Chicago — The Chicago Lyric Opera puts the lie to the myth that opera lives only in New York.
It has been no secret, of course, that electrifying operatic evenings were possible in the Windy City. After all, it was there that Maria Callas made her American debut. Before Callas, Renata Tebaldi had made herm US debut there. And Chicago became known, under the aegis of the late Carol Fox, as the tenor town par excellence.
Chicago Lyric was the center of a controversy when composer Krzysztof Penderecki was offered the commission for the company's celebration of the American Bicentennial. ''Paradise Lost'' was the first of many serious drains on a company that soon found itself precariously in the red. The crisis resulted eventually in the firing of Miss Fox and the appointment of Ardis Krainek as general director.
Miss Krainek, in the nearly two years she has headed the company, has turned it around and put it in the black, at no ghastly reduction in vocal quality. In fact, the three performances I attended recently were on a consistently higher level than equivalent performances at the Met.
Chicago Lyric is hampered, as is every house in the world today, by the drought in important voices. But this season it managed to attract Alfredo Kraus , Eva Marton, Luciano Pavarotti, Jon Vickers, and Placido Domingo. This year, Hal Prince was staging the company's new ''Butterfly.''
My stay allowed me to hear a curious double bill of Francis Poulenc's ''La Voix Humaine'' and Leoncavallo's ''I Pagliacci,'' as well as Puccini's ''Tosca'' and Mozart's ''Cosi fan tutte.'' All but the Poulenc are heard regularly in New York. In fact, the ''Pagliacci'' and the ''Cosi'' are Met productions, and the ''Tosca'' is seen in the Tito Gobbi staging he later re-created on the Met stage in the Met's old production.
I found the level of performance high. Lesser parts were cast from the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists, and several voices were most impressive. More important, I found that each performance embraced a sense of a company at work trying to make something important happen. There were blemishes, but there were high points, too, and one left each evening with a sense of having had an artistic encounter.
The ''Tosca'' presented Miss Marton in the title role. She guaranteed that the evening would be a dazzling exhibition of true operatic theatrics and the very best of prima donna temperament melded into a spectacular incarnation of this celebrated role. She brings a blazing intensity to her portrayal, a voice that easily rides the orchestral climaxes, yet can soothe and haunt in the more lyric moments.
Her Scarpia, Siegmund Nimsgern, offered her a riveting foil and a frightening adversary. He has just taken on the role, and has yet to find his way through it consistently, but at its best - which was most of the time - it was vocally impressive and histrionically strong.
Veriano Luchetti was the somewhat small-scaled, wooden Cavaradossi, Italo Tajo the jovial Sacristan, Florindo Andreolli the superb Spoletta (what a superb comprimariom artist he is). Conductor Julius Rudel led a seasoned performance.
It is Lyric's practice to bring the original stage directors back to revive their own productions; thus Mr. Gobbi had been on hand to tell his cast what to do. On the Pier Luigi Pizzi sets - massive, deep-perspectived re-creations of the church, the palace room, and the castletop, which add up to one of the finest Tosca settings imaginable - all elements made sense, the way they did not at the Met.
There were no surprises in the ''Pagliacci,'' since this is the Met's Zeffirelli production revived by Fabrizio Melano. The chorus acted with particular enthusiasm throughout, and Mr. Vickers created, in his inimitable manner, a spellbinding figure of a strong-yet-weak man whose furious jealousy gets the best of him. The final moments left one terror stricken, such were the power and vocal strength of this portrayal.
Josephine Barstow sang Poulenc's demanding 50-minute monodrama ''La Voix Humaine'' to great effect. She is a compelling actress, and as Nedda she was given full rein to tear every passion to tatters. The story (by Jean Cocteau) concerns the last phone call of a distraught girl to the boyfriend who is jilting her. It is very much a piece of the 1930s in which it was written, pre-women's lib in attitude and action. But it generates quite an emotional wallop to those in tune with the theatrical convention of the time (familiar to '40s film fans).
Carlo Felice Cillario conducted sensitively, if not really meltingly. The Pet Halman set was gorgeously art deco, except for the ghastly neon ''HOTEL'' sign outside the window that flashed each time the phone rang. This was clearly a device chosen by director Nicolas Joel, and it gave the show a sleazy edge the original scrupulously avoids. Mr. Joel also chose to give Miss Barstow more action than was really good for her, but through it all, she held this listener's attention, and projected the literal but flat Joseph Machlis translation of the Cocteau text with a good 90-percent comprehensibility.
The ''Cosi'' was distinguished by the vivacious, very Neapolitan staging of former soprano Graziella Sciutti - a far cry from the stuffy creatures Colin Graham had created for the Met on the flimsy Hayden Griffen slide-panel sets.
The cast included two singers known in Europe but not here, Rachel Yakar and Gosta Winbergh. Miss Yakar is a lively performer with a lively stage presence, making Fiordiligi a bit more complicated than usual. The voice is essentially fine - full in all its range down to the lowest notes, with a clear, sizable top , which under pressure becomes a bit edgy.
Elizabeth Hynes proved as Despina what she proved as Pamina at the City Opera: She has become the best Mozart singer among our Americans today. The rest of the cast - including Anne Howells, Richard Stillwell, and Domenico Trimarchi - were average in their performances. Mr. Rudel, conducting from the harpsichord he played in the recitatives, tried to tame an unruly orchestra, and gave his singers wonderful support.