle is theater.

It is theatrical and musical drama. But where the productions of the first two segments were highly creative but serious, “Siegfried” is playful, fanciful, serious fun.

The tone is set when a somewhat menacingly large, three-nail-claw and an eye of Fafner, the giant-turned dragon who guards the ring, appear under the curtain and draw audience laughter. The curtain then rises to reveal Siegfried’s playroom of oversized art work and children’s furniture including a tall playpen.

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Idomeneo makes awkward deal with Greek god

RECOMMENDED

 

Matthew Polenzani and cast of Mozart's Idomeneo at Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Kyle Flubacker photo)
Matthew Polenzani and cast of Mozart’s Idomeneo at Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Kyle Flubacker photo)

If you have ever been caught in a storm while sailing or found yourself on a rough boat ride in Lake Michigan you can understand why Idomeneo is ready to bargain with Neptune in return for a safe harbor after being tempest tossed while returning from the Trojan War.

Neptune, willing to make a deal with Idomeneo says he will assure his safe arrival at shore but in return the hero must sacrifice the first person he sees.

Like many mythological Greek gods of yore Neptune seems to really enjoy some irony. As it turns out the first person Idomeneo spots is his very own son Idamante. Ah! The stuff great opera is made of.

This Lyric Opera of Chicago’s revival of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Idomeneo with a stellar cast of singers and awesome orchestra led by Music Director Sir Andrew Davis, is indeed lyrical.Read More

Around Chicago: April 21 and more

Itzhak Perlman comes to Lyric for a matinee April 23, 2017. Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco
Itzhak Perlman comes to Lyric for a matinee April 23, 2017. Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco

The good news is that Chicago is an arts mecca. The problem news is that Chicago is such an arts mecca that it is arguably impossible to catch all the terrific music, art, dance, theater and exhibits offered in the city and suburbs. Listed here is a sampling of really good events that might not have made it to your arts radar.

 

April 21, 2017

Rita Rudner

Comedienne extraordinaire Rita Rudner will be on stage at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 8 p.m. April 21. A regular act at The Venetian in Las Vegas, Rudner is also a screenwriter, best-selling author, actress and playwright.  For tickets and other information call (847) 673-6300 or visit North Shore Center. The North Shore Center for the Performing Arts is at 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie.

 

April 22-23, 2017

The Perfect American

Philip Glass has fictionalized Walt Disney’s final days as an opera. Composed of dreams and nightmares revolving around the fate of his kingdom and legacy, it includes recognizable people. The Chicago Opera Theater is performing the Chicago premiere of ‘The Perfect American’ at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. The Harris is in Millennium Park at 205 E. Randolph Drive, Chicago. For tickets and other information call (312) 334 -7777 or visit Harris.

 

April 23, 2017

Itzhak Perlman

The Lyric Opera of Chicago is bringing the famed violinist to the city for one performance. It is 3 p.m. Sunday at the Civic Opera House. Accompanied by pianist Rohan De Silva,  Perlman’s program includes Vivaldi’s Sonata in A Major for Violin and Continuo, Beethoven’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in F Major, Schumann’s Fantasiestuck, and Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 in G Major. The Civic Opera House is at 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago. For tickets and other information call (312) 827-5600 or visit Lyric.

Odysseo extends through May 7, 2017. Dan Harper photo
Odysseo extends through May 7, 2017. Dan Harper photo

 

Now through May 7, 2017

Odysseo by Cavalia

‘Odysseo,’ a wondrous equestrian production visiting Chicago from Canada, that also includes acrobatics and aerial performances, has been extend through May 7. Drivers who have gone by Soldier Field or the Museum Campus will have seen the huge white tent where ‘Odysseo’ takes place. But what they might not know unless they’ve attended a show is that it has a 17,500 square foot stage that includes a three-story-high hill and other natural elements. The staging makes attendees feel as if they have been transported to the land where these horses cavort instead of the other way around. Entry is through the parking gates on East 18th Drive. For tickets and other information call (866) 999-8111 or visit Cavalia.

