Tune Up

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cot-tito.jpgWhew, it has been one of those weeks – the ones when I’m helplessly entangled in ear-numbing back-to-back conference calls and when my work email box is a scarlet cesspool of unopened messages.  So on hump day, what better way to clear the mind, refresh the soul, and acquire that second wind to finish the week off with an accomplished bang, then say, go to the opera?  On Wednesday, I attended a performance of Chicago Opera Theatre’s (COT) season opener, a production of Mozart’s rarely-performed (well, at least in Chicago) final opera, La Clemenza di Tito.  I’m a big, big champion of COT, and regardless of what either purists or opera newbies may say, one thing you will never be at a COT opera is bored.  Under Jane Glover’s sterling baton, Mozart’s music, sometimes unfamiliar, mostly resonant, just soared.  The singing was gorgeous, with a powerful musical and dramatic performance from Renata Pokupic, as Sesto, the male would-be assassin and almost-too-close-friend of the Emperor Tito (this role is traditionally played by females).  She absolutely nailed Sesto’s intense, androgynous look, as well as played very delicately the character’s ambisexual notes (Pokupic was appropriately smoldering whether clinging to Vitellia’s leg or draped over the Emperor’s lap).   And her singing was impeccable.   The production was directed by the acclaimed opera director Christopher Alden, who, unfortunately, had been banished from the Lyric Opera after scandalizing the blue hairs with a risqué, modern-day adaptation of Rigoletto in the early 2000s (I can’t seem to find a review of that production, however, Google-friendly my fingers are).  And his Tito production was genius at times, and the equivalent of opera lardon at others.  I loved the way he directed Vitellia, the Lady Macbeth-like nemesis of the Emperor, like a B-movie silent film actress from the 1920s, emphasizing her mercurial theatricality and her delusional image of herself being more powerful than she really was (and Amanda Majeski sang the role beautifully- both tragic and infuriating at the same time).  But Vitellia’s mad-scene at the end of the opera was hammier and schlockier than a Paula Dean pork dish (I was expecting Vitellia to roll around in a bed of collard greens).  The design aesthetic was jaw dropping:  marble walls, hexagonal chandeliers, a red carpet, a velvet rope line, drapy costumes ala 1970s Halston, the whole look was an exciting, sexy Gloria Gaynor-meets-Spartacus‘-subliminal-gay chic take on the Roman empire.  But I didn’t really understand how the design illuminated, complemented, or deepened Tito’s themes of merciful exercise of power and the true nature of leadership.  I thought the design was fun to look at…but how relevant was it?  And I certainly didn’t understand the costuming of the chorus, who were in vaguely campy ‘70s outfits (including tacky-looking purses!), white masks, and on some of them, bandanas.  I thought I was watching a Pasolini movie set in an Italian Wal-mart.  Again, visually intriguing, but what was the point?  I thought Dominic Armstrong as Tito sang really well, but was dramatically weak, although I wondered whether it was mostly because of how he was directed – his Tito looked like a bundle of shattered nerves, shuffling tentatively and aimlessly through his citizens, whenever he wasn’t singing (then, he became powerful and authoritative).   La Clemenza di Tito was an interesting show, so I wished all its elements had come together better.  It’s still very much worth seeing though (and I’ll take a night at COT anytime over a night at the other opera company in the city).  Tonight is the last performance of La Clemenza di Tito at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph Drive.

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April Showers, No…Snow

Dance, Music, Theater 3 Comments »

aprilshowers.jpgLast Sunday evening, in what was supposedly spring in Chicago, as I miserably waited for the train to arrive on the Brown Line platform, pelted by freezing rain and snow, standing in slush, I wondered what kind of perfect past life (maybe filled with warm, tropical breezes, constant sunlight, and boys in thongs?) did I have that I should be paying for it in this life.  The weather for the rest of the month may continue to be unseasonably cold, but the city’s performing arts scene is continuing to warm up and sizzle, with tons of major theater and music events to go to.  As my monthly public service announcement to my avid blog readers, I’m giving a preview of the noteworthy performances and events I’m planning to go to in the month of April.

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This Isn’t a Powerpoint Presentation

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monsters-and-prodigies.jpgSometimes when you think you’ve seen it all at the theater, a sweet roll, perfectly aimed like a stealth missile, knocks you senseless. Thank goodness, I didn’t mean this literally, because the buns that the actors of Teatro de Ciertos HabitantantesMonsters and Prodigies: The History of the Castrati were pelting the audience with during a wacky, whacked-out foodfight at the performance on Friday night at the MCA Stage, hit my shoe instead of my forehead. But I might as well have been clobbered over the head by this heady, outrageously eccentric, undeniably informative, trainstopping hybrid of theater, opera, and an MFA lecture, the latest entry in an unforgettable Museum of Contemporary Art performance season. It is that good, and that memorable. And I am so thrilled that between the Goodman’s Eugene O’Neill Festival, the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s World Stage season, and the MCA Stage line-up, Chicago audiences have, since the fall of last year, had the opportunity to sample some of the best of the world’s theatrical offerings. This production, though, from the Mexico-City based theater company is quite a unique, one-of-a-kind experience – inventive and riveting, each artistic decision an essential contributor to communicating its themes and advancing its narrative structure.

