Taut, timely Bel Canto receives long-awaited Lyric premiere

Andrew Stenson_Danielle de Niese_BEL CANTO_LYR151204_0655_c.Todd Rosenberg

Unlikely friends Gen (Andrew Stenson) and Roxana (Danielle de Niese) are brought together by a hair-raising hostage situation.  © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2015

*WARNING: Spoilers ahead. Read at your own discretion.*

Before the premiere performance of Bel Canto, I was wandering around the grand lobby of the Civic Opera House when I ran into some friends from WFMT. They were asking patrons why they were attending the performance, then collecting soundbites from their responses for a segment.

My answer was easy: When you have the opportunity to attend the world premiere of an opera, you go—especially a show as anticipated as Bel Canto. Billed as a dream collaboration between Lyric Opera music director Sir Andrew Davis, creative consultant Renée Fleming, director Kevin Newbury, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz, and upstart composer Jimmy López, Bel Canto would also be the notoriously conservative Lyric’s first commission in more than a decade.

In the end, Bel Canto didn’t quite meet its hype—how could it’ve? But it was certainly memorable, not to mention a laudable showing for López and Cruz, who made their first foray into opera with the commission.

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The legacy, the labyrinth, and the review that never was

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Pierre Boulez in rehearsal with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, February 1969. (Courtesy of the CSO’s Rosenthal Archives)

We’ve all probably sick of hearing the pathetic but reassuring trope “You win some, you lose some.” For an upstart journalist, the cliché transposes to something a little more tangible: sometimes you’re picked up, and, well, sometimes you’re not.

I recently revisited a dual review I’d written a year ago, which critiqued both a CSO program curated by Pierre Boulez and the CSO’s Beyond the Score production on Boulez himself. I submitted it to the Chicago Maroon‘s arts section and, for one reason or another, it never ran. (The reason given to me at the time was that it’d simply been lost in the black hole that was—and still is—our column’s email inbox.)

Even though it never saw the light of day, I think the process of writing this particular review was what really got me hooked on music criticism. As a total novice in twelve-tone music, I found Boulez’s music hypnotizing, overwhelming, and baffling all at once—enough to make me hunger to hear more, and to know as much as I possibly could about something I knew next to nothing about.

It sounds bizarre, but that insatiable curiosity—coupled with the persistent feeling that I’m in way over my head—is still what keeps me going. It did a year ago, and it does now, only doubly so.

The review is below:

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Flicka and me

Mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade is a one of the reasons I’m an opera queen today. She was my second Cherubino: I saw a bootleg recorded telecast of the Met’s 1985 production of Le Nozze di Figaro on Youtube when I was 16, and that was that. The video has since been taken down (copyright more like copy-blight *snort* *a-hyuck*), but the cast stays with me still. Carol Vaness and her “Dove sono“? Lady slays the recitative like nobody’s business—much injured, very nobility, all that.

It was von Stade’s Cerentola in the film directed by Jean-Pierre Ponelle that showed me how opera could be at once fantastic and believable, that fairy tales could look that part. She had the voice of a princess—and she looked like one too, in her final aria “Nacqui all’affanno . . . Non più mesta.” Her instrument decadent yet delicate, with its glimmering top notes and honey-smoked lower register. Most endearing of all was von Stade’s effortless and intuitive ability to narrate and embody character: Her interpretations always felt right, never mannered.

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Powerful female leads reclaim “Carmen”


Atala Schöck and Attila B. Kiss make an uneven pair in the Hungarian State Opera’s Carmen. (Photo: Zsófia Pályi)

During a group tour of the Hungarian State Opera House in Budapest, our guide led us into a gallery room in the house’s northwest corner. On the walls were towering portraits of famous Hungarian singers, sitting as their most famous roles. It wasn’t hard to spot Carmen among them. Haughty, dignified, and sultry, she commanded as much attention in the room as the stage.

Right on cue, our guide pointed out the portrait to our group. “When Carmen premiered, the aristocracy did not like this story of a gypsy girl who worked in a cigarette factory,” she told us. “So, for it to be shown in our opera house, the storyline had to be changed.”

Something about that seemed oddly symbolic, especially given the events unfolding in Budapest that week. Tellingly, no ripples were felt during my stay—least of all during my night to see the Hungarian State Opera’s production of Bizet’s opera, for which a capacity crowd packed into Budapest’s Erkel Theatre.

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Salonen and SRSO make impassioned team in all-Finnish program


Maestro in motion. (Alternatively titled, “When life doesn’t give you press pictures…”)

It was somewhat by accident that, while spending a few days in Stockholm, I found myself smack-dab in the middle of the city’s Baltic Sea Festival. Musicians from the Baltic Sea region flock to Stockholm for this festival, whose mission statement marries music-making with environmental urgency.

