Chicago Lyric fetes a glamorous 25th

T-shirts this year noted that "Opera in Chicago is Lyric-al," an appopriate deference and reference to Lyric Opera of Chicago, which has just completed its 25th anniversary season.

The three-month celebration was cause for joy. It was a fine season with enough high points to keep the opera lover humming and remembering until Opus 26 rolls around next fall. But in addition, a mix of joy and gratitude emerges just from the fact the Lyric has, indeed, reached 25.

That's a first for Chicago history. Although resident opera has been part of the local scene for most years since 1910, predecessor companies to Lyric Opera were numerous. Fiscal disasters mingled with managerial inadequacies brought about constant turnovers. One company replaced the previous only to be superseded by another, with only the name Chicago a common bond.

Lyric has been Lyric for 25 years. Its flow of attractions has come uninterrupted, except for 1968 when a contract deadlock with the American Federation of Musicians caused the company to shutter. And so, in mid-season this year a gala concert honored Lyric and its founder, Carol Fox, who still runs the company with firm grip. Not only did the current crop of Lyric artists participate, but the remembered of yesterday were present. Luciano Pavarotti, Sherrill Milnes, Lentyne Price, Mirealla Freni, and Jon Vickers were among those who sang with glory. Acknowledged for their presence and for their past contributions were Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Giulietta Simionato, Eleanor Steber, Bidu Sayao, Leopold Simoneau, and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni.

It was a lovely party, full of music and happy words.

Fortunately, the silver anniversary season which surrounded it held considerable pleasures, most notably toward the beginning and end.

A new production of "Faust," which public television offered as a "Great Performance" in early January, was solidly grounded in the sensitive musical leadership of conductor Georges Pretre.With Alfredo Kraus in the title role, and with Mirella Freni, Nicolai Ghiaurov, and Richard Stilwell in the other principal roles, there was plenty of grand singing to listen to.The lavish new settings were eyebrow raisers, being somewhat inappropriate for Gounod's romatic score but more reflective of Goethe's drama. Faust's study became a Wagnerian sort of rocky peak. The Kermese scene suggested Hieronymus Bosch. The garden scene turned the atmosphere impressionistic and almost oriental. The salvation of Marguerite was visually one of Dante and illustrator Paul Gustave Dore. Designer Pier Luigi Samaritan obviously must have been thinking Goethe much more than opera, but then, with a potboiler like "Faust," why not try something different? Samaritani did and thereby perked attention.

Wagner's Tristan and Isolde," not done locally since a legendary Birgit Nilsson-Artur Rodzinski production of 20 years ago, also had the benefit of a new mise-en-scene: Designer Roberto Oswald utilized a sweep of raked platform which -- in changing configurations -- served as ship in Act 1, as haven for love in Act 2, and as Tristan's castle at opera's end. Lights and projections did much of the rest, enfolding the characters as well as audience in sea and sky and mystic emotions. The effects enhanced a superb musical presentation focused on the Tristan of Jon Vickers. This man has hero and victim in his voice. He also possesses both lyricism and power in an unmatched tenor, qualities that carry him through the soaring beauties of the great love duet and then the hallucinatory agonies of the death scene. There can be no better Tristan.

Vickers" Isolde, Roberta Knie, does not erase memories of Nilsson, but she is a gifted singer, young and still in the process of making Isolde fully her own. The Brangaene of Mignon Dunn, the Kurwenal of Siegmund Nimsgern, and the Marke of Hans Sotin were all top quality. The musical surprise came from the pit. Franz-Paul Decker, the unheralded music director of the Montreal Symphony, brought both power and control to the whole operation. He caused Lyric's orchestra to play magnificently.

Between "Faust" and "Tristan" came a delightful repeat of the 1976 revival of Prokofiev's "Love for Three Oranges" and a "Boheme" that did not focus (after the withdrawal of the ailing Katia Ricciarelli and Jose Carreras) until late performances when in a game of musical chairs the Mimi and Rodolfo parts went to two young Romanians, Mariana Niculescu and Vasile Moldoveanu; they were excellent of voice, fervent of manner, and youthful of appearance.

Giordano's verismo rouser, "Andrea Chenier," was given a much-too-fancy new production that made intermissions longer than the acts. But Placido Domingo rightly gained cheers for his impassioned singing as the guillotine-doomed poet. Others in the cast did not match him, but conductor Bruno Bartoletti and the orchestra did.

"Rigoletto" returned to the repertory, mostly for Pavarotti, who was in very good voice. Matteo Manuguerra developed throat problems and bowed out of late performances, but dramatically he was as always a superior hunchback. Judith Blegen sang beautifully as Gilda. Margaret Price had to withdraw from "Simon Boccanegra," handing the difficult Amelia role to Ellen Shade. The substitute did well, soaring into the Verdi stratosphere sumptuously. Carlo Cossutta met her every note of the way. But it was Milnes as Boccanegra who gave this production its greatest impetus and excellence. The part was new to him, yet he already has it studied down to the fine points, and the voice is so right for Verdi.

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