Another Angle on Wagner’s Lohengrin in Chicago

The Chicago Lyric Opera’s Lohengrin is a testament to the major problem of many American opera productions today. On the one hand, conductor Sir Andrew Davis’ formidable interpretation rivalled the greatest in Wagnerian history, but on the other hand, director Elijah Moshinsky’s lackluster staging rivalled your average high-school production. The irony of hearing some of the world’s greatest Wagnerian voices while seeing some of its most awkward blocking is nothing new to regular attendees of the American Wagner scene. That said, the Lyric might have done well to present the evening in concert form.

Lohengrin Revived at the Lyric Opera of Chicago

This year’s production of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin was only the second mounted by the Lyric Opera of Chicago in its history. The Ring, Tristan, and Parsifal have been seen multiple times on Wacker Drive since the 1950’s, but what is usually thought to be Wagner’s most accessible opera was not performed until 1980, a pedestrian premiere memorable only for Eva Marton in her prime as Elsa. The psychological complexities of the later works have generally commanded more attention in the post-war musical world, and the fairy-tale Lohengrin inevitably began to seem old-fashioned, a victim of jokes about Slezak and Melchior hauled upstream by swan boats. But Wagner achieved in Lohengrin a purity of lyric expression, both tender and ardent, not found in any of his other compositions, and always a pleasure to encounter again. Perhaps rightly, it was the Italianate Lohengrin of Plácido Domingo in 1984 that drew the serious attention of New York audiences back to the piece, and then Ben Heppner and Deborah Voigt in the controversial 1998 production conceived by Robert Wilson. That staging cut through accumulated theatrical tradition by adopting a highly stylized Kabuki-like form, both in the sets and the singers’ movements. (Ben Heppner has claimed that his vocal problems began with this production and the unnatural singing positions he was forced into.) What Lyric Opera audiences saw in February and March was, as is usual in Chicago, hardly so challenging.

A Singer’s Notes 30: Our Town, at Hubbard Hall. Go to this!

Thoreau told us that the bluebird carries his sky on his back. He knew if we could see this we would know the color of Heaven. This is the way Our Town works. It is quiet. One scene — the one at the soda fountain — makes the difficulty of talking almost a touchable thing. Laconic sentences in the play mean more than just their sense; they pull the listener. “Know they will” says Howie Newsome, a couple of times. Syntax made into sound. To Wilder this seemed to be the language of New England. And this is precisely the sound that the Theatre Company at Hubbard Hall production found so directly last weekend.

Purcell and Handel with Andreas Scholl & Co.

Most seem to agree musical historicism can go too far: imagine a Plymouth Plantation-style re-enactment of a concert of Baroque music with the audience coming and going, eating picnics in the gods, a musician wearing a modern watch dismissed as a “farb.” Luckily most musical historicists are more practical and flexible. For this concert the hall lights stayed up, which is a nice touch, even if electrics are not as pretty as the candle-lit halls of days past. Unfortunately, and I assume unintended by the musicians, the audience did come and go in between the first several songs, which not only rudely made the musicians wait but disrupted the flow of the program, and one woman, having missed three or four songs, came clumping down the wood-floored aisle in high-heels making an incredible noise. More cheerfully, Mr Scholl had the audience join in on the refrain of Purcell’s Man is for the Woman Made, which, according to Mr Scholl, is what Purcell intended when he originally composed it, for light relief in the theatre. And it did provide some short refreshing relief among the quite serious music in this program.

Eye to Eye: European Portraits 1450–1850, Clark Art Institute, January 23 – March 27, 2011

The Clark usually manages to show at least one exhibition from an important private collection every year, and for us, the public, this is surely one of its healthiest policies. The Clark, after all, originated from a private collection, an idiosyncratic one, as the best private collections usually are, and the professionals who have been responsible for it since have made an effort remain true to the vision of the founders. Even after the Manton Bequest, a rather different, but compatible private collection, the atmosphere and ethos remain the same. To host distinguished private collections of a variety of different sorts is both an hommage to the initiative of the Clarks and an open window on different worlds, some of which, like the selection from the Steiner Collection of old master drawings, have found their way into the permanent collection. Others come and go, enriching the galleries for a few months, then leaving them open for other guests. I can think of few other institutions where such exhibitions seem so much like polite hospitality.

Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony Play Mahler’s Sixth; Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto

In a way it is pointless to try to write words on music like this, but here goes anyway. It doesn’t really help to read glib selective quotations from even the composer describing the music, sometimes in a single word, “tragic,” “fate,” “Heldenmord” fail to do justice while missweighing one idea, like a greedy fruit grocer. The Mahlers deep and checkered feelings about his Sixth Symphony are clearer from this quotation from Alma Mahler’s memoirs, even if it does sound ambiguous or contradictory at one level:

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, directed by Omar Sangare – March 10, 11, 12, 7:30 pm, Adams Memorial Theatre, Williams College

Professor Omar Sangare reimagines Tennessee Williams’ classic American play. A Streetcar Named Desire forces us to confront some of the most difficult themes in our lives; dreams, nightmares, illusions, gender dynamics, betrayal, rape, sexuality, and the ever elusive American Dream. Professor Sangare leads a dynamic ensemble of students and faculty, shining a spotlight on the essence of Williams’ characters through a distinctive and original set of performances.

The End of the Levine Years: James Levine to step down Sept. 1, withdraws from his remaining BSO concerts of the 2010-11 season

BSO Managing Director Mark Volpe announced today that as of September 1, 2011, James Levine will step down from his current role as Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a position he has held since 2004. Discussions between the BSO and Maestro Levine are underway to define an ongoing new role for Mr. Levine. Mr. Volpe has also announced that the BSO will immediately form a search committee to begin the process of appointing the next Boston Symphony Music Director.

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