Wednesday, November 18, 2015



 Renee Fleming stars in Lyric Opera's :"The Merry Widow" through Dec. 3
Thomas Hampson and Renee Fleming star as Count Danilo and Hanna in dazzling production

There is no better tonic for the tragic and traumatic events in Paris than a night in its greatest era, La Belle Epoque, in 1905, as depicted in Lyric Opera's New-to-Chicago production of Franz Lehar's "The Merry Widow."

Lyric creative consultant Renee Fleming stars as the irrepressible Hanna Glawari. Lyric favorite Thomas Hampson stars as Count Danilo, an old flame and reluctant object of her current affections.
The production runs through Dec. 13 with 2005 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition winner and Lyric Ryan Opera Center alum Nicole Cabell taking over the starring role for the final three performances Dec. 9-13.

The performance is full of life and laughter, with abundant romantic clinches and complications. With a spectacular production and sometimes acrobatic dancing directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman,  lavish sets by Julian Crouch (both in their Lyric debut), elaborate costumes by William Ivey Long, and inspired conducting by Conductor and Lyric Music Director Sir  Andrew Davis in the pit, this was a thoroughly delightful evening.

The libretto for The Merry Widow by Viktor Leon and Leo Stein is based on the comedy L'attache d'ambassade written in 1861. Originally sung in German, it is translated here by Jeremy Sams and performed with supertitles above the stage of the Ardis Krainik Theatre.  Although spoken and sung in English, the supertitles seemed necessary because at times, the amplified speaking parts were muffled and some of the sung words could not be understood over extended vocal and orchestral lines.

The plot is a simple one. In fact, it provides just enough to drape Franz Lehar's sumptuous score around. Beautiful Hanna is newly widowed. Her husband has left a fortune behind, quoted often in the opening act setup as "twenty million"(euros? dollars?, but, you get the idea). In fact, her newly gained fortune is enough to rescue her fictitious homeland of Pontevedrian from bankruptcy. The ambassador from that country sets the wheels in motion to find her a proper husband from her homeland. The free-wheeling widow has another suitor in mind, the confirmed bachelor Count Danilo, played and sung brilliantly by Thomas Hampson. His entry onstage is one of the great comedic moments in opera. The mark of the Tony Award-winning director/choreographer Stroman is all over this production. Comedic timing is perfect throughout, with Hampson leading the way.

Renee Fleming is in top form, delivering a commanding performance. The high point, of course, is her performance of the familiar aria "Vilja." It was finished with a dramatic flourish that seemed to ring throughout the hall. It brought a well deserved ovation.

Supporting cast members weighed in with some memorable moments; Bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi in his Lyric debut as the pompous Pontevedrian ambassador, Baron Mirko Zeta and Heidi Stober as his young wife, Valencienne, also in her Lyric debut.

The Merry Widow, through December 13. For information, visit

Thursday, November 5, 2015



by Dwight Casimere

Photo: Hiroyuki Ito/New York Times

NEW YORK--Evgeny Kissin is appearing at Carnegie Hall in two sold-out recitals this week, the first pianist to perform dual concerts there in a single week since Vladimir Horowitz in 1979. His first performance brought record attendance, prompting the seating of more than a hundred lucky patrons onstage. An encore performance will be heard  on Friday, November 6 at 8pm. For more information, visit

Evgeny Kissin's program of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms and the Spanish composers Albeniz, Larregla and possible encores of Granados, will be heard at Chicago's Symphony Center Sunday,  November 15 at 2pm. For information, visit

In his Carnegie Hall performance, the enthusiastic audience literally enveloped onstage and off  as he strode onstage before the capacity crowd. He got directly to the business at hand, delivering a concise reading of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Piano Sonata in C Major. His deft fingering layed out the playful opening melody with a light touch that allowed him to gently increase its intensity. Accompanying themes grew more defined in the left hand as the first movement, Allegro moderato unfolded.

The most exquisite moments were to follow in the Andante cantabile in which he allowed the central theme to literally sing forth, filling the acoustically perfect space with the most celestial of sounds. The Allegretto literally danced beneath his lithe touch, which ended with a graceful flourish.

Kissin seemed most at home with Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 23, appropriately named "Apassionata." Kissin found the beating heart of this masterpiece of the Romantic piano repertoire. There was long and artful development of the central thematic line of the Allegro assai, building to a crescendo that burst, then faded like fireworks against a nighttime sky. Andante con moto was more dance-like with spirited movement, just as Beethoven intended. Again, Kissin's strong fingers brought forth the light quick-step of the melody while conveying a sense of the dramatic elements to follow. He pulled out all the stops in the final movement, Allegro ma non troppo (fast, but not too fast), was Kissin's opportunity to showcase the full dynamic force of his playing. At first restrained, building the increasingly complex thematic material in the left hand,  while executing beautifully embellished cascading arpeggios in the right. It all erupted in a dazzling display of virtuosic prowess.

