Jesus Christ Superstar

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I had such high hopes for the Lyric Opera’s Jesus Christ Superstar. I was too young to see the show when it first came out. I’m pretty sure I never saw the 1973 movie either though I knew a couple of the songs. The Lyric has high standards so I didn’t feel I had to lower expectations. On Wednesday two performers were interviewed on Chicago Tonight, our local PBS news program and that whetted my appetite for a good show. However, I recommend you save your money. The song above is the best part of the show.

The show started off fine showing a bunch of Jesus’ devotees singing and dancing. Clearly Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice were offering a modernized telling of the end of the gospels. But when Jesus took the stage, he seemed rather lackluster. He wore cool clothes and had a hip hairstyle, but under that he was bland. He clearly enjoyed the fame, which isn’t what Jesus was about. Yet the title clues us into that’s the creators’ theme.

The show itself only had two songs I remembered liking and that didn’t change after seeing this production. Many of the songs were just loud and it was hard to make out the lyrics. I agreed with the two women behind me in line for the loo during intermission that the acting was weak. The emphasis was on singing and dancing with just no characterization. In Act Two the dancing was a let down because the choreography was so similar to Act One.

There’s a lot of odd choices in this production. For example, in one number the dancers all hold crosses, but this is happening well before Jesus was condemned to die on the cross. There’s no reason anyone would use a cross as a symbol of Jesus before he’s called in front of Pilate.

The Israel of this production has a hint of dystopia as the citizens all wear drab grays and gender is not marked much in dress or personal style. I was confused in Act II about who was the person in a golden bird costume. It wasn’t till he disrobed to let out his inner hedonist that I guessed it was Herod.

From the Chicago Tonight interview, I learned that this production uses 90 pounds of glitter. (They use a lot of glitter, but it could be 90 pounds worth by the end of the run.) The first time they use it, the shimmer and glow makes sense. Mary Magdalene, who most agree wasn’t the same woman who poured oil over Jesus when he was at a dinner, empties a jar of what is oil over Jesus and it was cool that glitter was used. Later when Jesus is being beaten the men beating him whip him with handfuls of glitter. That was just odd — too much of a good thing.

Spoilers follow.

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Gounod’s Faust

The Lyric’s now showing Charles Gounod’s Faust. I’m quite new to opera so I don’t know how this sits with most fans, but I found the set design and use of deliberately jerky, old style animation and video captivating. These effects seemed at once and modern.

Faust is a well known tale of a miserable old man, a scholar on the verge of suicide, who feels life has slipped away. He could or should be so much more, he thinks. Life is unbearable without true love.

In walks Méphistophélès, the devil’s assistant, who has a deal. Méphistophélès offers to make Faust young again, which thrills Faust. Before he knows it, Faust has met the love of his life, an innocent, young woman named Marguerite, who in this production cannot walk without crutches. I haven’t sorted out if I think that enhanced the story, I tend to think it didn’t, mainly, because I’m not sure why that choice was made.

A subplot involves Siébel, a young man in town who’s in love with Marguerite. Siébel promises Marguerite’s brother that he’ll protect her while the brother is off at war. For Marguerite, there’s no chance of love with Siébel, who’s strictly friend material. I have no idea why a woman played Siébel. That choice did make it clear why Marguerite chose Faust, who was taller, stronger and manly.

Of course, things aren’t going to work out. Faust learns the price for his new-found youth is his soul. Marguerite winds up in love with Faust, unmarried and pregnant searching for some option out of her desperate situation.

The opera was innovative, but as much as I found the set design innovative, it did compete too much with the performances.

This opera’s pre-performance talk was very good as it not only provided a clear, engaging synopsis but added details into the composer Charles Gounod’s career and reason for writing this particular piece.

 

Rigoletto

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I was lucky to get $20 Lyric Opera tickets, on the main floor no less, to see Verdi’s Rigoletto. The Lyric Opera Chicago hosts College Nights upping their game from the previous years, which offered $20 tickets but no extras. For College Night undergrads and graduate students were invited for sandwiches and soft drinks at 5:30 followed by a talk by the Technical Director.

The Technical Director’s talk was fascinating. We learned how the shows are selected a couple years in advance. After that the set designers design a model of the sets, which are then finished the summer before the opera season. In the summer, all the sets for the season are set up and the lighting is arranged and saved in a computer.

