Thursday, April 04, 2013

Two Operas

The second weekend of March, my parents, Joshua’s sister, and Joshua and I attended two opera performances at Lyric Opera Of Chicago.

On Saturday evening, March 9, we attended a performance of Puccini’s “La Boheme”.

On Sunday afternoon, March 10, we attended a performance of Verdi’s “Rigoletto”.


The Chicago “La Boheme” was worthwhile because two singers with major international careers had been engaged for the roles of Mimi and Rodolfo: Russian soprano Anna Netrebko and Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja.

Both singers lived up to their reputations.

Both singers lived up to our expectations.

Netrebko’s voice is HUGE; it set the enormous Chicago Lyric Opera House ringing. It is not often one hears a voice of such size; there is a special pleasure—even thrill—in experiencing a voice as it fills a large auditorium with wave after wave of overwhelming, luxuriant sound.

To my ears, Netrebko’s timbre is exceedingly beautiful. There is a hint of smokiness that I associate with Eastern European singers (and much admire), yet Netrebko’s is a very pure instrument, as pure as that of a “white voice”. There the parallel with white voices ends: Netrebko’s voice has color and richness and warmth—“glamour of sound”, as my father calls it—that outrank and outpace virtually all other soprano voices on the international circuit.

Netrebko’s voice is very even throughout its range—I heard no register breaks—and her pianissimos were as lovely as when she was singing full out.

Netrebko gave an attractive stage performance. No one would call her a great actress, yet Netrebko had a genuine and natural stage presence, and displayed an appealing and engaging personality. The Chicago audience adored her—and I did, too.

Like Netrebko, Calleja possesses a major instrument.

Calleja is a lyric tenor, with the fast vibrato associated with Italian tenors of the early 20th Century. His voice has Italianate color and warmth, and he produces a rounded, soft-grained sound that I find immensely appealing. (He floats high notes beautifully.) He is one of the finest tenors of the day, with a natural command of Italian lyric style.

Calleja presents a slightly-stiff onstage figure, but his restrained portrayal of Rodolfo was convincing. Genuine acting is not necessary for a singer to offer a successful Rodolfo.

The Musetta was American soprano Elizabeth Futral. Futral has a small, focused voice, but hers is not a major instrument. Her aural rendition of Musetta was wiry and colorless—it verged on the acidic—when it should have been fulsome and sensuous and Mediterranean. Futral’s voice simply was not made for major roles in major houses.

Futral’s physical portrayal of Musetta was superb. Futral is a committed and convincing stage actress. There was far more pleasure to be gained watching Futral’s Musetta rather than hearing Futral’s Musetta.

The Marcello was American baritone Lucas Meachem, in the very early stages of a career. Meachem sang the notes cleanly if blandly—but he displayed a bumpkin-like stage presence, giving the impression that he had wandered in from a student production in Tallahassee.

Emmanuel Villaume, a Frenchman, conducted—without distinction. “La Boheme” was Villaume’s fifth Chicago assignment in the last ten years. The man gets theater work everywhere, in the United States and Europe, mostly in French and Italian repertory, and I haven’t a clue why. May I assume his fees are low? Perhaps he is very easy to work with?

The production, a traditional one, had been borrowed from San Francisco Opera, where the production had premiered in 1996. The stage design was not offensive, but neither was it attractive—and surely it was more low-budget and unimaginative than necessary. There are far finer “La Boheme” productions to be rented than San Francisco’s.

A staff director from the Metropolitan Opera was in charge of the Chicago staging—but Netrebko and Calleja may have ignored the stage director. A Chicago opera patron who had attended a February performance of the same production with a different Mimi and Rodolfo told us that Netrebko and Calleja were doing their own staging—and even their own blocking. What Netrebko and Calleja were doing, he said, was vastly different from what had been enacted by the previous Mimi and Rodolfo (neither of whom had been international-level singers with sufficient clout to disregard stage directions).

We last heard “La Boheme” in November 2006 in Hamburg. Hamburg’s had been a new production (Guy Joosten) also guided by a French conductor (Jean-Yves Ossonce). The 2006 Hamburg “La Boheme” paralleled the 2013 Chicago “La Boheme” in many ways: the Hamburg orchestra had lacked genuine virtuosity and radiance of sound; the Hamburg conductor had not been ideal; the down-list cast of singers in Hamburg had been provincial; and the physical production in Hamburg, unattractive and undistinguished, had looked like an exercise in cost-cutting.

