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Wednesday, September 12, 2018

‘The Lubitsch touch’ on FilmStruck this week

Posted By on 09.12.18 at 06:00 AM

Ernst Lubitsch's The Oyster Princess
  • Ernst Lubitsch's The Oyster Princess
The great German, then American, director Ernst Lubitsch is currently featured as FilmStruck's "director of the week," and they have a generous selection of his films spanning most of his career. A master of deft and witty romantic comedies, his legendary "Lubitsch touch" began in the teens and graced a wider range of films than his celebrated comedy films.

The Oyster Princess
Lubitsch's first feature-length comedy (1919), about an American millionaire trying to acquire a noble title for his daughter by marrying her off to a Prussian prince, is an unalloyed delight—a perfect rejoinder to those critics who maintain that the director only found "the Lubitsch touch" after moving to Hollywood in the 1920s. The satire is sharp, and the visual settings are sumptuous and gracefully handled. With Ossi Owalda, Harry Liedtke, and Victor Janson. 60 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

Sumurun
One of a series of historical epics that the young German director Lubitsch concocted for star Pola Negri—a series that eventually landed Hollywood contracts for both. This 1920 film is an adaptation of Max Reinhardt's stage production Sumurun, with Negri as an ambitious dancing girl courted by a lascivious sheikh and the pathetic hunchback (played by Lubitsch himself) who is the leader of her troupe. 75 min.
Dave Kehr

The Merry Widow
The last and finest of Lubitsch's musicals (1934), based on the Franz Lehar operetta and retooled with lyrics by Lorenz Hart. Maurice Chevalier, in his last good role, is the prince; Jeanette MacDonald, on the brink of her fateful meeting with Nelson Eddy, is the widow. MGM hired the Lubitsch-Chevalier-MacDonald team away from Paramount, and apparently went all-out on this production to show up the competition. Lubitsch brilliantly exploits Cedric Gibbons's opulent sets, but his genius is most evident in the film's final poignancy—a farewell to the genre he helped to create. Also known as The Lady Dances. 99 min. —Dave Kehr

The Shop Around the Corner
There are no art deco nightclubs, shimmering silk gowns, or slamming bedroom doors to be seen, but this 1940 film is one of Lubitsch's finest and most enduring works, a romantic comedy of dazzling range that takes place almost entirely within the four walls of a leather-goods store in prewar Budapest. James Stewart is the earnest, slightly awkward young manager; Margaret Sullavan is the new sales clerk who gets on his nerves—and neither realizes that they are partners in a passionate romance being carried out through the mails. Interwoven with subplots centered on the other members of the shop's little family, the romance proceeds through Lubitsch's brilliant deployment of point of view, allowing the audience to enter the perceptions of each individual character at exactly the right moment to develop maximum sympathy and suspense. With Frank Morgan, Joseph Schildkraut, Sara Haden, and Felix Bressart. 97 min. —Dave Kehr

Heaven Can Wait
Lubitsch's only completed film in Technicolor (1943), the greatest of his late films, offers a rosy, meditative, and often very funny view of an irrepressible ladies' man (Don Ameche in his prime) presenting his life in retrospect to the devil (Laird Cregar). Like a good deal of Lubitsch from The Merry Widow on, it's about death as well as personal style, but rarely has the subject been treated with such affection for the human condition. Samson Raphaelson's script is very close to perfection, the sumptuous period sets are a delight, and the secondary cast—Gene Tierney, Charles Coburn, Marjorie Main, Eugene Pallette, and Spring Byington—is wonderful. In many respects, this is Lubitsch's testament, full of grace, wisdom, and romance. 112 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

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Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Five opera films that hit the high notes

Posted By on 08.29.18 at 08:00 AM

Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet's Moses and Aaron
  • Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet's Moses and Aaron
Inspired by the Gene Siskel Film Center's screenings this upcoming week of Ingmar Bergman's The Magic Fluteall part of the theater's extensive "Bergman 100" serieswe've selected five other opera films of note. If this list seems a bit highbrow, know that we would have listed Chuck Jones's great Bugs Bunny/Elmer Fudd cartoon What's Opera Doc? in all five spots if we could have. But these are good too.

