Go inside Stars of Lyric Opera at Millennium Park with engaging articles, notes from the general director and mayor, artist bios, and more.
My Lyric colleagues and I invariably look forward to the annual Stars of Lyric Opera at Millennium Park concert with great excitement. We cherish this event as our opportunity to offer a special gift to the city, and it’s with the greatest pleasure that we present the magnificent talents of our star singers, orchestra, and chorus. I’m so pleased that Lyric’s world-renowned music director, Sir Andrew Davis, who has always hugely enjoyed performing at Millennium Park, is on the podium for this concert.
We thank Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cultural Commissioner Mark Kelly for once again making the Pritzker Pavilion available to us. Lyric is also grateful to 98.7WFMT, whose live broadcast will bring the performance to listeners unable to make it to the Park.
In recent seasons it’s been our custom to feature a number of operas from the current season in our Millennium Park programs, and tonight’s concert is no exception. You’ll hear excerpts from seven operas in Lyric’s 2017/18 repertoire. What marvelous pieces they are: Gluck’s noble Orphée et Eurydice, Verdi’s powerfully dramatic Rigoletto, Wagner’s incomparably moving Die Walküre, Puccini’s spectacular Turandot, Bizet’s exotic gem The Pearl Fishers, Bellini’s matchlessly elegant I puritani, and Gounod’s exquisite romance, Faust. Although Mozart’s Così fan tutte isn’t represented tonight, you can look forward to that captivating work this season as well. We do have Mozart on the program, The Marriage of Figaro, plus wonderful music from three Lyric favorites – Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, and Massenet’s Werther.
This season at Lyric, we’re also thrilled to bring you Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s iconic Jesus Christ Superstar; a riveting new American work, Gregory Spears’s Fellow Travelers, an exciting concert commemorating the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein; and an eagerly anticipated recital by Polish tenor superstar Piotr Beczała.
I want to offer Lyric’s deepest thanks to our lead sponsor, closer look, inc. and our co-sponsors: Rhoda L. and Henry S. Frank, an Anonymous Donor, Amy and Paul Carbone, Crain-Maling Foundation, Fifth Third Bank, Annie & Greg Jones Family Foundation, Sipi Metals Corp., Lake Geneva Chapter, Allan and Elaine Muchin, the Komarek-Hyde-McQueen Foundation/Patricia Hyde, and the Music Performance Trust Fund and Film Funds.
Have a great evening at Millennium Park. I hope to see you again throughout the season!
General Director, President & CEO
The Women’s Board Endowed Chair
Mozart, The Marriage of Figaro, Overture; “Giunse alfin…Deh vieni, non tardar”
There is no opera more musically entrancing or more deeply human than Le nozze di Figaro, first heard in Vienna in 1786. Adapted by librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte from Beaumarchais’s play of the same name, the engrossing plot takes place in the course of a single day (the play’s subtitle is La folle journée, or The Crazy Day). It focuses on conflicts between Count Almaviva and his longsuffering wife, her maid Susanna (on whom the Count has designs), his page Cherubino, and his own rebellious valet, Figaro, Susanna’s fiancé.
The opera begins with an exhilarating overture, bursting with high spirits. Another gem of the score, sung late in the opera, is Susanna’s soliloquy. In a scheme to teach the Count a lesson, we find her in the castle’s park at night. She sings, “Oh come, do not delay, my joy.” Figaro, who has married Susanna only hours before, hides and observes her, wrongly assuming that her loving thoughts are meant not for him but for the Count.
Verdi, Rigoletto, “La donna è mobile”; “Un dì, se ben rammentomi...Bella figlia dell’amore”
With his musical and theatrical instincts at their peak, Giuseppe Verdi during the 1850s produced seven operas, of which the second was Rigoletto. Verdi and his remarkably sensitive librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, took as their dramatic source a controversial play of 1832, Le roi s’amuse (The King Amuses Himself), by Victor Hugo, banned by the Parisian censors after just one performance because of what they regarded as veiled insults to King Louis-Philippe. In adapting the play for Venice’s Teatro La Fenice (where Rigoletto premiered in 1851), Piave and Verdi transformed Hugo’s subject, King Francis I, into the fictitious Duke of Mantua, whose pursuit of his court jester’s virginal daughter sets up the opera’s heartbreaking dénoument.