 

April 25 through May 7, 2017

Joffrey Ballet

The Joffrey Ballet is doing ‘Global Visionaries,’ a tribute to several choreographers that includes the world  premiere of a piece by Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman and the Chicago premier of a ballet by Russian choreographer Yuri Possokhov. Also showcased is Dutch choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s ‘Mammatus. The program is at the  Auditorium Theatre 50 E. Congress Parkway, Chicago. For tickets and other information call (312) 341-2310 or visit Auditorium Theatre.

 

 

Around Town in early April

So what if you have to walk between the raindrops. It’s April!

There are enough events in the Metropolitan Chicago area to brush aside gloomy weather and news outlooks for the entire month. Indeed, there is so much going on that here is just a first look at what’s happening so you can get tickets and fill in a couple of calendar spots.

Steam engines are again going around the Illinois Railway Museum tracks. Photo by Webster's Unabridged Inc and Illinois Railway Museum
Steam engines are again going around the Illinois Railway Museum tracks. Photo by Webster’s Unabridged Inc and Illinois Railway Museum

 

RR Fun

Visit a mid1800s train depot and hop on board some diesel and steam locomotives and assorted Pullmans, dining cars and cabooses at the Illinois Railway Museum. The museum is about an hour northwest of Chicago in Union City.  Closed for the winter, it just opened April 2 for the 2017 season and will remain open weekends through October. Weekday hours go from May through September.

The Illinois Railway Museum is at 7000 Olson Rd., Union, IL 60180. For cost, hours, directions and other information visit Illinois Railway Museum or call (800) Big Rail (244-7245).

 

See  robots

Head over to the Museum of Science and Industry for National Robotics Week activities April 8-9 and 14-15, 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.. Drone racing is April 8 and 9. .For more information visit MSI and MSI Robotics.

The Museum of science and Industry is at 5700 S. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago (773) 684-1414.

 

Listen to glorious music

Hear tenor Lawrence Brownlee (think bel canto) and bass-baritone Eric Owens (Lyric’s “Ring”) with pianist Craig Terry at a Lyric Opera recital at the Civic Opera House, 3 p.m. April 9.

The Civic Opera House is at 20 N. Wacker Dr, Chicago. For tickets and other information visit Lyric and call (312) 827-5600.

 

Hot music for cold nights

 

The Green Mill features Chicago and touring jazz artists. Photo by Jodie Jacobs
The Green Mill features Chicago and touring jazz artists. Photo by Jodie Jacobs

The Green Mill is always a good choice for hot jazz on a cold winter night. But who would have thought to add the Civic Opera House to the mix?

 

The Green Mill

The Bruce Barth Trio Tour is landing at the Green Mill, Feb. 3-4, 2017. Barth on the piano, Dave Baron on the bass and Montez Coleman on drums will be heating the Green Mill Jazz Club from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and 8 p.m. to midnight Saturday. Green Mill is at 4802 N. Broadway Ave., Chicago, IL 60640 (773-878-5552. Cover is $15.

 

Civic Opera House

You know “Hamilton” pulls together hip hop, jazz, blues and pop. But you can thank opera star Renée  Fleming for showing Chicago that indeed, the city spawns great jazz, blues, pop, rock, gospel, folk, hip hop and classical music. To hear all that in one place snag a ticket to Chicago Voices. Saturday. On stage will be Kurt Elling, Shemekia Copeland, Jessie Mueller, Lupe Fiasco, Renée Fleming Michelle Williams, The Handsome Family, Matthew Polenzani, and John Prine. Fleming has been working with the Lyric’s outreach arm to encourage more Chicagoans to express themselves in music.  Click Chicago Voices to find out more.

For ticket information visit Lyric Opera/Concert or  call (312) 827­-5600. The Civic Opera House is at 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago, IL 60606.