Carmen Jones
There's something contradictory in the notion of an Otto Preminger musical: his admirable rational/realist sensibility doesn't settle too well with the whims of the genre. But there are some fine Preminger moments in the midst of this 1954 film, an all-black pop version of Carmen—fine, that is, if you take the trouble to separate them from the clumsy segregationist context. Impeccably liberal in its time, the film has not aged gracefully, although Dorothy Dandridge's performance in the lead remains a testimony to a black cinema that might have been. In CinemaScope. 105 min. —Dave Kehr

Bluebeard's Castle
After the hostile reception to his 1960 masterpiece Peeping Tom, Michael Powell was virtually banished from English cinema, and most of his remaining oeuvre is a scattered assortment of TV commissions and Australian features. Made in 1963 for West German TV, this rarely seen one-hour adaptation of Béla Bartók's only opera, based on a libretto by Béla Balázs (later known as a film theorist and as screenwriter of Leni Riefenstahl's first feature), is a particular standout, especially for its vivid colors and semiabstract, neoprimitive decor (by Hein Heckroth, who also designed the sets for The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffman). The two performers are producer Norman Foster (not to be confused with the Hollywood actor and director) in the title role and Anna Raquel Satre as Bluebeard's doomed wife, Judith. In accordance with Powell's wishes, the English subtitles briefly describe and clarify the action but don't translate the text. 60 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

Moses and Aaron
Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet have used Arnold Schoenberg's 12-tone opera as the basis for a rigorous and fascinating exercise in elemental cinema (1975). A film about film—the meaning of long takes and short shots, of camera movement and static composition, of angles and perspectives. Schoenberg is Greek to me, but Straub and Huillet's investigation of the medium is an important experience for anyone interested in the way film represents reality—or fails to. In German with subtitles. 105 min. —Dave Kehr

Don Giovanni
Joseph Losey's film of Mozart's opera (1979) has redundant trappings of Freud and Marx, as if Losey felt the need to make the material more personal. He shouldn't have bothered, because it already plays straight to his concerns: Giovanni, with his self-destructive idealism, stands in the line of Losey heroes from The Boy With Green Hair to Mr. Klein. The visual context is ravishing, with a lighting scheme that builds from the understated and naturalistic to shocking contrasts of black and white. Meanwhile, the camera moves with a preternatural grace, drawing clean, curving lines through the romantic confusions. If the film has a fault, it is a common one in Losey: the absence of an emotional support for his piercing intellectual observations. 179 min. —Dave Kehr

Parsifal
Hans-Jürgen Syberberg has given us Wagnerian treatments of King Ludwig, Karl May, and Adolf Hitler; now, he gives us a Wagnerian treatment of Wagner, which seems somewhat redundant. Syberberg uses all the tricks of modern stagecraft—abstract settings, projected images, puppets, and doubled characters—to “expand” Wagner's Grail opera into man's eternal search for social perfection. But the meanings Syberberg tacks onto the piece are inherent in Wagner's work; his additions seem fussy, didactic, and often reductive. But Edith Clever, miming to the voice of Yvonne Minton as the witch Kundry, gives a performance of great passion and authority—a brilliantly effective revival of silent-film acting techniques. Reiner Goldberg supplies the voice of Parsifal; the other singers include Robert Loyd, Wolfgang Schöne, and Aage Haugland. 247 min. —Dave Kehr

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Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Haymarket Opera's L'Orontea is a time machine to the 17th century

Posted By on 06.05.18 at 06:00 AM


Scott Brunscheen and Emily Fons in Haymarket Opera's  L'Orontea - TOPHER ALEXANDER
  • Topher Alexander
  • Scott Brunscheen and Emily Fons in Haymarket Opera's L'Orontea

If the delicious cream puff of baroque is your musical dish of choice, I can heartily recommend that you get yourself to the Studebaker Theater tonight to catch the final performance of Haymarket Opera Company's  production of Antonio Cesti’s L’Orontea.

