Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Pretty On the Inside

October 11, 2009

Rene Pape, Piotr Beczala, and Ana Maria Martinez
Photo: Dan Rest/LOC 2009

I love visiting Chicago. Among its many attributes is the most beautiful opera house in America. (Santa Fe may compete but they had unfair help from mother nature.) So I never turn down an opportunity to check out what the Lyric Opera has to offer and popped out to see how the season has started off here in the Midwest when press tickets came my way. In short, it’s a split decision. The good news is the revival of Gounod's Faust, which has one of those strong world-class casts Chicago seems to put together with ease. Not that other houses don’t, it just that in Chicago the vocalists are appreciated by an audience not determined to cut them down because they aren’t already dead, a favorite spectator sport for many in New York. In Chicago's excellent revival you have Piotr Beczala who for better or worse is rapidly filling the hot young tenor shoes left open by the absence of Rolando Villazon for months on end. He’s not the actor you’d hope at times, but Beczala can sing with great passion and strength and I grow more fond of him with each outing. His Faust is touching and believable across the board. Which makes him a great foil for the best Mephistopheles going, Rene Pape, how returns to Chicago in a commanding and menacing performance. Pape did seem a little off balance after dropping the violin he was supposed to pretend to play in Act II but regained his composure and carried on without further flubs. And if these two don’t provide enough male hotness for you, how about Lucas Meachem as Valentin. The trio between the three men in Act IV is pretty much opera heaven.

Marguerite was sung by Ana Maria Martinez who really deserves some of the attention Patricia Racette regularly receives. She is vocally engaging and could easily take over the Renee Fleming territory in a few years. She’s fun to watch and I was thrilled to see her here again. Sir Andrew Davis led an appropriately light, but driven, performance from the excellent Lyric Opera orchestra. The production directed by Frank Corsaro is a bit on the staid and sorry side. It’s been around the country and was seen here in Chicago six years ago. But it does have its charms and it is effective in maintaining some actual magic and darkness in the piece. There are many clever bits around Mephistopheles' appearances and “miracles” that give the opera the feel that the whole thing is a dream he’s orchestrated with the other characters serving only as players in the big game. The inverting crucifix in Act IV is actually pretty creepy. The starry night he conjures in Marguerite’s garden is romantic and with the two singers charged with filling it, it’s a show very much worth seeing.

James Morris and an uncertain Deborah Voigt
Photo: Dan Rest/LOC 2009

The same cannot be said, however, for the rather worn out Zeffirelli Tosca that opened the season and is finishing up a string of fall performances before a hiatus that will last until January, when it will return with a different cast including Violeta Urmana and Marco Berti. The production is static, dull and badly in need of something to bring it to life. Unfortunately, this cast, though filled with celebrities, is not the one to do it. Deborah Voigt finally stopped avoiding me and showed up to a performance of something she was scheduled to appear in that I had a ticket for. But this is not her strong suit and I thought she could be rather shrill at times, although she did have the benefit of easily being heard above the orchestra. She can act, though, and her murder of Scarpia was probably the highlight of the evening. James Morris sang Scarpia and was stiff as a board. More regal than menacing, his worst was a lecherous kiss on Tosca’s bare shoulder. My favorite was Vladimir Galouzine’s Cavaradossi. He does not have an Italian sound, but he was in it to win it even with a not-so-convincing wig.

But probably the worst things about the evening were the moments the production descends into self-parody. The Sacristan’s nearly slapstick mop and bucket routine in Act I is not only unfunny, but makes the rest of the show look dated. It’s ironic that with all the bitching and moaning over the new Luc Bondy Tosca at the Met this fall, that Chicago opens up their season with the same opera with a star-filled cast in a traditional production by the same director whose old production was displaced in New York, yet nobody seems to say a word about it. It makes you wonder who got the better bargain: the Met with a production that audiences and critics dislike and everyone is talking about; or Chicago with the alternative that apparently makes some people happy yet met with comparably little buzz or excitement. So wat'cha want? In any event, go see the Faust. You probably need to see more French opera anyway.


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