CHICAGO — I have long suspected that New Yorkers have a distorted view of concertgoing: The sheer quantity of events makes choices difficult at best, and the attitudes of local audiences have taken a toll on the enthusiasm of the major performing groups. I was reminded of this during a recent weekend spent in Chicago. Lyric Opera was playing both Richard Strauss's ``Salome'' and Verdi's ``Aida.'' The Chicago Symphony was playing host to conductor Semyon Bychkov in his debut, with the young British virtuoso Stephen Hough as piano soloist. And Chicago Opera Theatre was presenting the Chicago premi`ere of Oliver Knussen's wacky, weird, and wonderful ``Where the Wild Things Are.'' As I had attended the New York premi`ere of the Knussen, I chose to attend the two Lyric events and the symphony.
Lyric has become the most interesting and satisfying opera company in the United States. By casting from strength and by mixing its own productions with borrowed ones, Lyric offers an intriguing variety of operas and production styles. In this case, the ``Aida'' is Lyric's own, staged by Nicolas Jo"el, while the ``Salome'' is borrowed from Los Angeles Opera Theatre, directed by Sir Peter Hall.
The raison d'^etre for the ``Salome'' in L.A. was Maria Ewing in the title role, and she repeated her role in Chicago. From first to last Miss Ewing held the observer spellbound. For once, an opera singer looked like the petulant teen-ager Salome is supposed to look, and could manage choreographer Elizabeth Keen's suggestive dance with the voluptuousness Strauss's music demands. And while the singing was not always opulent, Ewing was equal to the task at all the crucial moments.
Brigitte Fassbaender's impressively imperious Herodias, James King's magnificent Herod, Siegmund Nimsgern's eloquent, impassioned Jochanaan, and Franco Farina's honey-voiced Narraboth were all superlative assets. Leonard Slatkin conducted the score with a dazzling theatricality and a keen ear for the expressive possibilities of the composer's deeply textured orchestrations, which the Lyric Opera Orchestra played remarkably well.
Nonetheless, Ewing was the multi-faceted jewel in both this superb cast and in Hall's superbly conceived production, stunningly designed by John Bury - a nonstop swirl of Gustav Klimt-inspired projections and lighting (by Duane Schuler) used to frame a remarkable study in the various faces of insanity.
Lyric's ``Aida'' is not so straightforward nor so successful a production. It tries to start in Egypt and stretch the issues of the opera into some sort of general relevancy. The soldiers sport armor out of a Kurosawa medieval epic; the captured Ethiopians, with their livid blue skin, might have walked in from a ``Star Wars'' dive. Pet Halmen's sets, with their oppressive red columns, vary from striking (particularly the gorgeous ``Nile Scene'') to confusing, and Mr. Jo"el's ideas fall short of striking, arresting drama.
It cannot be easy to put together an ``Aida'' cast today, but on the first night of a run that lasts through Jan. 28, Lyric made an impressive try. Because Susan Dunn was announced as singing under indisposition, it is not fair to say much about her Aida except to note a beguiling beauty to much of the middle voice, which amply indicated her suitability to the part. Giuseppe Giacomini proved, in his performance as Radam`es, that he is our premier Verdi heroic tenor - flooding the theater with gleaming, ringing tone. Bonaldo Giaiotti's Ramfis was the same substantive characterization he has been giving in the role for over 20 years now. In the pit, Richard Buckley led a vital, propulsive performance.
It is always a treat to hear the Chicago Symphony in its own Orchestra Hall. Though the acoustics are a bit dry, the hall still suggests event.
While the concert was a normal subscription program, the audience was clearly anticipating pleasure, and the orchestra at its workaday norm was still inspired. Mr. Bychkov did not inspire them much in the opening Haydn Symphony, but he had more success in the tonal riches of Rachmaninoff's ``Symphonic Dances,'' even if he didn't really plumb the depths of this expansive, broodingly majestic work.
In between the Haydn and the Rachmaninoff, Mr. Hough offered a scintillating, iridescent, ultra-virtuosic account of Mendelssohn's First Piano Concerto, proving yet again that he is one of the most gifted young virtuosos of the day.