Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Preview: Tchaikovsky's fairy tale ballets dominate the stage at Powell Hall this week

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If there's one thing you can count on at Christmas time, it's that someone somewhere will be putting on a production of Tchaikovsky's popular 1892 ballet The Nutcracker. This weekend (December 2-4, 2016), that includes the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. But their Nutcracker is probably going to be unlike any other you might have seen.

Tchaikovsky in 1906
That's because, to begin with, it will only be half a Nutcracker—specifically, the second half, which takes place entirely in the fanciful Kingdom of Sweets. And, since it's a concert performance, it will be a Nutcracker without dancers. What it will have, though, is "visual design" by Webster University's Leigh Gerdine College of Fine Arts.

Your guess is as good as mine as to what that will mean, but I can tell you that in the past the SLSO has found some fairly ingenious ways of using projected images to enhance works written for the stage, from a performance of Copland's Appalachian Spring ballet suite accompanied by watercolors inspired by the ballet to vivid projected scenery for a complete performance of Verdi's Aida.

The second act of Nutcracker certainly offers plenty of colorful scenes. There are the various "national" dances (Chinese, Arabian, Spanish, and the Russian Trepak) along with the dance of the mirlitons (a 19th-century cousin of the common kazoo as well as a type of cake). There's also the popular "Waltz of the Flowers," the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" with its famous celesta solo, and the dramatic "Pas de Deux" for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier.

Mother Giggle and her children
Act II also has one of the odder numbers, at least for contemporary American audiences: "La mère Gigogne et les polichinelles" (roughly: "Mother Gigogne and the puppets"). A character whose origins lie in French marionette theatre, she's usually portrayed as a woman (although often danced by a man) with a huge skirt out of which bursts a collection of tumblers and/or clowns. She would have been recognizable to Tchaikovsky's audiences. These days, not so much. The SLSO program describes the number as "Polchinelle (The Clown)," which has the advantage of being less obscure.

All of this, in any case, means that the Webster artists should find a cornucopia of visual inspiration in Tchaikovsky's music.

UPDATE: According to a press release today, December 2nd, from the SLSO: "Due to technical difficulties beyond our control, the visuals planned in partnership with Webster University Leigh Gerdine College of Fine Arts will not be displayed for this weekend's performances. However, there is no change to the pieces performed on the program."


Tchaikovsky dominates this weekend's concerts, in fact. Most of the first half of the evening will be taken up with a suite consisting of six selections from Swan Lake (1876) and two from Sleeping Beauty (1889) that will feature concertmaster David Halen's violin, along with Principal Cello Daniel Lee and Principal Harp Allegra Lilly. The Swan Lake numbers include dances for both the White and Black Swans and a couple of "national" dances (Russian and Hungarian). From Sleeping Beauty we get the "Entr'acte symphonique" from Act II, a piece written expressly for the noted Hungarian violinist Leopold Auer, along with music from the following scene, in which Prince Désiré discovers the sleeping Princess Aurore.

The program will open with the overture to Alexander Borodin's patriotic opera Prince Igor. Left unfinished at the time of the composer's death in 1887, Prince Igor was eventually completed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov. The overture was cobbled together by Glazunov, who based on themes from the opera and some sketches Borodin left behind, so in a way it's as much his work as it is Borodin's.

Alexander Borodin, 1865
No matter; it's vibrant and dramatic music, filled with memorable themes-including one that, along with many other Borodin melodies, made its way into Wright and Forrest's 1953 musical Kismet. It pops up repeatedly, but you'll hear it for the first time early in the overture, following the big brass fanfares that come right after the slow introduction. In Kismet it's the basis for the song "The Olive Tree," in which the poetic beggar Hajj realizes life might have great things in store for him.

At the podium will be former SLSO Resident Conductor Ward Stare, whose star has clearly been on the rise since he left St. Louis. I saw him conducting Francesca Zambello's excellent Porgy and Bess in Chicago a couple of years ago and he was recently appointed Music Director of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. He has also had guest conducting gigs in Houston, Québec, and Dallas. It will be good to see him back on his old home turf.

The Essentials: Ward Stare conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and violin soloist David Halen Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m., December 2-4, at Powell Hall in Grand Center. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Review: Noble and sentimental Beethoven with Stephen Hough, Robert Spano and the St. Louis Symphony

This review originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.
Conductor Robert Spano
Photo: Angela Moriss
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There was a lot to be thankful for Friday night (November 25, 2016) as Atlanta Symphony Music Director Robert Spano conducted the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in a program that opened with a pair of late Romantic symphonic poems and closed with one of the greatest of the early-nineteenth century piano concertos.

The first half of the concert was pure "program music," beginning with Pohjola's Daughter from 1906, one of Jean Sibelius's many tone poems inspired by the Kalevala, an epic poem by Elias Lönnrot based on Finnish oral folklore and mythology. This is dark, dramatic music depicting the Finnish equivalent of the Twelve Labors of Hercules, with the mythical hero Väinämöinen trying and ultimately failing to win the heart of the titular daughter of the Northland.

Mr. Spano brought out all the drama and vivid tone painting in the score, starting with the brooding evocation of the stark northern landscape brought to life at the start by the orchestra's deepest voices highlighted by solos from, among others, Danny Lee's cello and Tzuying Huang's bass clarinet. Väinämöinen arrived in a powerful and precise fanfare from the brasses, to which Allegra Lilly's harp and Jennifer Nichtman's flutes replied with a perfectly translucent treatment of the theme for Pohjola's daughter.

The SLSO had, surprisingly, never performed this piece before, but you certainly wouldn't have known that from the quality of the playing. Every section of the ensemble sounded perfect, which made the lack of more enthusiastic applause a bit baffling. Yes, this is a piece that ends as softly as it begins, but I don't think the audience should need (to quote a line from Amadeus) "a good bang at the end...to let them know when to clap."

Up next was Fontane di Roma (Fountains of Rome) the first in Ottorino Respighi's very popular "Roman trilogy" of tone poems composed between 1916 and 1928. In only 15 minutes, the music takes you through a day in Rome as viewed through the lens of four of its famous fountains. We see the sun rise through the mists of the fountain at Valle Giulia, spend the morning frolicking with mythical creatures at the Triton Fountain, marvel at Neptune's majestic chariot at the Trevi Fountain at noon, and finally watch the sun go down behind the Fountain at Villa Medici. "The air is full of the sound of tolling bells, the twittering of birds, the rustling of leaves," wrote Respighi his notes on the score. "Then all dies peacefully into the silence of the night."

Like so many of Respighi's scores, Fountains is a virtual textbook of orchestration, with elements of Debussy, Ravel, and even Richard Strauss all mixed with Respighi's own unique point of view to produce a rich palette of instrumental color. You could hear all of that in exquisite detail throughout this performance, beginning with the shimmering violin harmonics and Jelena Dirks's elegant oboe solo in the opening pages. The play of the Triton fountain's naiads was brought to sparkling life by Allegra Lilly and Megan Stout's harps, the high winds, and the percussion section, while the brasses brought out the majesty of the Trevi fountain.

