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Lyric Opera gleams at 50 with “Midsummer Marriage,” “Manon Lescaut”

New Yorkers focused obsessively on Lincoln Center need to be reminded that other U.S. cities have long-established operatic cultures. In the 19th century, New Orleans and Philadelphia led the field; but for most of the 20th century New York held sway, with the main challenge coming—before World War II and again from 1954 on—from Chicago.

This season marks the 50th anniversary of Lyric Opera of Chicago, which opened with a blaze of glory involving starry names (Steber, Callas, Simionato) and has boasted a lot of star power ever since. Presently led by William Mason and Sir Andrew Davis, Lyric makes an impression, not least for its spectacularly opulent auditorium; but the artistic quality is also regularly very high. Two new productions last month proved highly stimulating.

Lyric became the second major U.S. company to stage “The Midsummer Marriage” by Sir Michael Tippett (1905-1988); San Francisco put on a legendary production in the 1980s. Belief in the greatness of Tippett’s operas is an article of faith among some British journalists, notably Andrew Porter and Nicholas Kenyon. The latter actually wrote of Tippett: “He was to Britten as Handel was to Mozart”—which seems to me among other things to misestimate the relationship between Handel and Mozart.

One wants to like the works of this leftist, pacifist, gay survivor, whose oratorio “A Child of our Time” may be his most enduring work. Tippett grappled with important social questions; in fact “The Knot Garden” (1970) put the first self-described gay couple—moreover, an interracial one—on the operatic stage. Yet, disastrously in places, Tippett always crafted his own libretti—rather rare in this art form, though Wagner, Menotti, and Floyd have managed it better. Tippett as librettist tends to windy Jungian claptrap, with faded slang and downright awkward locutions abounding.

That said, I’m pleased finally to have heard “Midsummer Marriage” onstage (November 29). A British mythic/bucolic retelling of “The Magic Flute,” with two contrasting couples—cerebral high castes and sensual proles—passing through stages of readiness for uniting, it has limited dramatic development and plenty of muddled text. The authority figures are a He-Ancient and She-Ancient on the one side, and a capitalist meanie named King Fisher and the incomprehensible sibyl he suborns (Madame Sosostris), on the other. There is a Lower and a Higher Realm, but we must take on faith that the central pair (Jennifer and Mark) are exploring them while we are left to watch Ritual Dances—strikingly choreographed in Chicago by Wayne McGregor, who also pitched in when director Sir Peter Hall got sick during the rehearsal period.

Some of Tippett’s richly textured writing for the orchestra is quite fresh and stunning; if one values the English choral tradition, this score draws heavily on it, sometimes to the point of overkill. Donald Palumbo’s chorus performed extremely well in both shows I heard. The solo parts are perhaps better characterized as immensely challenging than rewarding per se; Joan Sutherland and Richard Lewis, the original Jennifer and Mark in 1955, were wonderful singers technically. Tippett certainly provided them—and Bella, the secretary “second lead”—rather a misogynistically drawn part, though she gets rewarded with the hunky mechanic Jack at the end—with vocal workouts.

Janice Watson, ever a fine musician but rarely a transcendent interpreter, coped earnestly and commendably with Jennifer’s severely challenging vocal leaps. Some may remember new-minted Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser from Glimmerglass or New York Festival of Song as a fine lyric baritone. Kaiser’s career profile is about to soar, as he is filming Tamino in Kenneth Branagh’s “Magic Flute;” the voice isn’t as fully projected as it should become, but he handles it very well and made an engaging study of the sensitive/macho hero, looking like the Boy Next Door, should the Boy Next Door happen to be adorable.

Accomplished coloratura Stacey Tappan was terrific as Bella—time for a major New York gig for her—opposite the fine lyric tenor Kurt Streit, a persuasive Jack. Bass Peter Rose has become pretty expert at characters like King Fisher; Catherine Wyn-Rogers did as well as anyone could do with Sosostris’ tiresome monologue, a showstopper in the wrong sense. Young contralto Meredith Arwady and veteran Kevin Langan—a pillar of San Francisco and Chicago stages who’s never quite scored in New York—offered excellent vocalism and fine presence as the Ancients, who, in Winter Queen white, got the best of Alison Chitty’s fine designs. The real hero of the evening, as often at Lyric, was music director Andrew Davis, offering sovereign control over this challenging material in the pit.

The following day, his predecessor, Bruno Bartoletti, offered notably less orchestral profile and direction in “Manon Lescaut.” Puccini’s early masterpiece drew power instead from the vocal charisma and interpretive commitment of Karita Mattila and Vladimir Galouzine. Neither proved ideal for Act One: glamorous as she be, Mattila is hard to credit as a 16 year old provincial girl, and Galouzine’s thrilling instrument is just too baritonal in color for “Tra voi belle.” But then they took off. Those with memories—or recordings—of Tebaldi, Albanese, Bjoerling, and Bergonzi in these parts might justly find Mattila and Galouzine less than Italianate; but both are wonderful singers at their peaks and both offered a degree of passionate involvement rarely encountered today. When will the Met hear their “Manon Lescaut”?

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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