The music is sublime, as are the performances, especially by the distaff side of the cast: mezzo-soprano Emily Fons (as the title character, an Egyptian queen), and sopranos Nathalie Colas (as her primary romantic rival), along with Kimberly Jones and Addie Hamilton, both handling double gender-bending roles admirably.  Tenor Scott Brunscheen is the prince in pauper's clothing that the queen and every woman in her court desires.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Empower promises to bring the real south side to the Lyric Opera stage

Posted By on 05.30.18 at 06:00 AM

The cover of the program for Empower - ELIJAH HUFF
  • Elijah Huff
  • The cover of the program for Empower

I can't say I love everything I've heard about the premise of the new musical that'll premiere at Lyric Opera this week: it sounds like a journalist is the major villain in the piece.

But I'm eager to see it.

Empower, with a cast that includes the 31 Chicago high school students who helped create it and two professional opera singers—soprano Angela Brown (who's sung the title role in Aida at the Met) and baritone Will Liverman (Dizzy Gillespie in Lyric's 2017 Yardbird)—is the result of a collaboration between Lyric Opera and the Chicago Urban League. The kids have been working on it in weekly after-school meetings since October, their ideas and stories fueling some impressive creative talent:  Empower has a libretto by playwright Ike Holter and a score by composer Damien Sneed.

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Monday, March 19, 2018

Fellow Travelers brings the 1950s ‘lavender scare’ to opera

Posted By on 03.19.18 at 11:13 AM

Jonas Hacker and Joseph Lattanzi strike it up in Fellow Travelers. - TODD ROSENBERG
  • Todd Rosenberg
  • Jonas Hacker and Joseph Lattanzi strike it up in Fellow Travelers.

For much of the last half century, the paranoia and tyranny of the McCarthy era in America has seemed more like a bizarre anomaly than an evil that could easily reappear. 

Recently, not so much.

That makes the anti-communist and anti-homosexual panics that swept Washington, D.C., in the 1950s (and the witch-hunting investigations led by Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy that fueled them) resonant context for Fellow Travelers, a groundbreaking 2016 opera that sets a gay love story in the environment of both the red and lavender scares.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Even in the age of of #MeToo, Lyric‘s Così Fan Tutte is still a thing of beauty

Posted By on 02.21.18 at 01:52 PM

CORY WEAVER
  • Cory Weaver

What, in the age of #MeToo, would make it worthwhile to sit through three and a half hours of two scheming men's attempts to get two young women to succumb to their slapstick advances? Especially when those men are their own boyfriends, masquerading as strangers to test their fidelity—and to win a bet?

Mozart! He took librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte's farcical women-will-cheat story line for Così Fan Tutte (which roughly translates as "All Women Do") and loaded it with beautiful duets, trios, and sextets.

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Monday, February 12, 2018

Chicago Opera Theater’s gory and good Elizabeth Cree

Posted By on 02.12.18 at 03:25 PM

Katherine Pracht and Richard Troxell as Elizabeth Cree and Dan Leno - EVAN HANOVER
  • Evan Hanover
  • Katherine Pracht and Richard Troxell as Elizabeth Cree and Dan Leno

Here’s a prediction: if you’ve read Peter Ackroyd’s 1995 Victorian Gothic novel The Trial of Elizabeth Cree, you’ll be fascinated by Chicago Opera Theater’s world premiere coproduction with Opera Philadelphia of Elizabeth Cree, an adaptation of the book by composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell.

And if (like me) you haven’t yet read the novel, you’ll also be fascinated. And you’ll be hunting up a copy, ASAP.