Mr. Spano brought all this together in a reading that favored somewhat brisk tempos, especially in the Trevi movement, that never felt rushed and that missed none of the many wonderful details of the score. It was thoroughly entrancing and warmly received.

Pianist Stephen Hough
Photo: Hiroyuki Ito
After intermission, Stephen Hough joined the orchestra for a noble and graceful reading of Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto. Although written under the cloud of war and occupation in Vienna in 1809, this is music that opens in a majestic vein, becomes tender and even wistful in the second movement, and then segues without pause into a cheerful and exuberant rondo.

In his performances of the first three Rachmaninoff concertos with the SLSO back in the spring of 2012, Mr. Hough demonstrated that he had plenty of power when that was called for, but also the ability to display real delicacy. You could hear the power immediately in the oratorical keyboard flourishes that open the first movement and the delicacy in the little diminuendo and touch of rubato that concluded the third solo passage, just before the orchestra entered with the commanding declaration of the first theme.

Throughout the concerto, Mr. Hough and Mr. Spano found lots of shading and subtlety in the music, which made the more dramatic declarations that much more potent. The adagio second movement was pure poetry and the rondo finale danced with rhythmic vitality. The performance as a whole had a real feel of forward momentum, in fact.

As Paul Schiavo points out in his program notes, this is a concerto that integrates the soloist with the orchestra in ways that were novel at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and Mr. Hough and Mr. Spano honored that with a truly collaborative performance.

Although I'm familiar with Mr. Spano's work from recordings, this was my first opportunity to see him in person. He's essentially an upper body conductor, making effective and precise use of his hands and baton, but not much given to the kind of podium choreography that has endeared SLSO Music Director David Robertson to so many of us here. He nevertheless comes across as a warm and engaging character who takes joy in making music. Which is, ultimately, the bottom line.

Next at Powell Hall: Ward Stare conducts the orchestra and violin soloist David Halen in suites from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty ballets along with Borodin's Prince Igor Overture and the complete second act of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker ballet. TheNutcracker selections will be accompanied by projected visuals presented in partnership with the Webster University Leigh Gerdine College of Fine Arts. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m., December 2-4, at Powell Hall in Grand Center.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of November 28, 2016

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The University of Missouri at St. Louis presents 1984, adapted from the George Orwell novel by by Michael Gene Sullivan, Fridays and Saturdays a 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., December 2 - 11. "1984 brings us the story of Winston Smith, a cog in the giant machine state of Oceania. Physically and mentally under the omnipresent eye of Big Brother, Winston has been caught struggling for scraps of love and freedom in a world awash with distrust and violence. With the brutal "help" of four Party Members, Winston is forced to confess his Thoughtcrimes before an unseen inquisitor, and the audience -- which acts as a silent witness to his torture. A ferocious and provocative adaptation of one of the most prescient works of literature of the last century." The performances take place at the Kranzberg Center at Grand and Olive in Grand Center. For more information, kranzbergartscenter.org/calendar/current-events/item/umsl-theatre-1984.

Tesseract Theatre Company presents the St. Louis premiere of Artistic Director Taylor Gruenloh's Adverse Effects, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m., December 2 - 11. "After the unexpected death of their daughter, Phil (Carl Overly Jr.) and Jessica (Musa Gurnis) must find a balance in their marriage while struggling with being middle class in the Midwest while battling against the interests of pharmaceutical reps, medical researchers, and a local journalist looking for the truth. Richard (Phil Leveling), a university scientist, is being paid by a pharmaceutical company to put his name on studies he didn't conduct. Allysa (Julianne King), the representative of the pharmaceutical company, wants a more lavish life. Maurice (Maurice Walters II), the local reporter for a small town online newspaper, wants to connect some dots." Performances take place at The .ZACK, 3224 Locust in Midtown. For more information: tesseracttheatre.org.

The 2015 cast of All is Calm
Photo: John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre presents the a cappella musical All is Calm Thursdays through Sundays through December 11. "Join us in celebrating the power of peace in this acapella musical based on the true story of soldiers during World War I who for one night, put down their arms and played soccer instead of exchanging bullets." Performances take place at the Fontbonne Fine Arts Theatre, 6800 Wydown Blvd. For more information, call (314) 719-8060 or visit the web site at www.mustardseedtheatre.com.

St. Louis Actors' Studio presents David Mamet's American Buffalo December 2 - 18. "This volatile drama starred Robert Duvall in the original Broadway production and has seen revivals with Al Pacino most recently on Broadway . In a Chicago junk shop three small time crooks plot to rob a man of his coin collection, the showpiece of which is a valuable “Buffalo nickel”. These high-minded grifters fancy themselves businessmen pursuing legitimate free enterprise. But the reality of the three- Donny, the oafish junk shop owner; Bobby, a young junkie Donny has taken under his wing and “Teach”, a violently paranoid braggart- is that they are merely pawns caught up in their own game of last-chance, dead-end, empty pipe dreams." Performances take place at the Gaslight Theatre, 358 North Boyle For more information, call 314-458-2978 or visit stlas.org.

Annie
Photo: Joan Marcus
The Fox Theatre presents the musical Annie Friday at 7:30 .m., Saturday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 6 p.m., December 2-4. "Leapin' Lizards! The world's best-loved musical returns in time-honored form. Directed by original lyricist and director Martin Charnin and choreographed by Liza Gennaro, this production of ANNIE will be a brand new incarnation of the iconic original." The Fox is on North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: fabulousfox.com.

R-S Theatrics presents Boom Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. through December 4. "Jo, a female journlism student, and Jules, a male marine biologist, meet in a subterranean biology lab for an erotic "casual encounter." But there's nothing casual whatsoever about this particular evening. Will meaningless sex have meaning? What's going on in the fish tank? And who is that woman, Barbara, pulling levers in the corner? Something is about to explode." Performances take place at The Chapel, 6238 Alexander Drive. For more information: r-stheatrics.com.

Buyer and Cellar
Stray Dog Theatre presents the one-man comedy Buyer and Cellar December 1 - 17. “Underemployed Los Angeles actor, Alex More, is hired to work in a faux shopping mall created by superstar, Barbra Streisand in the basement of her Malibu home. One day, the Lady Herself comes below to play. It soon feels like real bonding downstairs, but will their relationship ever make it upstairs? Buyer & Cellar is a comedic tour-de-force, fictionally drawn from fact, which explores the price of fame, the cost of things, and the oddest of odd jobs." Performances take place at The Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee. For more information, visit straydogtheatre.org or call 314-865-1995.

Lindenwood University presents a stage adaptation of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. December 1 - 3. "This timeless classic follows the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge on a fantastic journey through time and space, forced to confront his past, present, and future through the aid of his spiritual guides. Returning to the main stage Lindenwood Theater for 2016, A Christmas Carol is the perfect way to get into the Christmas spirit, and to reflect upon the true meaning of Christmas.” The performance takes place at The Lindenwood Theatre at the J. Scheidegger Center for the Arts on the Lindenwood campus in St. Charles, MO. For more information, call 636-949-4433 or visit www.lindenwood.edu/center.