Chicago’s “La Boheme”, to its credit, featured a great Mimi and a great Rodolfo—which raised the level of an otherwise unremarkable enterprise to something memorable. I never expect to hear the roles of Mimi and Rodolfo sung more beautifully. Netrebko and Calleja, alone, made our weekend in Chicago worthwhile.

(Alexia Voulgaridou had been the Hamburg Mimi, John Matz the Hamburg Rodolfo. Voulgaridou still sings in Hamburg and other secondary houses, with an occasional appearance in a first-tier house; Matz’s career, I understand, has come to a close.)

Last month’s was not my parents’ first “La Boheme” at Lyric Opera Of Chicago. Many years ago, my parents had attended a very poor performance of the opera in the same house.

In 1979, my parents had acquired tickets to hear Mirella Freni and Jose Carreras sing Mimi and Rodolfo in Chicago. Both Freni and Carreras were to cancel their Chicago appearances shortly before rehearsals commenced; they were replaced by a very young Leona Mitchell and a very young Neil Shicoff, neither of whom was yet ready for international exposure. My parents were keenly disappointed in the quality of the performance they heard.

That 1979 “La Boheme” was the first time my parents had an opportunity to hear conductor Riccardo Chailly, making his one and only appearance with Lyric Opera Of Chicago. Chailly, too, was very young at the time, and was not yet good.

My father says that Chailly, in 1979, gave no hint whatsoever that he would become good within the following half-decade—and become great within a decade.

Today Chailly is probably the world’s finest active conductor as well as THE living master of “La Boheme” . . . but apparently there was no way, in 1979, of ascertaining what was to come.


The Chicago “Rigoletto” was not a fulfilling performance. Several of the pieces were in place, but the pieces did not for one moment cohere into a satisfying whole.

I place primary blame for the production’s failure on the conductor, Evan Rogister, an American in his early 30s, who gave a faceless, unstylish reading of the score. The big moments were loud, but lacked conviction and sweep; the rest was episodic, and lacked tension and concentration. Of suppleness and line—and rhythmic life and vigor—there was none. The entire performance, I kept wondering why Rogister had been allowed even into the building, let alone the orchestra pit. (Rogister cites Patrick Summers, Alan Gilbert and Donald Runnicles as his chief musical mentors—which explains much.)

Polish baritone Andrzej Dobber sang the title role. Dobber is a serious, even distinguished, artist, but his voice was made for Central European repertory, not Italian repertory. Moreover, Dobber’s instrument, dull and gray, is not truly first-class, although he uses it with great intelligence. Sixty years ago, an abundant era for Italian baritones, Dobber would never have been considered for Italian repertory in American theaters; the very notion would have been deemed laughable.

Italian tenor Giuseppe Filianoti sang the Duke Of Mantua. I thought Filianoti was saving himself for the big moments, and otherwise came close to marking the performance. He may have been having an off-afternoon—or been disgusted with the conductor, and deliberately marked.

Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova sang Gilda. I did not know what to make of her. Her coloratura was clean, even brilliant, and she demonstrated more than a little heft in the ensembles in order to make herself heard. However, I did not find Shagimuratova to be interesting or convincing, as singer or actress—she had zero stage presence—and perhaps my disappointment was a result of having seen and heard Netrebko, against whom no one can compete, the previous evening.

The production was the company’s own, first offered in 2006. A revolving unit set was in use—a rotunda was the unifying theme—and the unit set was cheap-looking and all-too-obviously budget-conscious.


We shall not return to Lyric Opera Of Chicago next season. The “Werther” and “Simon Boccanegra” we heard in November were not impressive. The “La Boheme” and “Rigoletto” we heard last month, Netrebko and Calleja aside, were nothing to write home about.

My parents say Lyric Opera Of Chicago has floundered since the death of former General Manager Ardis Krainik. My parents went to Lyric performances often during the Krainik years, but stopped going entirely within three or four years of Krainik’s passing. The deterioration in the company’s performances, my parents say, was near-instantaneous once Krainik was gone. The company may have yet to find its post-Krainik footing.

This season was the first time my parents had returned to Lyric Opera Of Chicago in more than a decade. Disappointed with the four operas they heard, my parents are not keen to return anytime soon.

Instead, we may go to New York next season to hear some Russian repertory at the Metropolitan Opera. Borodin’s “Prince Igor”, slated for its first Met production, has certainly piqued our interest. This summer, we shall have to get out our calendars, and get out the Met calendar, and see whether we can find a sequence of Met performances that makes a trip to New York worthwhile.

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