Because this gory, clever, and serious romp is not an opera you’ll be putting out of mind as you head up the aisle after the cast takes its well-deserved bows. The puzzle at its core—the identity of the killer in a series of particularly gruesome murders in London’s Limehouse district in 1880—will stay with you, along with the roster of suspects, their secrets and schemes, and their often sordid circumstances. The score, which includes numerous savagely funny music-hall numbers and some spine-chilling solos, carries the audience through 29 time-hopping scenes in 90 minutes, while the story probes the consequences of all kinds of evil—not least the still-resonant economic and social plight of 19th-century women.

Mezzo-soprano Katherine Pracht and baritone Christopher Burchett are fully convincing, both vocally and dramatically, as the resourceful title character and her complicated husband, John Cree. Soprano Stacey Tappan is engagingly trashy as the compliant Aveline, “Lizzie’s” onetime show business competitor and ultimate tool. And tenor Richard Troxell is winning in the role of real-life vaudeville comedian Dan Leno. (Karl Marx appears as well.) There's a solid ensemble feel to the entire cast under the direction of David Schweizer. Geoff McDonald conducts the 20-piece orchestra.

A word of warning: Sweeney Todd will come to mind, but this is even darker. Don’t bring the kids.

Elizabeth Cree Fri 2/16, 7:30 PM, and Sun 2/18, 3 PM, Studebaker Theater, 410 S. Michigan, 312-704-8414, chicagooperatheater.org, $45-$145.

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Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Lyric's I Puritani is all about the bel canto music

Posted By on 02.06.18 at 02:47 PM

The happy ending! - TODD ROSENBERG
  • Todd Rosenberg
  • The happy ending!

A Romeo and Juliet story set in England in 1645, Vincenzo Bellini's I Puritani is all about the bel canto music. It has a stagnant libretto, a mad maiden “scene” that drags over three acts, and a happy ending. Lyric Opera presents a stodgy 42-year-old production borrowed from the Met.

See it for its sterling vocalists, especially tenor Lawrence Brownlee as Arturo and soprano Albina Shagimuratova as his true love, Elvira (a part famously, and probably more histrionically, sung at Lyric by Maria Callas). Bass Adrian Sampetrean as Elvira’s uncle and baritone Anthony Clark Evans as her disappointed suitor round out the quartet of leads, while the mighty Lyric Opera chorus amps up the aural drama.

As for visual interest, there’s a narrated, open-curtain set change during the second intermission. In Italian with English supertitles.

I Puritani Through 2/28: Wed 2/7, Sat 2/10, Tue 2/13, Sat 2/16, and Sun 2/24, 7:30 PM; Wed 2/28, 2 PM. Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker, 312-827-5600, lyricopera.org, $49-$269, $20 students Wed 2/7 and Sat 2/16.

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Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Opera news: Mitisek out at COT, Jesus in at Lyric

Posted By on 02.08.17 at 01:42 PM

Andreas Mitisek
  • Andreas Mitisek
It’s been a busy few days on the local opera beat, starting with a little shocker: over the weekend, Chicago Opera Theater announced that its innovative, high-profile artistic director, Andreas Mitisek, will leave the company when his contract expires at end of August.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Lyric Opera’s restaged The Magic Flute says ‘Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!’

Posted By on 12.14.16 at 07:00 AM

Die Zauberflöte comes to—Oak Park? - ANDREW CIOFFI
  • Andrew Cioffi
  • Die Zauberflöte comes to—Oak Park?

I loved Lyric Opera's 30-year-old production of The Magic Flute, with its 18th-century costumes and storybook sets.

So I was skeptical about the new production the company opened Saturday night, ready to be grouchy about change for change's sake.
As it turned out, no need. I was won over almost as soon as the curtain went up on what proved to be a clever and joyful reimagining of Mozart's much-loved 225-year-old singspiel (opera with spoken dialogue) as a backyard production by a bunch of American kids for an audience of neighbors.

The opera is performed outside a "typical" suburban house, in someplace like Oak Park, probably around 1960. And the entire house is there: an idyllic, life-size Cape Cod, planted center stage on Lyric's giant new toy—er, turntable. As the story unfolds, the house rotates to show us its patio, front stoop, or side-yard cellar entrance.

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