A Christmas Carol
Photo: Lon Brauer
Opening Wednesday, November 30, at 8 p.m. and running through December 24, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents A Christmas Carol, adapted by David H. Bell from the novel by Charles Dickens. "On Christmas Eve, the miser Ebenezer Scrooge is given a chance at redemption as he's visited by four ghosts - his old partner Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future - who teach him it's never too late to change." Performances take place at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. For more information: repstl.org.

Curtain's Up Theatre presents A Christmas Story, based on stories by Jean Shepherd, Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. December 2 - 4. "A Christmas classic - 9-year-old Ralphie desperately wants to find a genuine Red Ryder BB gun under the Christmas tree. He pleads with his mother, his teacher, and even Santa Claus himself. Of course, he's told, "You'll shoot your eye out!" Furnaces explode, father wins a hideous lamp and tongues are frozen to lamp posts." Performances take place The Wildey Theatre is at252 North Main Street in Edwardsville, Illinois. For more information, visit curtainsuptheater.com.

David Meulemans
The Emerald Room at the Monocle and The Presenters Dolan present singer David Meluemans in December Songs on Friday, December 2, at 7 p.m. "South Florida's David Meulemans shares holiday memories and smooth vocals in this cabaret show comprised of traditional holiday favorites sprinkled with new works. You'll hear “Winter Wonderland” with a Vince Guaraldi feel, and the classic “Home for Christmas” wrapped up in beautiful new arrangements created specifically for this show, right beside some new holiday classics, including “For Christmas All I Need is You” by Bob Levy, and “Hannukah Miracle” by Carla Gordon and Wayne Richards , reflecting Meulemans' penchant for performing brand new material. December Songs makes a “one night only stop” at the Monocle on the way to Manhattan's Metropolitan Room, where Meulemans is currently Artist in Residence." The performance takes place in the Emerald Room at The Monocle, 4510 Manchester in the Grove neighborhood. For more information: themonoclestl.com.

The Playhouse at Westport Plaza presents the bawdy interactive comedy Dixie's Tupperware Party, opening on Tuesday, November 29, and running through December 18. "After a final meeting with her parole officer, this ex-con mother of three from a trailer park in Alabama straighten out her life by selling the iconic plastic bowls. She quickly became the hottest seller in the country by throwing the kind of parties you won't soon forget. With her booze-filled sippy cup, Dixie shares many alternative uses for what she calls "the most fantastic plastic crap on the planet" which made THE TODAY SHOW cheer, "This is not your grandmother's Tupperware Party." The show is bawdy and interactive and you can actually buy some Tupperware along the way. ADULT CONTENT." The Playhouse at Westport Plaza is at 635 West Port Plaza. For more information: westportstl.com.

Driving Miss Daisy
Photo: Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theater presents Driving Miss Daisy December 1 - 18. "In 1948 Atlanta, Daisy Werthan, a rich, sharp-tongued, Jewish, 72-year-old widow has just demolished another car. Her son Boolie informs her that he will from this point on be hiring a chauffeur for her. Thus begins the 25-year relationship between Daisy and Hoke Colburn, her driver. She regards him with disdain and he is not impressed with her patronizing tone and latent prejudice. But despite their differences, they grow closer and more dependent on each other over time. The once contentious relationship blossoms into a profound, life-altering friendship that transcends all the societal boundaries placed between them. An iconic tale of pride, changing times and the transformative power of friendship." Performances take place in the Marvin and Harlene Wool Studio Theater at the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive in Creve Coeur. For more information: www.newjewishtheatre.org or call 314-442-3283.

Webster University's Conservatory of Theatre Arts presents the musical The Glorious Ones Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., November 30 - December 11. “In sixteenth-century Italy, a new form of comedic theatre is forming at the hands of Flaminio Scala: Commedia Dell'arte. Flaminio gathers a group of lowlifes together to create an acting troupe that specializes in improvisational comedy with masked characters. From the creators of Seussical and Ragtime comes a beautiful tribute to an important moment in theatre history and to the highs and lows of being an actor, then and now. Prepare yourselves for jokes that are as bawdy as they are old and as silly as they are sweet.” Performances take place in the Stage III Auditorium in Webster Hall on the Webster University campus. For more information, www.webster.edu/conservatory/season or call 314-968-7128.

Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville presents A Good Woman an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's The Good Soul of Szechuan by Professor Chuck Harper and the cast, featuring original poetry by Kenny Coleman. December 2-11. "A Good Woman explores what it takes to be good in a world that is not so good. Says Chuck Harper, the Director, 'It is a play that I have always wanted to work on, more because I wanted to figure it out than because I had an idea of what I wanted to do with it. In our adaptation we've rewritten the play based on several translations. It is simple in its presentation, but the situations and questions are quite complex. This is a fascinating play.' Mr. Harper also noted that this version is not for children due to the adult language used throughout the show." Performances take place in the Metcalf Theater on the campus in Edwardsville, IL. For more information, call 618-650-2774 or visit siue.edu.

The Bissell Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre presents It's a Wonderful Death through January 8, 2017. The Bissell Mansion is at 4426 Randall Place. For more information: bissellmansiontheatre.com

The Central Visual and Performing Arts High School presents Irving Berlin's White Christmas Friday through Sunday, December 2-4. "Based on the beloved, timeless film, this heartwarming musical adaptation features seventeen Irving Berlin songs and a book by David Ives and Paul Blake. Veterans Bob Wallace and Phil Davis have a successful song-and-dance act after World War II. With romance in mind, the two follow a duo of beautiful singing sisters en route to their Christmas show at a Vermont Lodge, which just happens to be owned by Bob and Phil's former army commander. The dazzling score features well known standards including Blue Skies, I Love A Piano, How Deep Is the Ocean and the perennial favorite, White Christmas. "The Central Visual and Performing Arts High School is at 3125 S. Kingshighway in south St. Louis City. Fore more information: gcpastl.org.

St. Louis Shakespeare's Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre presents The Making of the Star Wars Holiday Special Fridays and Saturdays at 8 and 10:30 p.m. December 2 - 10. "Hop aboard the Millennium Falcon and help Luke, Leia, Han, Artoo, & Threepio get Chewbacca home in time to celebrate Life Day with his Wookie family! Originally airing just once in 1978, Magic Smoking Monkey brings this galactic and cosmically bizarre spectacular back to life, and takes you behind the curtain to witness its creation. Featuring a kitschy cavalcade of 70s superstars like Bea Arthur, Art Carney, Charles Bronson, and other surprises - your holiday season will never be the same! Costume contest nightly - come as your favorite member of the Rebel Alliance or Wookie or Droid or Representative of the Galactic Empire or 1970's TV personality and win! (braggin' rights and a cheap prize!)" Performances take place at the Regional Arts Commission in University City. For more information: stlshakespeare.org.

