Leaving Edmonton in November during one of the first snowstorms felt rather good in spite of a very early flight. After a direct flight and a smooth ride to our boutique hotel — within easy walking distance to the Lyric Opera, Chicago Symphony, Art Institute and Millenium Park — we all had a lovely dinner together at Trattoria No. 10 (Italian food and wine was a must before Verdi!).
The first performance we saw at the Lyric was Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. The music and drama of Simon Boccanegra are magnificent from the first bar to finish. No wonder it took Verdi 24 years to revise it after the initial debacle; it took the talent of Arrigo Boito to revise the original libretto that Piave did for the first performance in 1857. The version as we know it today was performed for the first time in 1881. In its revised form it became a masterpiece of late Verdi period, tightly structured — no more ceremonial moments distracting us form the drama at hand. In 1881, the “showy” moments did not appeal to Verdi any longer. In this opera, Verdi composed some glorious music with profound lyricism while remaining such a musical psychologist. A great example of the latter is the duet of Amelia and Boccanegra, which brings forth such moving humanity to this great work.
The production was co-produced with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden back in 1995, set designed by Michael Yeargan, costumes by Peter Hall and directed by Elijah Moshinsky. Sir Andrew Davis conducted the wonderful Lyric Opera orchestra. The cast was stellar — internationally acclaimed American baritone Thomas Hampson in the title role, legendary Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto as Fiesco, Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey as the power-hungry villain Paolo, Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova in her American debut as Amelia and the American tenor Frank Lopardo portrayed Gabriele and his path from hating Boccanegra to calling him father. It truly was a great night of perfectly done Verdi that we all loved, in spite of being exhausted.
Saturday was an early start so that the group could join the half-day architectural tour of Chicago organized by the Architectural Foundation of Chicago. It was worth every minute as we walked and were also driven on a bus with a great volunteer docent. Such a great reminder of the beginnings of building skyscrapers — we saw examples of Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright (we visited the Robie House in Hyde Park), from the neo-gothic style of the UofChicago’s campus to the very modern campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) designed in the ’40s and ’50s by Mies van der Rohe (first American university campus designed by a single architect since 1819 at the University of Virginia). I always loved these giants of architecture, though I have to agree with Mies van der Rohe that less is more! I occasionally wish that we implemented more of that restraint when designing opera productions!
Saturday night was dedicated to symphonic music at its best — Chicago Symphony under the baton of Charles Dutoit (he was for 25 years the artistic director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and is currently both the artistic director and principal conductor of the London Royal Philharmonic Orchestra). On the program we had Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34, Walkton’s Violin Concerto performed beautifully by Gil Shaham and after the intermission Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major. Dutoit conducted Beethoven’s 7 from memory in one breath, one take — no pauses, no rest, with all colours, dynamics, sounds, rhythm — everything coming at us in the audience as such powerful, phenomenal interpretation of the work of a genius! I can hardly remember when was the last time a symphony got such applause for its great performance! I was in tears! Our whole group was so energized that late night drinks and long conversation were in order! No one wanted to go to sleep after experiencing such a sublime performance.
Sunday – a treat of having brunch before the opera and then the matinee performance of Massenet’s Werther, based on the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther by great German Romantic poet Goethe. It puzzles me how a man like Massenet, who lived a life where passion or drama were not present, could get so deeply into a story as powerful as Werther and make such a masterpiece out of it. The suffering soul of us humans — what can be better for an opera! This production was co-produced with San Francisco Opera – set and costumes designed by Louis Desire and directed by Francisco Negrin. In the pit, Sir Andrew Davis conducted the Lyric Opera orchestra. American tenor Matthew Polenzani made the role debut as Werther and was more than beautifully matched by the French mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch, who made her North American debut in the role of Charlotte. After the performance we organized for our tour an early dinner at an exclusive restaurant within the Lyric Opera building, open only to high-end donors. Our own patrons and members of this tour loved the privilege to be there and it gave us a chance to continue talking about the production right there. We didn’t have to walk back to our hotel in the rain until much later when, after great food and wine, we didn’t mind a little walk in the rain at all! It all was just perfect.
As all good things must end, so does our tour to Chicago too, but not until we visited the Art Institute of Chicago on Monday and had a nice lunch at the restaurant there, and all in good time to be picked up to go back to the airport. We parted saying, until we travel together again.