In town were Valery Gergiev—with the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra in tow—and Esa-Pekka Salonen, classical music’s veritable Energizer Bunny. (I saw him last in May of this year and wrote about it on this blog.) Both men are cofounders of the festival, along with General Manager Michael Tydén.

I overlapped with Gergiev’s residency in the city of Nobel Prizes and ABBA for one concert. But it was Salonen’s program the following night—alongside the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra—that intrigued me enough to duck out of preexisting evening plans.

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Une déluge fantastique

Something magical happens on the Metra platform back from Ravinia. You mingle with other concertgoers on their way back to Evanston or Chicago, chat (or complain!) about what you heard. Ask politely and a baby-boomer couple will share their umbrella. You’re already soaked to the bone and quite chilly but make small talk with Michael and Joyce because mother raised you proper, dammit. They’re huge on opera, Lyric subscribers for the past decade, loved Don Giovanni to bits (you didn’t) and missed Radvanovsky singing Anna Bolena (the flu, alas). You convince them to catch her next season at the Met.

Looking through the downpour, you reflect on the charms of open-air music festivals. Hearing Mozart over birdsong and the tousle of wind through treetops: much Nature, very Romanticism, wow! Then it rains on your commute from avec to the Metra and from the train station to the concert shell and you sit in your pathetic UNIQLO tee and twill shorts dripping water in a nonplussed sort of way. You eye the shawl of the lady sitting in front of you, the Cecil to your Walter Palmer. She coughs.

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Independence Weekend at Ravinia, Part III

Her dress is on point.

Yuja Wang playing table tennis with Eric Jacobsen and The Knights early afternoon on July 6.

My first CD was a copy of Lang Lang’s Dragon Songs. I know—I’m a stereotype.

For those of you not familiar with this recording, it’s a collection of Chinese folk songs transcribed or reinterpreted for the piano. A double imperative to practice more piano and forget less of your culture.

Up till last Sunday, Dragon Songs was my only exposure to folk music performed in a serious, artistic context. I was initially drawn to The Knights’s concert July 5 at Ravinia because Dawn Upshaw was on the bill. She was my first Zerlina (Met 1990 ft. a spry James Levine and very sensual Samuel Ramey) on Youtube and I was excited to hear her instrument in person. I certainly didn’t expect one of the most eclectic, cohesive, and inventive programmes I had heard in a long time. That was a nice surprise.

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Independence Weekend at Ravinia, Part II

I have brunch + matinee plans and what happens to me first thing in the morning? I’m trapped in my bathroom. Doorknob falls out and the lock is stuck. I try to break down the door, fail, and contemplate my mortality.

Roommate calls the landlord and I manage to escape. The Union North Metra takes me to Yundi. Wish I got the breakfast paella at avec but these Costco chicken tenders will have to do.

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CSO’s “Reveries” comes to rousing, transcendent close

5/21/15 9:48:12 PM  Chicago Symphony Orchestra Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor Samuel Coles, flute Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano Valérie Hartmann-Claverie, ondes martenot        Debussy Syrinx     Ravel Piano Concerto in G Major     Messiaen Turangalîla-symphonie © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2015

Esa-Pekka Salonen leads the CSO in Messiaen’s immersive Turangalîla-symphonie. (© Todd Rosenberg Photography 2015)

After three weeks of world-class, superbly programmed performances, the time has come to say au revoir to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s French Reveries & Passions Festival. May 23rd marked the final large-scale performance of the festival and the end of indefatigable Finnish conductor-composer Esa-Pekka Salonen’s residence with the orchestra.

But they certainly went out with a bang. A big, big bang—and for once, the galactic connotations here are completely fitting.

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Bruckner v. Bruckner: Part II

Another Böhler silhouette: Bruckner meets his idol, Richard Wagner.

Speaking of organists (but gladly moving on from onions), it’s time to return to Bruckner. This post is coming much later than I’d intended it to, especially since the performance examined here now passed more than two weeks ago.

Then again, as I mentioned in the first part of this two-part post, when it comes to me and Bruckner, things tend to be generally slow-going. (A quick recap for those who missed it: After listening to most of Bruckner’s mid- to late symphonies, I still feel overwhelmed by them. They defy my comprehension—and I do very much want to comprehend them.)

Maybe that’s the common ground I share with our composer of contention: Bruckner once said that whenever he had something important to say, musically or otherwise, he had to stop and take a breath first.

Consider last week a breather. Let’s proceed.

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