Southampton Church presents Parkside by St. Louis playwright Jim Danek Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays as 2 pm, December 2-11. Southampton Church is at 4716 Macklind in South St. Louis City. For more information, email darriousvarner at yahoo.com.

Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville presents Jason Robert Brown's Songs for a New World Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. November 30 - December 3. Performances take place in the Dunham Hall Theater on the campus in Edwardsville, IL. For more information, call 618-650-2774 or visit siue.edu.

Ari Axelrod
The Emerald Room at the Monocle presents singer Ari Axelrod and pianist/music director Ron McGowan in Taking the Wheel on Saturday, December 3, at 8 p.m. "Recent Webster University graduate Ari Axelrod brings an autobiographical show about a young, ambitious man embarking on life after college. He straddles two, much different worlds only to discover that he will always have a foot in both. Contemporary Broadway, Sondheim and Hebrew Folk Music make up the songlist." The performance takes place in the Emerald Room at The Monocle, 4510 Manchester in the Grove neighborhood. For more information: themonoclestl.com.

The Sheldon Concert Hall presents Winter Wonderland, a holiday cabaret featuring Zoe Vonder Haar, John Flack, Peter Merideth, Emily Peterson and Steve Neale, on Saturday, December 3, at 11 a.m. "Celebrate the season with a wonderful mix of winter and holiday music, old and new, performed by acclaimed actress Zoe Vonder Haar and a cast of some of St. Louis' finest singers! Hear favorites such as “Snow,” from White Christmas, “Sleigh Ride,” “Joy to the World” and many more!" The performance takes place at the Sheldon Concert Hall, 3658 Washington in Grand Center. For more information: sheldonconcerthall.org.

Looking for auditions and other artistic opportunities? Check out the St. Louis Auditions site.
For information on events beyond this week, check out the searchable database at the Regional Arts Commission's Events Calendar.
Would you like to be on the radio? KDHX, 88.1 FM needs theatre reviewers. If you're 18 years or older, knowledgeable in this area, have practical theatre experience (acting, directing, writing, technical design, etc.), have good oral and written communications skills and would like to become one of our volunteer reviewers, send an email describing your experience and interests to chuck at kdhx.org. Please include a sample review of something you've seen recently.

St. Louis classical calendar for the week of November 28, 2016

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The Pulitzer Arts Foundation presents members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra performing contemporary chamber works on Wednesday, November 30, at 7:30 p.m. The performance takes place in the newly renovated space at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, 3716 Washington. For more information: pulitzerarts.org/program/st-louis-symphony-concert-series

Second Presbyterian Church presents Advent Vespers on Sunday, December 4, at 4 p.m. "The Second Church Chorale and Orchestra present portions of Edward Elgar's The Apostles. The Vespers also includes hymns, readings, and music for handbell choir." The church is at 4501 Westminster Place in the Central West End. For more information: secondchurch.net.

The Sheldon Concert Hall presents the contemporary chamber ensemble Alarm Will Sound on Thursday, December 1, at 8 PM. "The ensemble performs the newest music being composed today with energetic virtuosity and a sense of adventure, creating programs that not only span a wide range of styles, but also transform the traditional concert experience itself." The Sheldon is at 3648 Washington in Grand Center. For more information: thesheldon.org.

Stile Antico
Wednesday, November 30, at 8 p.m. St. Louis Cathedral Concerts presents the Stile Antico Holiday Concert. "The a cappella vocal ensemble performs music from their latest recording, A Wondrous Mystery, including Eccard's infectiously joyful Übers Gebirg Maria geht and Praetorius' double-choir Magnificat, which includes the carols In dulci jubilo and Josef lieber, Josef mein." The performance takes place at The Cathedral Basilica on Lindell in the Central West End. For more information: cathedralconcerts.org.

Ward Stare conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and violin soloist David Halen in a suite from Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty ballet, the complete second act of The Nutcracker, and Borodin's Prince Igor Overture. The Nutcracker selections will be accompanied by projected visuals presented in partnership with the Webster University Leigh Gerdine College of Fine Arts Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m., December 2 - 4, at Powell Hall in Grand Center. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

The University City Symphony Orchestra presents Family Reunion in Austria on Sunday, December 4, at 3 p.m. "The program for "Family Reunion in Austria" will highlight the musical legacy of arguably the most famous Austrian composer families. We invite you to contrast, compare, and enjoy the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his father, Leopold, as well as the amazing Strauss Family of composer/musicians. Our featured soloist will be Thomas Jöstlein, Associate Principal Horn for the St. Louis Symphony. The concert is FREE and open to the public." The performance takes place at All Saints Catholic Church, 6403 Clemens in University City. For more information: ucso.org.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Review: In Chicago, "Hamilton" lives up to the hype

This review originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.
L-R: José Ramos, Miguel Cervantes, Joshua Henry, Wallace Smith
Photo: Joan Marcus
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Let's cut to the chase: you know all those things you've heard about how intelligent, theatrically powerful, and just generally wonderful Lin-Manuel Miranda's hit musical Hamilton is? Well, they're all absolutely correct. This is a flat-out brilliant piece of musical theatre that manages to be both educational and entertaining at the same time.

Tickets for the Broadway original are almost impossible to get, but fortunately the PrivateBank Theatre in the Chicago Loop is hosting the only other open-ended run of Hamilton in the country. That makes the trip north well worthwhile.

If you've somehow missed all the hype surrounding this amazing show, know that Hamilton is the story of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, including his heroic leadership during the Revolutionary War, his rapid rise to and fall from political power, and his friendship and rivalry with Aaron Burr, who finally killed Hamilton in a duel over the latter's support for Burr's political rival, Thomas Jefferson.

That might sound like dry stuff, but Mr. Miranda tells the tale with a non-stop torrent of deliberately and cheerfully anachronistic hip-hop, rap, soul, and even a bit of big-band jazz and 1960s pop. Thomas Kail's direction and Andy Blankenbuehler's sharply contemporary choreography move the story along at a breezy pace that makes the show's running time of just under three hours pass far too quickly, and the performances from the ensemble cast are nothing short of stunning.

Chris De'Sean Lee and company
Photo: Joan Marcus
In this version of Hamilton's story, the cast is aggressively diverse. Jefferson, Burr, Lafayette, and George Washington are all black. Hamilton is Latino. This is, in short, an ensemble that looks like America in 2016 instead of 1776. That makes the story feel sharply contemporary and reminds us that the men and women who made this country possible weren't carefully posed images in paintings, but living, breathing, and very fallible human beings. It's the sort of thing the now-classic musical 1776 did over four decades ago.

Heading this incredible cast are Miguel Cervantes as Hamilton and Joshua Henry as Burr. Mr. Cervantes (who alternates in the role with Joseph Morales) radiates determination and energy as the man who is repeatedly asked, "Why do you write like you're running out of time?" His performance has an urgency that's matched by Mr. Henry's Burr, who is in a constant war between his admiration of Hamilton's ability and his jealousy of the success it brings.