The opera’s final aria isn’t simply its most famous music – it’s also perhaps the most instantly recognizable solo passage in the entire repertoire. An incorrigible rake, the Duke has been drawn by the assassin Sparafucile to a seedy inn, the lure being Maddalena, Sparafucile’s sister. While waiting for her, the Duke – in his usual carefree manner – mocks the fickleness of women in “La donna è mobile” a buoyant melody that has been Verdi’s “greatest hit” for the past 166 years.
The Duke has seduced and abandoned Gilda, daughter of the jester Rigoletto. Desperate for revenge, Rigoletto brings Gilda to the inn. Unobserved outside, he points through a window at the Duke’s wooing of Maddalena, who banters with him flirtatiously. The heartbroken Gilda weeps, while her father chides that tears will do no good. These emotions are revealed in the most celebrated quartet in opera, a miracle of uniquely characterful yet ideally blended melodic lines.
Bellini, I puritani, “Ad Arturo onore”
One of the glories of Italian bel canto repertoire, I puritani (1835) is the final work of Vincenzo Bellini’s brief career. It has as its setting a fortress in Plymouth, England, during the English Civil War. Within that highly dramatic milieu, young Elvira, whose family sides with the Puritan cause, is in love with Lord Arturo Talbot, a Royalist and thus her family’s enemy. The girl is betrothed to a fellow Puritan, Sir Riccardo Forth, but her uncle, Giorgio Walton, manages to persuade her father, Lord Walton, to let her marry Arturo. Dramatically and musically, one of the opera’s most joyous moments is the chorus with which denizens of the fortress greet the arrival of Arturo and proclaim that love has united his valor with Elvira’s beauty.
Puccini, Turandot, “Tu che di gel sei cinta”
Giacomo Puccini died in 1924, before finishing his last and most ambitious opera, Turandot. The work was completed by composer Franco Alfano, but at its world premiere at Milan’s La Scala, conductor Arturo Toscanini stopped after the death of Liù in Act Three and told the audience, “At this point the master put down his pen.”
The opera takes place in ancient Peking, where the formidable Princess Turandot has declared that she will marry only the man who correctly answers three riddles. Any suitor who answers incorrectly must lose his life. An unknown prince succeeds, but then he gives Turandot the chance to conquer him: she has just one night to learn his name. If she does, he will die, but if she doesn’t, she must be his. The prince is loved by his father’s slave, Liù, who declares before Turandot and her ministers that she alone knows the name. Even under torture, she refuses to reveal it. In a brief but heartfelt aria, she says to Turandot, “You who are bound by ice, before dawn you, too, will love him, and I will close my eyes, never to see him again.” Liù then snatches a sword from one of Turandot’s guards, stabs herself, and falls dead at the prince’s feet.
Gounod, Faust, “O sainte médaille...Avant de quitter ces lieux”; “O Dieu! Que de bijoux!... Ah, je ris de me voir si belle”
Charles Gounod achieved operatic immortality with Faust. This is opera’s most enduring depiction of Goethe’s aged philosopher, the diabolical figure who restores his youth, and the sweet girl whose life he ruins. The five-act grand opéra was not initially a success in its 1859 premiere at Paris’s Théâtre Lyrique, but within a decade, with its move to the much larger Opéra, it became that venerable theater’s most popular work. At the start of the twentieth century, audiences’ devotion to Faust remained unchallenged internationally, and it took the popularity of Carmen, Aida, and La bohème quite a few decades to catch up.
Surprisingly, one of the opera’s most beloved melodies did not figure in the premiere. The composer attended the London premiere in 1863 and heard the celebrated baritone Charles Santley sing the role of Valentin. Thrilled with his performance, Gounod added a magnificently stirring aria for him, introduced onstage a few months later. Sung originally in English (as “Even bravest heart may swell”), the aria is heard moments before Valentin goes off to battle. He’s just been given a holy medallion by Marguerite, his sister. Holding it in his hand, he anticipates thinking of her in the difficult days ahead and asks God to protect her in his absence.