Since opera singing is so exhausting performers can’t sing day after day. So different shows are shown in repertory. This means the sets have to be changed every day. One day Rigoletto, the next Die Walküre, the next The Pearl Fishers. The space at Lyric is able to store the other days’ sets in space above the current set and it takes 4 hours, on a good day, to set up the day’s set. We also learned about the special certification needed to oversee open flames, when that’s needed for an opera. The certification is the same as needed to oversee an oil rig.

After this talk there was the usual pre-opera talk in the theater. This was outstanding as usual. We learned about how the story for Rigoletti came from Victor Hugo’s Le roi s’amuse, a play that was censored and closed after one performance, because it showed a licentious king. Verdi changed the king to a duke to be safe. Northern Italy was governed by Austria and they didn’t mind seeing an Italian duke made a fool of. While writing the opera, Verdi was quite secretive. He realized that the most familiar song from the opera, X would be a success. He wouldn’t allow the singer who was to sing it to take the music home with him.

As you’d expect the singing was divine. The story is about a court jester, Rigoletto, who gets in trouble for mocking the nobles and duke, which is his job. To get revenge, the nobles mistakenly kidnap his daughter who’s fallen in love with the philandering duke whom she met at church. She thinks he’s a penniless student, not a womanizing duke. The end is harsh and hinges on mistaken identity. I’ll write my thoughts below in the more section so there’s no spoilers.

The only criticism I have for this production is the set. Rigoletto’s home looks like a prison on the inside. Floor to ceiling, the rooms are concrete blocks with a concrete slab as the only furnishing. The stairs have metal handbags and are prison-like. Now Gilda is captive there so maybe the prison look was intentional. I thought it was just ugly. It’s a minor complaint.

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Lyric’s Bel Canto

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Chicago’s Lyric Opera is now showing Bel Canto, a new opera based on Ann Patchett’s novel about the hostage situation in Peru in the 199o’s. Patchett added to the real event by creating a cast of characters, adding some romance and cross-cultural lessons.

Bel Canto takes place in Peru when the Vice President has throws a party for an important Japanese business man who’s a big opera lover. Soprano Roxane Cox, Mr. Hosokawa’s favourite singer, will perform. Thus the opera opens with the excited arrival of guests to a once in a lifetime event.

Yet early on the mood is transformed when guerrilla soldiers storm the mansion and take everyone inside hostage. Like the real event, the guests are held hostage for 4 months. During that time, romances blossom, cultural barriers crack and crumble.

Except for the very end, the opera follows the plot of the novel. I thought the music was wonderful, but some lyrics were too mundane such as a the piece between a rebel woman and a translator who’re in love. When they’re in the kitchen for some private space, they sing of pots and pans and saltshaker and amor. It didn’t work for me. All in all, Bel Canto is an accessible opera that fans of the novel will enjoy, especially if the composer goes back and makes some of the lyrics more poetic rather than mundane.

Also, the audience doesn’t get as intimate a sense of the characters as we did with the book. Now, of course, opera is a different art form, but great operas masterfully communicate the desires and thoughts, Bel Canto can too.

Readers, PBS’ Great Performances taped the opera when I was there so you don’t have to spend $50-289 to see it. Even though there were some rough spots, it’s well worth watching on TV.

More reviews

Safe & Sound blog
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Wall St. Journal

 

 

Lyric’s Hansel und Gretel

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The Lyric Opera of Chicago is presenting Engelbert Humperdink’s (the original Humperdink, not the pop singer) Hansel und Gretel. As you’d expect the music was heavenly and the story was compelling. This version emphasized the hunger and poverty this family experienced. The first act portrays how this family has no food other than a small jug of milk, probably 2 cups full, hardly enough for a family of four. The children lament how they’re starving and long for food. During the pre-opera lecture, we were reminded  that before a neighbor gave Hansel and Gretel‘s family the milk, the probably hadn’t eaten breakfast or dinner the night before. Yet when they get rambunctious and are cavorting around the kitchen they break the milk jug losing the only food the family has.