Ari Afsar is a sympathetically appealing Eliza, Hamilton's long-suffering wife, who finds her way to forgiveness for his affair with Maria Reynolds (a seductively smoky Samantha Marie Ware) and goes on to shape an important legacy of her own. Karen Olivo is a passionate Angelica Schuyler, Eliza's sister and a woman with whom Hamilton had a devoted but (at least in this version of the story) entirely intellectual relationship.

L-R: Karen Olivo, Ari Afsar, Samantha Marie Ware
Photo: Joan Marcus
Chris De'Sean Lee is a lively comic presence as both Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson and Jonathan Kirkland perfectly captures George Washington's quiet authority. Wallace Smith shines in the sharply contrasting roles of James Madison and revolutionary spy Hercules Mulligan. And José Ramos was wonderfully affecting in the roles of two doomed characters: Hamilton's friend John Laurens, who is killed in a completely unnecessary battle with the British, and Hamilton's son Philip, slain in an equally pointless duel defending his father's honor.

The day we saw the show, Jin Ha was hilariously effete as King George III (the role is usually played by Alexander Gemignani). His song "You'll Be Back," which treats the colonies as unfaithful lovers ("Remember we made an arrangement when you went away, now you’re making me mad") is, appropriately, a mock-1960s "British invasion" ballad.

That song is just one example of Mr. Miranda's seemingly limitless musical imagination. His score is filled with ingenious touches. When, for example, Jefferson makes his appearance at the top of the second act, having spent the entire revolution in France, his song "What'd I Miss?" written in the style of the late big band era, suggesting how out of touch he is with the more contemporary sounds of the other characters. The debates between Jefferson and Hamilton are staged as rap contests, complete with hand-held mics, in which the characters cheerfully dis each other in rhyme. And the lyrics are filled with theatrical references, from Shakespeare to Gilbert and Sullivan and even Oscar Hammerstein II.

The company
Photo: Joan Marcus
The set by David Korins is simple and suggests a late eighteenth-century wharf, with brick walls and a high wooden catwalk along the back and sides of the stage. Set pieces are whisked on and off to suggest scene changes, often with the help of a turntable. It's all very fluid and seamless.

There's currently no announced end date for the Chicago run of Hamilton. Tickets are currently being sold well into the summer (a Facebook friend just announced that he had seats for July) and I expect it will continue beyond then if sales warrant it. I assume a tour will play the Fox at some point, but I think this is a show that really deserves to be seen in a Broadway-sized house like the one in Chicago. The lyrics are rich, inventive, and often rapid-fire, and I expect many of them will be lost in the Fox's acoustics.

In nations, as in nature, diversity is a source of strength. Hamilton is a reminder of that strength. We are, as JFK wrote in his book of the same name, "a nation of immigrants," so it's encouraging to note that, when we saw Hamilton, spontaneous applause burst out when Jefferson and Hamilton sang "immigrants: we get the job done." Information on Hamilton and other live theatre in Chicago is available at the Broadway in Chicago website.

Review: At Lyric Opera of Chicago, "Don Quichotte" sings a song of kindness

This review originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.
L-R: Ferruccio Furlanetto and Nicola Alaimo
Photo: Todd Rosenberg
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Powerful, moving performances and a strong sense of whimsy highlight a beautiful production of Jules Massenet's last big hit, Don Quichotte, at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

When Jules Massenet wrote his operatic treatment of poet Jacques Le Lorrain's play Le chevalier de la longue figure (very freely adapted from Cervantes' Don Quixote) in 1909, both he and his style of composition were on the way out. Two years after the opera's highly successful 1910 premiere in Monte Carlo, Massenet would be dead of abdominal cancer and his poplar, romantic style would soon be eclipsed by revolutionaries like Stravinsky, impressionists like Debussy and Ravel, and serialists like Berg.

But fashionable or not, Don Quichotte has proved to be enduringly popular over the last century and is still produced often enough to come in at number 140 worldwide on the Operabase list for the 2014/15 season. The current Lyric production, which originated with San Diego Opera in 2009, does full justice to Massenet's colorful score and librettist Henri Cain's gentle, elegiac version of the tale of the Knight of the Woeful Countenance.

Clémentine Margaine and Ferruccio Furlanetto
Photo: Todd Rosenberg
The characters of the Don and Sancho are essentially unchanged from the originals in this treatment but aside from the famous battle with the windmills, the story is radically different. Instead of being a figment of the Don's imagination, Dulcinea (now Dulcinée) is a very real and very wealthy beauty who is pursued by many suitors and bored with them all. Amused by the Don's absurd attempts to woo her, Dulcinée send him on a quest of sorts to retrieve a pearl necklace stolen by Ténébrun, a local bandit.

Disarmed by the Don's nobility, Ténébrun gives him the necklace. But when the Don returns the necklace to Dulcinée and proposes to her, he's mocked by her party guests and gently rebuffed by her. Broken in spirit and health, he retreats to the mountains where, tended by the faithful Sancho, he has one last hallucination of Dulcinée's voice calling him to the heavens as he expires.

The role of Don Quichotte was first sung by the legendary Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin, and many of history's great bassos have taken it on since. When Lyric first presented Don Quichotte in 1974, for example, the role was sung by Nicolai Ghiaurov. This time around, the man behind the Don's spiky hair and beard is Ferruccio Furlanetto, who has made something of a career of the part, playing it to great acclaim all over the world.

Nicola Alaimo and Ferruccio Furlanetto
Photo: Todd Rosenberg
His is a gentle and even bemused Don Quichotte, confident in his folly and passionate in defense of his core values of honesty, compassion, and generosity. His complete immersion in the character and his powerful voice -- solid even in its lowest notes -- make his performance the solid foundation on which this fine production is built.

Baritone Nicola Alaimo is Sancho, a role which has more dramatic depth than you might expect. When his heartbroken master is mocked by Dulcinée's party guests, it's Sancho who rises to his defense in the passionate "Riez, allez, riez du pauvre ideologue" ("Laugh, laugh at this poor idealist"), excoriating the crowd for their heartlessness. While Mr. Alaimo is very affecting here and in the Don's death scene, he's equally adept at the comedy of the first and second acts.

Mezzo Clémentine Margaine rounds out the principal cast as a languid Dulcinée, as disappointed with her easy life as she is amused by it. Like Mr. Furlanetto and Mr. Alaimo, she has a voice that easily fills the Lyric's large house.

Tenors Alec Carlson and Jonathan Johnson are Dulcinée's adult suitors Juan and Rodriguez while soprano Diana Newman and mezzo Lindsay Metzger have the "pants" roles of her juvenile admirers Pedro and Garcias. These are primarily comic parts and they do a fine job with them. Bradley Smoak, who St. Louis audiences will recognize from his many appearances at Opera Theatre, turns in a nice cameo as Ténébrun.

L-R: Ferruccio Furlanetto and Bradley Smoak
Photo: Todd Rosenberg
The members of Michael Black's chorus sing and act their roles with great skill and Sir Andrew Davis conducts with his customary authority.