Following the interval, Kissin bore his Romantic soul in Johannes Brahms' Three Intermezzos. His contemporaries referred to them as a "fountain of pleasure....filled with "poetry, passion, rapture and heartfelt emotion." Kissing summoned forth all that and more in his performance. He leaned forward, hovering above the keys as if listening patiently for the soul of the music's creator to speak to him.  The emotions he conjured forth were thusly heartfelt. There was a bittersweet quality to his playing that almost brought one to tears.

Isaac Albeniz' tone poems Granada, Cadiz, Cordoba and Astorias are the Spanish composer's version of tone poems, evoking the sights and  sounds of his homeland. Awash in impressionistic tonal brush-strokes, Kissin used his considerable skills to paint a musical portrait as only he can do.

The ensuing encores of fellow Spanish composer Enrique Granados; Quejas o la maja y el ruisenor, Andaluza and Brahms' familiar Hungarian Dance, No. 1, had them figuratively dancing in the aisles   as the happy and satisfied audience made its way toward the exits. 

This program repeats Friday, November 6 at 8pm at Carnegie Hall. 

Photo: Hiroyuki Ito/New York Times

Tuesday, November 3, 2015


by Dwight Casimere

Johan Botha as Tannhauser and Eva-Marie Westbrook as Elisabeth

The Metropolitan Opera brought all of its vast resources into full focus to realize a superlative production of Richard Wagner's Tannhauser which will be seen in a Met Live HD Encore Presentation Wednesday, November 4 at 6:30pm local time. Check local listings for theatre locations.

Music Director James Levine led a finely drawn reading of Wagner's lush orchestration, emphasizing the central theme, the hymn sung by the pilgrims which would be repeated at several key points throughout the opera, building the passages slowly. He allowed the magnificent Wagnerian horns to ring out, while coaxing sweet sounds from the woodwinds and somber, dramatic passages from the strings.

The vocal ensemble was among the best to be presented on the Met stage this season. Tenor Johan Botha shined as the knight minstrel Tannhauser. His brilliant voice changed in character throughout the performance; at first proclaiming his youthful ardor for Venus, sung with voluptuous tones by Michelle DeYoung, then moving into more dramatic territory, alternately reflecting despair and emotional trauma as he struggled with his conflicting emotions.

Eva-Marie Westbrook gave the most impressive performance in the demanding role of Elisabeth, the object of Tannhauser's affection.
The opera tells of Tannhauser's early existence in the subterranean lair of Venus, who continues to lure him back with her siren song at several key points in the opera. 
Tannhauser longs for Elisabeth and enters into a singing 'duel' with Wolfram, sung by Swedish baritone Peter Mattei. His Song to the Evening Star is one of the high points of the opera.

James Levine's conducting and the performances by the opera chorus and orchestra were exceptional. The camera work by Live In HD Director Barbara Willis Sweete focused in on the soloists at key moments, showing the brilliant playing of the Wagnerian horns and the exceptional dexterity of the harpist, who figured quite prominently in the solo sung by Peter Mattei.

Costumes by designer Patricia Zipprodt, were outstanding and reflective of both the Medieval period of the story and the specific nature of the characters. Some of the costumes, according to Zipprodt in an intermission interview with Live In HD Host and Met soprano Susan Graham, dated back to the original production by Otto Schenk in 1977.

Set design by Gunther Schneider-Siemssen and Lighting Design by Gil Wechsler provided a nuanced landscape that effectively charted Tannhauser's pilgrimage toward redemption.

The Metropolitan Opera Chorus is a key element in the success of this sweeping production. Chorus Master Donald Polumbo made the pilgrim  theme a thrilling moment. 
For more information on Met Live In HD Tannhauser, visit or fathom

Friday, October 30, 2015



by Dwight Casimere

 Conductor Semyon Bychkov leading the New York Philharmonic with (below) soloists Lisa Batyiashvili on Violin and Gautier Capucon on Cello (photos: Tina Fineberg for The New York Times)

NEW YORK--The esteemed Russian-American conductor Semyon Bychkov conducted an enthralling program that viewed the wide-ranging compositions of Johannes Brahms through three prisms; first through the eyes of a modern composer, then, as a showcase for two string virtuosos, and, finally, as the enduring voice of conservative Romanticism as spawned by Beethoven at the beginning of the 19th century.

The concert began with German composer Detlev Glanert's Brahms-Fantasie' Heliogravure for Orchestra. Thanks to the leadership of Music Director Alan Gilbert, a champion of new music, its not an uncommon occurence for the works of modern composers to be presented in season repertory. The sight of living composers to arise from the audience to receive accolades for their work has become an almost weekly occurrence.

