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.
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.
Between 1930 and 1938, Walter Burley Griffin and Eric Nicholls designed thirteen municipal incinerators in various Australian cities. Built in the heart of the Great Depression, these odd little buildings must have been a creative and financial godsend for Griffin, an architect whose splendid dreams were too often thwarted by unsplendid clients. The incinerators, which often sat in suburban streets, were ‘green’ infrastructure avant la lettre, fascinating both as urban history and as a possible model for the urban transformations required by the 21st century.
Though perhaps not one of Handel’s finest operas, Mr Alden’s production of Partenope plays up its farcical tendencies past the point of ridiculousness and vulgarity and never really climbs out of the dishwater. A farce, even the silliest one, is still emotional, in fact it depends on emotions, however simple, to work, but it becomes cold when played as a series of jokes without wit. In addition, for some cheap intellectualism, Mr Alden imposes references to Man Ray’s surrealist photography, but forced without honest reason, onto an opera which doesn’t even have any interest in being surreal, they become clunky and arbitrary.
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.
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.
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.
When speaking of modern music, it may be the complexity of rhythm or harmony of the piece in question, a lack of memorable melodies or it may be a simplicity in the rules implicitly underlying the piece, which only makes the freeness of the music seem complex to the listener’s higher faculties when they try to analyze it. Just as a thing can be understood intuitively or felt strongly to be so which the thinking, rational part of the mind finds impossible to prove, or can only justify after much difficulty. Some point to Debussy’s L’après midi d’un faune as the first usher of 20th Century music.