2016 Best of Opera in Chicago

Following a national trend, this has been a year in which moving and exciting operatic performances could be found in unlikely places.  Here is the Editor’s top ten list of memorable performances in and around Chicago in 2016.

10.  Whitney Morrison as Donna Anna in The Floating Opera Company’s crematorium Don Giovanni in February.  Though it is not clear what has become of FOC, the fledgling company showed great vision in their casting of Ms. Morrison as the tormented heroine Anna.  She displayed a solid technique in a role that is famous for revealing shortcomings. Here is a singer who cannot help but dominate with her formidable physical presence and creamy tone quality.  Her youthful lirico-spinto is laced with just enough steel to suggest roles like the Trovatore Leonora or Puccini’s Liù, which TEoVAC would line up to hear.

9.  The multi-ethnic cast of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s world premiere of Bel Canto. If you are an opera company trying to build new audiences by representing them on the stage, you could hardly do better than this Jimmy López commission that began the calendar year.  In a huge and generally splendid ensemble cast, the terrorists Carmen and César were the most sympathetic characters and enjoyed the deluxe vocalism of J’nai Bridges and Anthony Roth Costanzo. Watch the PBS broadcast on January 13.

8. Jonathan Beyer in L’Isola DisabitataHaymarket Opera Company is incrementally raising their already high standards for productions of 17th and 18th century operas, and now oratorio.   The Italian oratorio they produced in May ­— St. John the Baptist by Alessandro Stradella is on VAC’s Best in Concert & Song list.  The late 18th century ‘rescue opera’ by Franz Joseph Haydn did not seem to fit the company’s Baroque mission, but it did feature a most handsome and elegant performance by certified Barihunk Jonathan Beyer. In order for these performances to succeed,  highly-stylized gesture and historically-informed stage comportment must be in service to the virtuosic music and lavish set and costume design.  This is very difficult to pull off.  There are a handful of companies devoted to this repertoire, which even at their most flush with resources, are unable to consistently make the artifice feel authentic.  Jonathan Beyer’s Enrico was to the manner born.  His physical lines had the perfect asymmetry, his gait traced beautiful curves onto the stage, his posture was aristocratic without being arrogant, and his singing was so technically masterful that one never was never pulled out of the enjoyment of it to wonder how challenging the notes were on the page.

7.  Jessica Oliver and Julia Hardin in The ConsulMain Street Opera is an earnest company that is hard to track down.  Performed in Bartlett, it should almost have been disqualified from being on Vocal Arts Chicago.  Yet, the comprehensive performance of young dramatic soprano Jessica Oliver in July claims a worthy entry on this list, and makes Main Street Opera a company to seek.  Oliver quite simply sang with all of her guts and achieved some heroic phrases invoking characters like Ariadne, Beethoven’s Leonora, and Norma. Her performance as Magda was at turns courageous, vulnerable, ferocious, feminine, and menacing. Counterpoint to Ms. Oliver was the tidy and engrossingly fussy performance of mezzo-soprano Julia Hardin as the Secretary of the Consulate. It was a pitch-perfect character study,  plastic and controlled in juxtaposition to Oliver’s messy humanity.

6. Laura Wilde at Lyric Opera of Chicago. 2016 marked the last year of soprano Laura Wilde as a Ryan Opera Center “young artist” and her debut as a full-fledged principle at the Lyric.  I remember reaching for my program at the start of the second act of February’s Rosenkavalier to see who was this ravishing singer unintentionally stealing the spotlight in the role of the governess Marianne.  Then just a month later in March, Lyric’s Rising Stars concert confirmed for me that here was a major talent ready for an international career with a tour de force performance of Jenufa’s monologue – a display of intelligence, passion, and strength. The 16-17 season opener Das Rheingold gave Lyric one more chance to show off Wilde’s impressive range of skills, an innocent and youthful Freia who made a crudely constructed giant puppet feel like flesh and blood. She was the highlight of one of the best productions of Lyric has offered this or any year.

5.  Matthew Rose in Der Rosenkavalier.  How do you make one of the most vile and repugnant characters in all of opera lovable?  The British bass making his Lyric Opera debut as Baron Ochs, all tall and awkward, uncomfortable in the Rococo finery he is obliged to don, did so by avoiding caricature.  Singing with a clean and virile tone, Rose made Ochs charismatic and sympathetic, rather than silly.  Sophie could do worse.  The Editor is anxious to hear more of Rose in the Mozart and Britten bass roles, or since 2017 is a Monteverdi anniversary year, as Seneca in the Coronation of Poppea.