German composer Detlev Glanert's Brahms-Fantasie makes music reference to Brahms' Symphony No. 1, which is performed later in the program.(If one listens closely, there are also the opening strains of Wagner's Parsifal. The composer was Brahms' nemesis.) The work is subtitled "A Heliogravure for Orchestra," which, I later learned, was a reference to a 19th century photographic technique in which phtographs are painted over with a chemical substance which essentially transforms its visual and material.

As confounding as the Brahms-Fantasie may have been for some listeners, the Concerto in A minor for Violin, Cello and Orchestra with young Geoirgian megastar Lis Batiashvili playing her 1739 Guarneri del Gesu violin and French virtuoso Gautier Capucon playing his rare 1701 Matteo Goffriller cello, was a sheer delight. To say the performance was exquisite is an understatement. This was the most gratifying performance thus far this season, even surpassing Lang Lang's impassioned brilliance on Opening Night. 

This was music-making at its finest, with the orchestra, its conductor and the soloist in complete sympatico. Batiashvili and Capucon finished each other's musical phrases the way long-time lovers finish each other's sentences. Their ringing tones at times emulated each other and Bychkov's deft handling of the orchestra took great pains not to overshadow them, but to provide both a framework and a spiritual reference that  highlighted the colorful playing of the two soloists.

 Even principal orchestra members got into the spirit of things by playing long, heartfelt solos; principal oboist Liang Wang and concert master Frank Huang. 

The woodwinds and Batiashvili traded passages that were among the most sensitive and the cello and orchestra played spirited passages both separately and in unison.

 The height of the performance was when Batiashvili and Capucon played intertwining passages that sounded like two lovebirds in full flight.

Brahms' Symphony No. 1 is the Evander Holyfield of all symphonies. When it arrived in the U.S. a year after its European premiere, it set off an intense rivalry between the esteemed conductors and intense controversy among critics.

Bychkov and the New York Philharmonic rose nobly to the occasion, setting out the pinderous thematic material with great deliberation.  The pounding pulse of the timpani provided backdrop shrouded in angst. The strings and horns further established the elegiac mood. 

 At times, the orchestra  rose to a collective voice, like a choir singing an impassioned requiem. The violins sang expressively in the ensuing Andante,  ending in hushed reverence as the oboe rendered its haunting theme. The clarinet, a beautiful instrument that is not heard often enough, took charge of the theme that introduced the Allegretto, with Bychkov skillfully building the orchestra to a finale that brought all of the thoroughbreds thundering home.

Thursday, October 29, 2015



by Dwight Casimere

NEW YORK--"BURNT' is the latest offering to portray the bad/boy star chef phenomenon. Starring Tony (Elephant Man)  and four-time Academy Award nominee Bradley Cooper, who received his latest nod from the Academy for his stellar work in Clint Eastwood's  American Sniper). and directed by TV's John Wells (ER, Third Watch, The West Wing, Shameless), the film lacks any of the punch and drama that you can see on any of Well's TV shows.

Cooper plays Adam Jones, a burned-ouot rock star chef who is battling drug addiction and is on-the-run from a pair of mobster who are dogging him for some old gambling debts. Along the way, he leaves behind a string of wrecked relationships and shuttered restaurant failures. The film centers on his last-ditch effort to redeem himself and earn a coveted Michelin star.

Beautifully filmed in New Orleans and London by 2009 Sundance Award-winning director Adriano Goldman, who is himself a noted director in Brazil, and edited by the stellar British director and editor Nick Moore, who did just about any British comedy/drama you ever loved  (starting with The Full Monty, the 1999 smash-hit Notting Hill, About a Boy, Love Actually), how could this project possibly have gone wrong?

The film has a stellar international cast that is largely wasted in this vehicle. Britain's  Emma Thompson (Remains of the Day, Howards End) plays Jones' therapist.  British/American hottie Sienna Miller (played opposite Cooper in American Sniper as wife Taya Renae Kyle, who co-wrote the source autobiography, American Wife: A Memoir of Love, Service, Faith, and Renewal, upon which the movie was based) is Jone's love interest. German actor Daniel Bruhl (Inglorious Basterds) is his loyal sidekick and Welsh actor Mstthew Rhys (ABC's Brothers and Sisters, FX's The Americans, plays his arch-rival Reese. And, oh yes, Uma Thurman is thrown into the mix in a forgettable role.

Cooper played a similar role in a short-lived Tv version of Kitchen Confidential, but why bother to see his latest film when you can watch the real bad boys, like Gordon Ramsey of Alan Bourdain, or real-life do-or-die chef's competition on Top Shelf.