"Like children," observes director Matthew Ozawa in the program book, "when we open a book we are given permission to use our imagination to create a new world." And in fact, this Don Quichotte opens with a small boy alone on stage reading the Don's adventures in a huge book. As he turns the pages, the story comes to life around him in the bright storybook colors of Ralph Funicello's sets and Missy West's costumes. The literary concept is carried out as well in the quotes from Cervantes's novel that are projected on a scrim at the beginning of each act. Even when their stories are radically altered, it seems, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza stubbornly remain true to their essential selves.

As his dramatic arc passes from simple comedy to pathos and eventually tragedy, Don Quixote's dedication to kindness and mercy is a reminder that our natures do have better angels, if only we would pay them more heed. Like Pushkin's "holy fool" or Shakespeare's clowns, the Don's folly shows those around him the way to wisdom, if they have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Lyric Opera's production of Don Quichotte runs through December 7 at the opulent Civic Opera house in the Chicago Loop.

Chuck's Choices for the weekend of November 25, 2016

As always, the choices are purely my personal opinion. Take with a grain (or a shaker) of salt.

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New This Week:


Emily Kuhn
The Emerald Room at the Monocle presents singer Emily Kuhn in her cabaret debut on Saturday, November 26, at 8 p.m. A a proud St. Louis native, Emily discovered her love for performing at a young age. She earned her BFA in Musical Theater from Penn State University in 2006 and spent the subsequent years performing in New York, on cruise ships and around the country. In addition to performing, Emily reaches music and choreographs at Villa Duchesne and teaches private voice and piano lessons at Emily Knox Studios. Steve Neale is pianist and music director for the show, which is directed by Ben Nordstrom." The performance takes place in the Emerald Room at The Monocle, 4510 Manchester in the Grove neighborhood. For more information: themonoclestl.com.

My take: I haven't seen Ms. Kuhn's work, but I'm putting her debut cabaret show in the list this week because, to begin with, I want to encourage local talent as much as possible, and also because her director, Ben Nordstrom, is a very talented local actor with solid credentials in both musical and non-musical theatre. And also because the Emerald Room is a very cool venue with a solid drinks list.


Kevin Cherry
The Emerald Room at the Monocle and The Presenters Dolan present singer Kevin Cherry in You See This Guy on Friday, November 25, at 8 p.m. "Kevin Cherry takes you through 6 decades of the nearly 80 year career of Burt Bacharach. You See This Guy comes to The Emerald Room, under the musical direction of Dr. Jeffrey Richard Carter. With a recent, very successful Off-Broadway show at The New York Theatre Workshop, Burt Bacharach is experiencing a renaissance. You'll be surprised how many Bacharach compositions you'll recognize - or maybe you won't be!" The performance takes place in the Emerald Room at The Monocle, 4510 Manchester in the Grove neighborhood. For more information: themonoclestl.com.

My take: It has been a while since Kevin has brough his engaging, cheerful presence to the Cabaret Project open mic nights, so it's good to see him back on stage again. Bacharach doesn't get nearly the respect he deserves as a songwriter, as I'm sure you'll agree when you attend.


Held Over:

The 2015 cast of All is Calm
Photo: John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre presents the a cappella musical All is Calm Thursdays through Sundays through December 4. “Join us in celebrating the power of peace in this acapella musical based on the true story of soldiers during World War I who for one night, put down their arms and played soccer instead of exchanging bullets.” Performances take place at the Fontbonne Fine Arts Theatre, 6800 Wydown Blvd. For more information, call (314) 719-8060 or visit the web site at www.mustardseedtheatre.com.

My take: All is Calm has become an annual winter tradition at Mustard Seed. With a script by Peter Rothstein and musical arrangements by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach, this story of the remarkable Christmas truce of 1914—a spontaneous outbreak of peace that occurred at multiple points along the trenches in France—combines splendid and often quite complex a cappella singing with readings of letters from soldiers and other historical documents. At a time when opportunistic politicians are pushing an agenda of hate, fear, and eternal war, this is a play that everyone needs to see. As we used to ask back in the 1960s, "what if they gave a war and nobody came?


Fun Home
Photo: Joan Marcus
The Fox Theatre presents the musical Fun Home opening on Tuesday, November 15, and running through November 27. "Based on Alison Bechdel's best-selling graphic memoir, Fun Home introduces us to Alison at three different ages as she explores and unravels the many mysteries of her childhood that connect with her in surprising new ways. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Fun Home is a refreshingly honest, wholly original musical about seeing your parents through grown-up eyes." The Fox is on North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: fabulousfox.com.

My take: Originally designed for a much smaller theatre, this small-cast show may not be an ideal match for the Fox's immensity, and the story is also somewhat out of the Fox's usual Broadway hit mainstream. Like Ms. Bechdel's original graphic novel, Fun Home leaps forward and backward in time to tell the story of how she and her two siblings helped out at the small town funeral home (the "fun home" of the title) run by her father, Bruce, who was also the local high school English teacher. Still, it’s exceptionally well done by a uniformly excellent ensemble cast. And in light of the dark strains of resentment let loose in the recent Presidential campaign. It reminds us that families can be difficult and that love is not always easy regardless of anyone's sexuality. Being human can just be hard sometimes, and we all need (as the old song goes) to "try a little tenderness."

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Symphony Preview: A little traveling music

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Guest conductor Robert Spano steps up to the podium this weekend (November 25-27, 2016) to lead the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in a couple of vivid tone poems and a Beethoven piano concerto so noble in character it picked up the nickname "Emperor."

Jean Sibelius
The concerts open with Pohjola's Daughter from 1906, one of Jean Sibelius's many tone poems inspired by the Kalevala, an epic poem by Elias Lönnrot based on Finnish oral folklore and mythology. Originally published in 1835 and then again in an expanded edition in 1849, the Kalevala quickly attained the status of national epic in Finland and acted as a source of inspiration for Sibelius for many years.

The story told in Pohjola's Daughter is that of the aged but still vigorous warrior, minstrel, and sorcerer Väinämöinen. On his way home from one of his many adventures, he encounters one of the many daughters of Pohjola, a magical land in the far north. This particular daughter is seated on a rainbow and spinning cloth out of gold and silver fibers.

Poor Väinämöinen is smitten but, as Richard Freed writes in program notes for the National Symphony Orchestra, "she is not impressed. His overtures are answered in riddles, and when he perseveres the temptress sets him on a series of impossible tasks. He deals successfully with every challenge but the last, in which he wounds himself beyond the powers of his own magic to heal. Defeated but not humiliated, old Väinämöinen resumes his journey and the healing of his wounds begins as the laughing girl and her attendant spirits vanish."

Pohjola's Daughter begins with a vivid evocation of the dark and brooding Finnish landscape conjured up initially by low strings and deep-voiced wind instruments like the bassoon, contrabassoon, and bass clarinet. Before long, Väinämöinen arrives on the scene in the form of a heroic brass fanfare, to which Pohjola's daughter responds, decked out in diaphanous flutes and harp. Väinämöinen's futile attempts to perform his assigned tasks make up the dramatic middle section, after which the two main themes come back, followed by a quiet coda in which the strings slowly fade to black as poor Väinämöinen limps home to mull over his bad romantic choices.