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Opera Buzz

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One of the “buzzy” arts and culture news coming out of New York last week was the fact that Chicago-based Tony award-winning director Mary Zimmermann (whose The Arabian Nights is opening in May at her ensemble home, the Lookingglass Theatre) was booed when she took her bow at curtain call during opening night of her new production of Bellini’s La Sonnambula at the Metropolitan Opera. The production has gotten mixed to negative reviews, with critical brickbat primarily directed towards Zimmermann’s conceptual, meta-theatrical approach to the opera:  re-set in 2009 New York City, an opera company rehearsing La Sonnambula finds its performers’ real lives starting to resemble those of the opera’s protagonists’.  It’s not a novel approach at all (uhmm, the movie version of French Lieutenant’s Woman?  the recent Comedy of Errors at Chicago Shakespeare?), but there seems to be a lot of angst and anger at the updating and reconceptualization of “sacred” opera text – check out Chris Jones’ theater blog for a very lively discussion among both Chicago and New York-based opera goers.  Although I’m amused at the opera “purists” yakking away on Chris’s and other blogs, and though I won’t back off from a fight with arts purists of any kind, I won’t be jumping into the fray given I haven’t seen the production.  As my avid blog readers know, though, in theater, or opera for that matter, I am a very strong advocate of artistic concepts and visions that 1) create additional, fresh, insightful layers of meaning and resonance from the original text; 2) and in the process, draw new, non-traditional audiences to the work.  If Zimmermann’s La Sonnambula accomplishes these two things, then brava to her, and the “purists” can go sequester themselves in their hideous dank attics with their Maria Callas LP albums.

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Back on the Circuit

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cruches-for-new-year.jpgIn the midst of compiling New Year’s resolutions that I’ll most likely not be able to follow through on (do thirty sit-ups a day, eat more fruits, stop flirting with straight boys even if they offer to buy me a sidecar, finally break my vow never to see a Renee Zellweger movie again), I’ve been browsing the action-packed January calendars of the various arts and culture institutions in Chicago.  After the cultural wasteland that is the month of December (really, how many Ghosts of Christmas Pasts and Snow Queens can you stomach outside of the Boystown Halloween parade?), the beginning of the year is offering quite frankly, and wonderfully, an embarrassment of artistic riches. 

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Ten Indelible Memories

Culture, Music, Theater No Comments »

david-cromer-director-of-best-play-of-the-year.jpgThroughout the year, my standard response to friends, acquaintances, and random cocktail chit-chatters alike when they told me they were going to New York City to see a play was: “Save your airfare. Spend it on Chicago theater instead.” 2008 was, undeniably, a phenomenal year for Chicago theater. Local boy Tracy Letts won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Play for the stupendously successful August: Osage County, which was conceptualized, incubated, fleshed out, and first performed by Chicago’s leading theater company, Steppenwolf Theater. Legendary director Peter Brook came to Chicago this year (Fragments at Chicago Shakespeare), but so did acclaimed contemporary playwright Lynn Nottage, who premiered her latest work, the shattering Ruined, at the Goodman Theater. Horton Foote, still spry and vibrant at 92, was also at the Goodman, gracing activities for it’s Horton Foote Festival. Elevator Repair Company, Tim Supple, the Shaw Festival, Marta Carrasco, Mike Daisey, William L. Petersen (more of a comeback than a visit), the best and the brightest of the world’s stage were all in Chicago, interacting with a live theater audience that was as sophisticated, critical, open-minded, educated, and enthusiastic as any in the world. But the great thing about our Chicago theater community is that our local heroes continued to thrive, expand, inspire, and astound this year too. Directors David Cromer and Sean Graney staged some of the most brilliant, world-class theater in any time zone. Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey continued to demonstrate that she has the keenest, bravest, most uncompromising artistic sense among arts leaders in the city by opening a season that followed the August high with a highly-impressionistic, dense, intellectually provocative original adaptation of a Haruki Murakami novel. Great performances abounded, showcasing the almost limitless talent pool in the city: E. Faye Butler in Caroline, or Change, Hollis Resnick in Grey Gardens, John Judd in Shining City, Steve Pickering and Jen Engstrom in Fatboy, the list goes on and on. The storefront theater scene was energetic and impressively original, with inventive work coming from groups as diverse as the Hypocrites (every single play they staged this year), Collaboraction (Jon), Strange Tree Group (Mysterious Elephant), and TUTA (a haunting Uncle Vanya), introducing new theatergoers to the magic of live performance. It was a great year to be an arts lover in Chicago.

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