The mother returns and is furious when she learns that the milk’s gone. She sends Hansel and Gretel into the forest to get a large bowl full of berries. After they leave, their father returns and fortunately, he’s sold all his goods, the brooms he makes, and has bought a large bag of food. Their problems are over. When father learns that the children are off in the woods, he’s alarmed. The forest is dangerous. A terrible witch who preys on children lives there. What was mother thinking?

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The second act is set in the forest, done with a minimal naturalistic style, with dark, foreboding visuals. Again the music is moving and the visuals compel. The highlight of the act was when the children say their prayers singing to the 14 angels who protect them.

Opera newcomers would appreciate this performance as the story is so familiar and the music is beautifully sung. There are some differences from the cozier versions of the story we usually hear. The mother is not a stepmother. The scenes with the bread crumbs aren’t here and we don’t see a colorful candy house. So the artistry of the sets isn’t what you’d expect, but the visuals do express the theme of hunger and hard times well.

All in all, this production of Hansel und Gretel pulls us in from start to finish.

I Saw Sunday

Here’s a new meme: I Saw Sunday

So, what did you see this week?

One thing or a whole list! – Words or photos or both!

Share it here with us.

The Rules

1. Write your post on your blog and include a link back to I Saw Sunday.
2. Leave the link to your post in the Mr Linky widget so we can find you.
3. Leave a comment after linking so that I know you have been here.
4. Please be sure to visit the other participants and share what they saw.

Aida depicted on the Lyric's permanent curtain

I had a splendid week and saw so much.

First I’m still blown away by the production of Aida that I saw at the Lyric Opera. Such pageantry! Such voices! I also love the Lyric Opera House‘s interior. Beautiful Art Deco (above).

The last few days due to the warm weather, I’ve seen a dozen or so ducks, which is quite uncommon in this area in February.

I got to see my friend Yuki, whom I haven’t seen for a couple years. I also got a copy of her book Beyond the Mushroom Cloud. Yuki’s a religious studies professor and her niche is the spirituality of the bombing of Hiroshima, which she explores by examining speeches, writings and films about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I look forward to reading this book.

After brunch with Yuki, I went over to the Art Institute of Chicago where they have a lovely exhibit of Japanese prints from the 1960s and 70s.

“Slow down and take the time to really see. Take a moment to see what is going on around you right now, right where you are. You may be missing something wonderful.”
– J. Michael Thomas

Aida

As I’ve come to expect, the Lyric Opera‘s Aida blew me away. Since signing up for the Lyric’s NExT program that offers $20 student discount tickets, I’ve discovered that I really like opera, at least some operas. Although all the NExT tickets were gone by the time, I bought my tickets, I felt the $55 tickets would be a wise purchase and they were.

My friend Maryann and I went on a Friday afternoon and first went to the pre-opera lecture. WFMT‘s Carl Grapentine, who’s got a sonorous voice, offered background that made the opera all the more meaningful. We learned that Verdi was rejected when he applied to the conservatory in Milan, which today is called Conservatorio di musica “Giuseppe Verdi” di Milano. Ha! Take that!

Aida is Verdi’s 26th opera and was commissioned by an Egyptian khedive (i.e. viceroy, i.e. a king’s representative). Grapentine explained Aida’s genesis and story, and I highly encourage audience members to attend the free pre-opera lecture which starts an hour before the curtain.

Briefly, Aida has a plot Aristotle would love as the characters are tied together in such a way that only tragedy can result. Ethiopia and Egypt are at war. Aida is an Ethiopian slave serving the Egyptian princess, Amneris. Both women love the same man, Radames, a strapping young Egyptian warrior. He loves Aida, but becomes engaged to Amneris, who senses her fiancé has eyes for someone else. Who?

As if this isn’t enough drama, Aida is the daughter of the Ethiopian king Amonasro, who’s been captured by Radames. Every one of the three main characters’ hearts are divided between loyalty, patriotism and true love.

No one’s going to walk off into the sunset and though as a modern viewer of stories in every media available, I get a steady diet of happy endings, I’m perfectly fine with this tragedy. I wish Hollywood trusted in the power of tragedy as the Greeks and Shakespeare’s peers did. We don’t always need things tied up with a bow at the end. Really.

A feast for the eyes and ears, Aida features masterful singing, spectacular sets, lavish costumes, and beautiful dancing. The English translations for the Italian lyrics are projected overhead so that even those, like us, in the nosebleed seats can follow the story easily.