4. Melissa Arning in Dark SistersThird Eye Theatre Ensemble had a great year with its comic entry into the Chicago Fringe Festival (the first opera company ever to participate).  Hilliard & Boresi’s Filthy Habit was a showcase for the many talents of baritone Jonathan Wilson and proved that opera buffa is still a viable form in an era when every other new work is a tragedy that has already been made into a movie.  Third Eye backed up the success of Filthy Habit in September with Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters at the Prop Thtr in October.  Set designer Jimmy Jagos took advantage of the challenging, all-brick blackbox creating a claustrophobic space that was both hostile and homey.  Director Rose Freeman was able to elicit six distinct female characters from a rotating cast, each with a deep back story the audience could spend the whole evening learning about. The most tragic of these women had to be Ruth, the “Prophet’s” second wife who falls into madness bereaving her lost son. Mezzo-soprano Melissa Arning’s cropped hair, compared to the prairie-chic braids of her sister wives, visually signaled Ruth’s detachment from reality. Muhly wrote a true lament for Ruth’s last scene, evocative of Berlioz’s Didon or Bellini’s Amina. It was a devastating performance that nonetheless showed Arning in control of her warm, focused tone, and just enough of her emotions to get through it.  

3. Piotr Beczala singing "E lucevan le stelle."  October gave Chicago opera fans the chance to hear the great tenor Piotr Beczala as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor as well as in the intimate Beyond the Aria concert series. For brooding and a burnished timbre we turn to Kaufmann.  For stylish elegance and sweet tone, we have Polenzani. For shirtless good looks and youthful vigor we go to Grigolo.  But for that heart-on-your-sleeve Italianate lyricism, the default tenor must be Piotr Beczala.  His Edgardo was fantastic amongst a challenging production design and some uninspired staging. About 300 people, however,  were treated to the best tenor moment of 2016 when Beczala launched into "E lucevan le stelle" on the stage of the Pritzker Pavilion with Beyond the Aria’s artistic director Craig Terry at the piano.  Technically, it wasn’t opera, but It had the drama of Puccini’s entire score packed into three minutes and it was sung with such lusty tone that it felt great to be alive. 

2.  Ambrogio Maestri and Rosa Feola in CSO’s Falstaff.  Sometimes putting great singing actors on stage with a fantastic orchestra and a legendary operatic conductor is all you need to present the best opera production of the year.  Chicagoans were very lucky to have had that opportunity this past April.  The full complement of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra shared the stage making for a dynamic and responsive backdrop to Verdi’s final opera. Riccardo Muti’s all-Italian cast gave a masterclass in Verdian style, operatic stage gesture, and comic timing.  The professor was Ambrogio Maestri who magically created costumes and scenario in the audiences mind with a flick of the wrist and a raise of the eyebrow.  The cast was categorically brilliant, especially the opulent and buxom Eleonara Burratto as Alice.  But the moment that stole the show and overshadowed even the magnificent Maestri was soprano Rosa Feola’s glimmering “Sul fil d’un soffio etesio.”  If Muti would have allowed an applause break it might have stopped the show entirely.

1. Annie Rosen in a scene from Dialogues of the Carmelites.  Mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen has been a work-horse in her second year as a member of the Ryan Opera Center taking assignments like Second Lady in Magic Flute, the boy Ascagne in Lyric’s triumphant Troyens, Wellgunde in Rheingold,  as well as headlining ROC’s concert at Grant Park Music Festival with orchestrated songs of Nico Muhly and collaborating on two Beyond the Aria performances.  She has been outstanding in all of these but the most memorable operatic performance of 2016 was not from a complete production. It was merely a dialogue from Poulenc’s masterpiece performed at the Rising Stars Concert in the Ardis Kranik Theatre in March.  Blanche’s confrontation with her brother comes at the midpoint of the opera as her decisions have begun to yield consequences.  Leaving the Order with him would seem to be the last chance for Blanche to escape her fate but fear has paralyzed her.  In this scene the audience witnessed a singer so secure in her technique that she was able to give all of herself to the drama, bringing her voice to the edge of ugly and allowing her body to crumble before our eyes.  The memory of it still brings a lump to my throat.  This is why we go to the opera – to feel something and to have it imprinted on our minds as if It were our own experience being portrayed on the stage.

Honorable mention: Conductor Catherine O’Shaughnessy showed her resourcefulness in Floating Opera Company’s Don Giovanni in February, scrappiness and an ear for bel canto in her own production of Don Pasquale (Windy City Opera) in March, fierce concentration in the nervy Chicago Fringe Opera production of Philip Glass’ In the Penal Colony in May, and the spirit of a modern collaborator in CFO’s Song from the Uproar in October.  Give this woman a vacation!

Coming next: The best vocal performances of 2016 in concert and song.