Ottorino Respighi
Somewhat surprisingly, this weekend will mark this work's first performance by the St. Louis Symphony. Or maybe not; Sibelius was regarded as hopelessly old-fashioned for much of the 20th century despite being championed by luminaries like Leonard Bernstein. It wasn't until the 1980s that critics started to once again appreciate the Finnish master's unique voice.

Up next is The Fountains of Rome, the first in Ottorino Respighi's very popular "Roman trilogy" of tone poems composed between 1916 and 1928. In only fifteen minutes, Fountains takes you through a day in Rome. "In this symphonic poem", wrote Respighi in a preface to the score (quoted in its entirety in Paul Schiavo's program notes), "the composer has endeavored to give expression to the sentiments and visions suggested to him by four of Rome's fountains, contemplated at the hour when their characters are most in harmony with the surrounding landscape, or at which their beauty is most impressive to the observer."

We see the sun rise through the mists of the fountain at Valle Giulia, spend the morning frolicking with mythical creatures at the Triton Fountain, marvel at Neptune's majestic chariot at the Trevi Fountain at noon, and finally watch the sun go down behind the Fountain at Villa Medici. "The air is full of the sound of tolling bells, the twittering of birds, the rustling of leaves," Respighi concludes. "Then all dies peacefully into the silence of the night."

It is, in short, a quick trip to the Eternal City without long security lines or jet lag. Such a deal!

There are many apocryphal stories about how the work that concludes this weekend's concerts, Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, op. 73, got the nickname "Emperor." Personally, I think it's just a nod to the noble character of the work overall and of the main theme of the first movement in particular.

Beethoven
As if you didn't know.
Its noble character not withstanding, the concerto was written under the cloud of war and occupation. When Beethoven was writing the work in 1809, Vienna was not so much the fabled “City of Dreams” as a metropolis of nightmares. The French laid siege to it with shelling so fierce that at one point the composer took refuge in his brother's house and covered his head with pillows to escape the din. “[L]ife around me”, he wrote, “is wild and disturbing, nothing but drums, cannons, soldiers, misery of every sort.” The royal family-including Beethoven's friend and patron Archduke Rudolf-fled, along with many of the notable families with whom the composer had become close.

Left alone and, once the French occupation began, in difficult financial circumstances due to rapid inflation, Beethoven had little else to do but compose. The fifth concerto is probably the most famous work to emerge from this difficult period, although the Op. 81a piano sonata (“Les Adieux”) is probably a close second. Both were dedicated to Rudolph.

Much has been written about the Concerto No. 5, so I won't presume to waste your time with my own analysis, especially when there are concise and informative articles on Wikipedia and at the Classy Classical blog. The magisterial first movement, the wistful second, and the jolly concluding rondo all show Beethoven at his best.

The soloist this weekend will be the multi-talented Stephen Hough (he's a composer and a writer on music and theology as well as a virtuoso pianist), whom I last saw in the SLSO's 2012 "Rach Fest"-a series of concerts in which Mr. Hough took on the daunting task of performing Rachmaninoff's first, second, and third piano concertos over the course of two weeks. He demonstrated then that he had both tremendous power and a delicate touch, which should serve him well in the Beethoven.

The essentials: Robert Spano conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and piano soloist Stephen Hough in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 ("Emperor"), Respighi's The Pines of Rome, and Pohjola's Daughter by Sibelius. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m., November 25-27, at Powell Hall in Grand Center. The Saturday concert will be broadcast on St. Louis Public Radio For more information: stlsymphony.org.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Review: Lyric Opera's "Les Troyens" sounds great, looks bland

This review originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.
The Troy city wall, Act I
Photo: Todd Rosenberg
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Through December 3, Lyric Opera of Chicago is presenting its first-ever production of Hector Berlioz's mammoth 1858 drama Les Troyens. For many Chicago opera lovers, that makes it a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Which puts them one up on Berlioz.

As I wrote in my review of the 2014 San Francisco production of Les Troyens, by the time Berlioz died in 1869, only the last three of his five acts had been performed, and then only in a drastically truncated and badly produced version by the Théâtre Lyrique, the Paris Opéra having dithered over it too long. The first full production didn't take place until 1890, and even then it languished for most of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, taking on the reputation of (in the words of Berlioz biographer Ian Kemp) "a monster so unwieldy that it had to be split in two and trimmed to size."

Christine Goerke
Photo: Todd Rosenberg
That reputation wasn't entirely undeserved. Running around four hours and 45 minutes in Lyric's slightly trimmed version (a full-length production can run five hours and some change) and requiring a huge cast, massive orchestra, and (at least in the composer's original conception) elaborate stage machinery, Les Troyens requires both pockets and a talent pool of considerable depth.

The Lyric production certainly has that deep talent pool--and a good thing, since this modern dress version comes up short on visual impact. Troy is represented by a massive, semicircular, partly collapsed wall, mounted on a turntable and taking up the entire stage. Carthage is the same wall rebuilt and painted a bland white on the inside. The Trojan horse is literally a shadow of its legendary self, being reduced to a simple gobo that projects the horse's shadow on the ruined wall of Troy. The result is something less than the spectacle that Berlioz had in mind and that I had expected.

"Royal Hunt and Storm," Act IV
Photo: Todd Rosenberg
The story of Les Troyens begins on the eve of the fall of Troy, as the Greek army has apparently fled the scene, leaving behind only the fabled horse, which despite the dire warnings of Cassandra, the Trojans take into the city. The opera goes on to chronicle the fall of Troy, the suicide of the Trojan women, and Aeneas' tragic affair with the Carthaginian queen Dido. It ends with Dido's suicide and a chorus of vengeance by the Carthaginian people.

Through it all Berlioz (who wrote his own libretto, after Virgil's Aeneid) cannily mixes intimate solos and duets, massive choral scenes, elaborate ballet sequences, and vivid instrumental writing (he was, after all, a master orchestrator) in ways designed to keep the viewer engaged. Even without the visuals, this Troyens gives us the great sweep of historical events and the implacable hand of fate but never lets us lose sight of the intimate human relationships that are at the core of the story.

Susan Graham, Act III
Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Heading the cast is mezzo Susan Graham as Dido, a part with which she has become strongly associated. When I saw her in the San Francisco production of Les Troyens two years ago, I wrote that her voice had a full, silky quality that, combined with her tasteful acting, made her character's heartbreak all too real. I see no reason to change that appraisal now.

Matching her in every respect was tenor Brandon Jovanovich as Aeneas. Although coping with a cold when we saw him, he displayed no signs of vocal strain. His long love duet with Dido in Act IV was flawless and his acting was never less than credible.

Susan Graham and Brandon Javanovich, Act V
Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Soprano Christine Goerke was a deeply troubled Cassandra, almost physically incapacitated by the strength of her prophetic visions. The role is written for a mezzo, but Ms. Goerke was vocally powerful even if her lowest notes. Moreover, the migraine-level intensity of her prophecies made it easy to understand why they're deemed unbelievable, even by her doomed lover Chorebus. That role was sung with great authority by baritone Lucas Meachem.