Compare Burnt to the recently screened documentary "For Grace" which was featured at this year's Chicago International Film Festival, and is headed for Video On Demand and limited release in art houses around the country, which portrays the struggles of real-life chef Chris Duffy, who battles the ghost of his parent's murder/suicide, divorce, emotional depression and crushing debt from his year's long effort to open his dream restaurant. Now that's the stuff of a dramatic film!


Tuesday, October 27, 2015


by Dwight Casimere

'Simply poetic' are the two words that best describe Jenni Olson's 2015 Sundance Selection, The Royal Road. This cinematic essay begins with a recollection, spoken in voice-over (we even get an official dictionary entry on the origin of the term), of the final scene of the Hollywood Classic "Sunset Boulevard," in which the central character begins to explain why he's been found face down in an aging Hollywood film legend's swimming pool, to intimations on California's colonial past and the conquest of Mexican territory from the Mexican-American to the Mission system created by Father Junipero Serro and the trail of blood and repression that became known as the 'Royal Road,' from Los Angeles to San Francisco.
 The director Jenni Olson in a pensive moment

 Scenes of Mission Dolores and Potrero Hill in San Francisco

Olson's meandering journey of conscience and observation is beautifully shot in 16mm film, using breathtaking panoramas and Ansel Adams-like stills of the urban and pastoral landscape that marks the road and its distinctive Mission-bell signage. Along the way, Olson reflects on a never-realized lesbian love-affair (more like a case of sheer unrequited love than anything) and the tangential relationship between the almost never written or talked about Mexican- America War, which made My Lai look like a Sunday picnic. 
Her near hypnotic voice further creates an atmospheric portrait that connects the creation of the Mission system with nostalgic shots of Mission Dolores and romantic scenes of the pineapple tree-lined Dolores Street in San Francisco and beautiful shots of Dolores Heights, Potrero Hill and the Golden Gate Bridge.
 Director Jenni Olson-The Royal Road

Cinematographer Sophia Constantinou's images (she also shots Olson's debut effort, The Joy of Life), uses the images of barren urban landscapes, unpopulated streets and buildings and wide-angled highway and railway shots to convey the vastness and emptiness of the director's own internal landscape.  It's an unusual premise, but somehow it all works, and Olson's internal monologue leaps from the screen to captivate the soul. 

The Royal Road
Written and Directed by Jenni Olson
Narrated by Jenni Olson with a voiceover cameo by Tony Kushner
65 minutes
Opens in New York City October 30
NYC Theatrical Run Anthology Film Archives
October 30-November 5
Filmmaker Jenni Olson in person at screenings the weekend of October 30

Wednesday, October 28, 2015


Showy piano virtuoso digs deep into emotive sides of Tchaikovsky, Bach and Chopin

by Dwight Casimere

NEW YORK--Piano megastar Lang Lang is known for his glitz at the piano, sometimes with acrobatics bordering on an Elton John or Jerry Lee Lewis. He's been billed as charismatic and exuberant. At times, it can seem annoying.

Happily, none of those  histrionics were evident in his recent masterful performance on the Perlman Stage of Carnegie Hall. Lang Lang chose a more contemplative approach in which he revealed the emotive side of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in his almost Impressionistic The Seasons, Opus 37b, Tchaikovsky being another artist best known for his more dramatic and sometimes over-the-top  compositions.

Tchaikovsky's The Seasons is a set of suites in which the months are noted with situational settings. January, for example, is "By The Fireside, June, "Barcarolle" (referring to the lovely songs sung by the gondoliers in Venice), August is "Harvest." Lang Lang painted a musical portrait of each, using varied pressures of his supple fingers to emphasize interior melodies. Some of his most impressive playing was during the quieter moments, when he almost made the silence between passages ripple with emotion.

Italian Concerto, BWV 971 by Johann Sebastian Bach similarly showed the artist's full command of his Steinway. At times technically dazzling and alternating between exacting counterpoint and fluid expressionism, the piece commanded your attention at every turn.  This is a young artist who has truly turned the corner from youthful showman to mature practitioner.

Frederic Chopin's Scherzos are challenging to present, even by the most skilled of artists. The composer's blend of dazzling technique with contrasting introspection make them difficult to perform with any degree of integrity. Performers often sacrifice one element for the other, thus losing the overall dynamics of the music. Lang Lang found the perfect balance. His arpeggios were filled with a sense of revelation, with emotion building to a grand epiphany.There were flashes of  turbulence that would suddenly descend into a whisper. The effect was breathtaking.

The overflow audience was well armed with bouquets of flowers that were showered upon the artist as he raised his arms, almost as if in triumph. It was a grand  gesture which appropriately punctuated  his impactful performance.