Friday, November 23, 2007

The Mark of Excellence

As one travels around the nation reviewing opera, one becomes acutely aware that, all too often, certain opera companies seem content to rest on their previous laurels without too much in the way of artistic justification. Keenly aware that, in the eyes of their audiences, they are only as good as their last show, other opera companies develop a reputation for delivering the goods.
What I find most interesting about this phenomenon is that the companies which have so often been hailed as the flagships of the American opera scene (the Metropolitan, New York City Opera and the San Francisco Opera) have, in the past two years, produced many a piss-poor performance which could tempt a major donor to stop writing checks. By contrast, where one finds the best opera being produced on a consistently high artistic level is in the middle of the country. In recent years, companies such as the Houston Grand Opera, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Minnesota Opera and Santa Fe Opera have been the ones to carry the spear of artistic leadership while maintaining the highest levels of quality control in America's operatic community. Of these organizations, the Lyric Opera of Chicago is perhaps the most under-appreciated.

In recent seasons, this company has taken some daring artistic strides, founded the North American opera community's first Composer-in-Residence program and nurtured a wealth of young talent through the Lyric Opera Center for Young American Artists. Unfortunately, since most business travelers still think of Chicago as a place to change planes or attend conventions (and since the people from out of town who read about the Windy City's burgeoning arts scene are most likely to learn about its expanding theatre community, the Chicago Symphony -- which is led by the venerable Sir Georg Solti -- and the treasures contained within the Art Institute of Chicago) all too often the Lyric gets passed over as a "seasonal attraction."
Seasonal or not, to my mind it is the Lyric Opera of Chicago, ensconced in the Windy City's beautiful art nouveau Lyric Opera House, which sits like a magnificent jewel in the center of Chicago's cultural tiara. The company's intense dedication to maintaining the highest musical standards (a concept to which some General Directors give mere lip service) is the reason why, whenever I bump into Lyric's jovial General Director, Ardis Krainik, I don't hesitate to tell the lady how much I appreciate the performances I experience in Chicago.

Those who cannot travel to Chicago can at least share in the glory of Lyric Opera's artistry each year when John Nuveen & Company, Inc. funds live broadcasts of the company's season. By and large, I think you'll find that the quality of these broadcasts stands head and shoulders above the Met's.


If you think I'm over-reacting, then consider this: Opening night of Lyric Opera's Salome was the kind of performance you fantasize about for years and then, when it's actually happening right in front of you, fear that you're going to have to pinch yourself to make sure that you're not dreaming. Dramatically, it was one of those knock-'em dead theatrical triumphs that rarely happens in the opera world. Musically, it was the kind of evening which leaves an opera lover's nerve ends all a-tingle with a sensation resembling the post-orgasmic satisfaction that comes after the lay of a lifetime.

This co-production with the Los Angeles Music Center Opera was originally designed by John Bury, directed by Sir Peter Hall and built around the talents of Hall's (at the time of the production's conception) wife, Maria Ewing.

Although many sopranos have essayed the role of Oscar Wilde's sex-crazed siren, Josephine Barstow and Maria Ewing are among the very few who have managed to sing Strauss's music well while making the character of Salome dramatically convincing. With Jeannette Aster recreating Sir Peter Hall's original stage direction, Ewing's brooding eyes, nubile body, and feral vulnerability were used to shape one of the most powerful portrayals of the King of Judea's nymphomaniacal step-daughter to be seen in recent years. Salome's Dance of the Seven Veils (which Ewing finished in total nudity) was extremely well done and, thank God, nowhere near as embarrassing as what one sees when other, less lithesome sopranos, attempt to become "arty."

James King's Herod, Brigitte Fassbaender's Herodias and Sigmund Nimsgern's Jochanaan lent sturdy support throughout the evening but, in all honesty, it was Miss Ewing's show from start to finish. If any one person's contribution to the performance seemed even greater than hers, it was that of Leonard Slatkin (the Music Director of the St. Louis Symphony) who reigned over the Lyric's pit like Merlin the Magician. In the course of eliciting a phenomenal orchestral reading from the instrumentalists, with moments of incredible brilliance, Slatkin coaxed sounds out of Strauss's score that I have never heard before during a live performance. To date, this production has been a hit at Covent Garden, the Kentucky Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago and will return to Los Angeles in April with Miss Ewing on the stage and Randy Behr on the podium. If you're heading for LA-LA land, don't miss it.


Chicago's Mozarteans received a special treat when Lyric revived the Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production of Don Giovanni last fall. Following Ponnelle's death, stage director Matthew Lata (who also wrote the Supertitles for this production) took over Ponnelle's directorial chores, working with a cast that could hardly be bettered. Sam Ramey's Don was, as always, sensual, athletic, and vocally magnificent. Baritone Claudio Desderi was a disarming Leporello, tenor Gosta Winbergh a sympathetic Don Ottavio and veteran basso John Macurdy a sonorous Commendatore.

In addition to Ramey's solid performance as Mozart's Don, Richard Cowan's Masetto and Marie McLaughlin's Zerlina made for a handsome pair of young lovers. The two women hot on Don Giovanni's libidinous trail were sung by sopranos Carol Vaness (Donna Anna) and Karita Mattila (Donna Elvira) with stunning musicianship and great dramatic dignity. It's interesting to note that Vaness and Ramey (both Americans) have become the world's leading interpreters of the roles they sing in this opera.

Although conductor Semyon Bychkov's tempos often seemed erratic (this was apparently the first time he had conducted Mozart's opera), the performance, as a whole, was extremely satisfying. The high artistic level was typical of what one can expect to experience these days at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The rest of us should only have it so good!

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on March 2, 1989.

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