Mezzo Okka von der Damerau brings a self-aware amusement to the role of Dido's sister Anna that made the character very engaging. Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, who was so imposing as Dido's minister Narbal in San Francisco, reprises the role here with equal effect.

Christian Van Horn, Okka von der Damerau
Photo: Todd Rosenberg
There is a host of other fine performances in smaller roles, including tenors Mingjie Lei and Jonathan Johnson in the cameo roles of Iopas and Hylas, respectively. Each character has one lyrical spotlight aria, and both singers did very well by them. Bass-baritone Bradley Smoak, a familiar face at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, was properly fearsome as Hector's Ghost.

The chorus has a lot to do in Les Troyens, and Chorus Master Michael Black's singers deserve applause for singing with great clarity and force. Sir Andrew Davis leads a huge orchestra (including a sizeable complement of offstage players) in an authoritative interpretation of Berlioz's wonderfully varied and bracing score.

Mingjie Lei, Susan Graham, Brandon Jovanovich
Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Ballet plays an important role in Les Troyens as well. The French always loved seeing dances in their operas, but Berlioz uses dance for narrative purposes as well as for sheer spectacle. The "Royal Hunt and Storm" sequence of Act IV is probably the most famous example, with Dido and Aeneas becoming separated from a hunting party during a storm and consummating their lover affair in a sheltered grotto. Unfortunately, director Tim Albery has tossed out everything leading up to that consummation, instead choosing to show (in his words) "multiple Didos and Aeneases living out her dream of a passionate affair with him."

Practically speaking, that involved choreographer Helen Pickett's lithe dancers dashing about in what came close to a parody of an orgy with an impressively three-dimensional forest projected on the wall as scenery. It doesn't match up with the story vividly depicted in Berlioz's music very well.

There's a lot to admire in the Lyric's Troyens, but in the final analysis the decision to make it drably contemporary robbed it, at least for me, of some of the epic sweep of the narrative. For information on upcoming performances, visit the Lyric Opera web site.

Review: "Fun Home" is a small show with a big heart

This review originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.
The cast of Fun Home
Photo: Joan Marcus
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Fun Home, the musical stage adaptation of Alison Bechdel's 2006 "family tragicomic" of the same name, is something of an odd fit for the Fox Theatre, where a national tour of the show is playing through November 27.

It is, to begin with, a small-cast show originally designed for a much smaller theatre. Even with a false proscenium that reduces the width of the stage by around a third, Fun Home feels dwarfed by the Fox's immensity. That creates a distancing effect that somewhat blunts the emotional force of the show, especially in the tragic and ultimately cathartic final scenes.

The story is also somewhat out of the Fox's usual Broadway hit mainstream. Like Ms. Bechdel's original graphic novel, Fun Home leaps forward and backward in time to tell the story of how she and her two siblings helped out at the small town funeral home (the "fun home" of the title) run by her father, Bruce, who was also the local high school English teacher.

In both the novel and the musical, Bruce emerges as a deeply conflicted and tragic character. He loves Alison but finds it hard to say so. He has male lovers outside of his marriage, but never fully comes to grips with his identity as a gay man. As a song heard early in the show, "He Wants," tells us, the Bechdel "fun home" revolves around what Bruce wants, and yet even he is not always clear what those wants are.

Robert Petkoff and Alessandra Baldacchino
Photo: Joan Marcus
This is not, in short, your usual musical extravaganza. It's closer to a tragic opera, but with redemption for narrator Alison at the end.

Composer Jeanine Tesori (Thoroughly Modern Millie; Caroline, or Change) and playwright Lisa Kron (2.5 Minute Ride; Well) have, in any case, done an impressive job of translating Ms. Bechdel's work to the stage.

Ms. Kuhn's book handles the original material's leaps backward and forwards in time by presenting us with three versions of Alison Bechdel: Alison, age 43, writing her book; Medium Alison, a bookish age 19 discovering her lesbian sexual identity at Oberlin College; and Small Alison, age nine or thereabouts, trying (and often failing) to get her father's attention and affection while chafing at his insistence that she confirm to a "girly" role that, even at her age, she recognizes as alien. It's an ingenious device that allows us to see adult Alison remembering her life and sometimes even taking part in it, as in the song "Telephone Wires," in which she recalls that final, unsuccessful attempt to form a real emotional connection with her father before his untimely death when he was struck by a truck on a busy highway -- an incident that might or might not have been suicide.

For her part Ms. Tesori has put together a score which, while not generating any memorable melodies, nevertheless succeeds at the more important task of revealing and illustrating character. As New York Magazine theatre critic Jesse Green points out in the notes for the Fun Home cast album, Ms. Tesori "abjures traditional song forms, opting instead for yearning fragments and bits of refrains that clump like cells into musicalized scenes: a smart parallel to the way Bechdel builds pages from individual panels." My first inclination was to dismiss the results as so much contemporary musical theatre yard goods, but hearing the score again on the cast recording brought me around to Mr. Green's point of view.

L-R: Kate Shindle, Abby Corrigan,
Alessandra Baldacchino
Photo: Joan Marcus
An excellent ensemble cast brings this all to life, led by Robert Petkoff as Bruce. His character is complex and could easily come across as unpleasant, but Mr. Petkoff does not neglect the character's softer side, giving him real depth. Kate Shindle displays the same depth as the adult Alison, making the character's difficult emotional journey all too real.

Susan Moniz is heartbreakingly real as Bruce's long-suffering wife Helen, bearing up under the unbearable burden of her husband's conflicted soul and finally pouring out her disappointment in the song "Days and Days":

Days and days and days, that's how it happens
Days and days and days
Made of lunches and car rides and shirts and socks
And grades and piano and no one clocks
The day you disappear

Abby Corrigan gets the enthusiastic vulnerability of Middle Alison just right and Alessandra Baldacchino is utterly engaging as Small Alison. There's fine work here as well by Lennon Nate Hammond and Pierson Salvador as Young Alison's brothers John and Christian, Karen Eilbacher as Joan (a.k.a. "Jo"), who is responsible for Middle Alison's sexual awakening, and Robert Hager in multiple roles.

The fact that Fun Home uses a small band playing on a raised platform in back of the stage instead of an orchestra pit helps make the sound clearer than it sometimes is at the Fox, as does the fact that there are almost no ensemble numbers at all. Individual voices invariably come through more cleanly over the amplification system. Sam Gold's direction pulls everything together flawlessly.

Fun Home may not be a great musical, but it is certainly an important one, especially in light of the dark strains of resentment let loose in the recent Presidential campaign. It reminds us that families can be difficult and that love is not always easy regardless of anyone's sexuality. Being human can just be hard sometimes, and we all need (as the old song goes) to "try a little tenderness."

Fun Home plays at the Fox in Grand Center through November 27. Note that the show runs around one hour and forty-five minutes with no intermission, and that evening shows begin at 7:30 p.m. instead of the usual 8.