Moments after Valentin departs, Faust enters the town square, the old philosopher having been transformed by the devil into a handsome young man. In that guise he encounters Marguerite and is enraptured by her. The devil gives him a box of jewels to leave in the garden of the girl’s home. Marguerite is alone when she finds it and, in her glittering aria, she delights in adorning herself with the jewels.
Tchaikovsky, Eugene Onegin, Act Two, “Vot tak syurpriz!”
In Yevgeny Onegin, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky probed the joys and sorrows of young love as few composers have ever done before or since. Appropriately enough, this opera was first performed by the students of the Moscow Conservatory when first heard in 1879 (the first professional performance did not take place until two years later at the Bolshoi Theatre). The work was not written for immense dramatic voices, and in fact, was subtitled “Lyric Scenes.” Its source was the famous verse novel of Russia’s most beloved poet, Alexander Pushkin.
Mme. Larina has two daughters, flirtatious Olga and bookish, romantic Tatyana. Olga is the fiancée of Lensky, a young poet. When visiting the family, Lensky introduces them to his best friend, Onegin, a city gentleman who has taken a country house near that of Mme. Larina. Tatyana falls instantly in love with Onegin, and that same night, she writes him a letter declaring her passion for him. He coolly rejects her, but then consents to attend a party at the Larina home, celebrating Tatyana’s name day. The opera’s famous waltz is sung by the party guests, among them some gossipy women, vigorous gentlemen, and a group of girls who attempt to interest a dashing young officer in dancing with them.
Gluck, Orphée et Eurydice, “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice”; “L’Amour triomphe”
Considering that Orpheus was the greatest musician in all of mythology, it comes as no surprise that opera composers – especially of the Baroque and Classical era – were very much attracted to this deeply appealing figure. The most familiar operatic version of Orpheus is that of Christoph Willibald Gluck, whose first masterpiece began life in 1762 in Vienna, in Italian, as Orfeo ed Euridice. Twelve years later in Paris, the composer reworked the piece with great success. Writing for a public accustomed to a significant dance element in full-scale operas, Gluck incorporated some musically superb dance episodes into the new version. He also adapted for tenor the role of Orpheus, originally conceived for male alto.
The most familiar passage of the work occurs in the final act. Orpheus has journeyed to the Underworld to bring his dead wife Eurydice back to earth. The condition is that he not look back at her until they’re above ground, but he’s unable to restrain himself. He looks at her, she falls dead, and his overwhelming grief is expressed in an immensely eloquent lament composed, surprisingly, in a major key. The opera’s final scene brings the appearance of the god of love, Amour, who restores Eurydice to life. The three sing joyfully of love’s triumph, as the spirits of Elysium celebrate in both song and dance.
Donizetti, Don Pasquale, “Quel guardo il cavaliere...So anch’io la virtù magica”
Quite late in his uniquely productive career (well over 60 operas in less than 30 years), and after repeatedly triumphing in both tragedy and comedy, Gaetano Donizetti returned to the latter genre with Don Pasquale. This delicious work premiered in Paris in 1843, when the composer was already showing signs of the illness that would kill him five years later at the age of 47. In Don Pasquale, however, he was still able to create abundant musical sparkle, while also bringing true sympathy to the put-upon title character.
Pasquale, a wealthy old Roman gentleman, has disowned his nephew Ernesto, being unhappy with the young man’s wish to marry a penniless young widow, Norina. Pasquale tells Ernesto he himself wishes to marry, and that the sister of their friend, Dr. Malatesta, will be the bride. Ernesto is outraged, not knowing that Malatesta has a scheme in mind (he eventually has Norina masquerade as the fictitious sister). When we first meet Norina, she’s reading a romantic novel and praising her own ability to attract a man. Her aria is a joy in its rhythmic buoyancy and sheer effervescence.
Massenet, Werther, “Pourquoi me réveiller”; “Va! Laisse couler mes larmes”
Jules Massenet was at the height of his powers in 1892, when Werther premiered in Vienna. A composer who devoted most of his attention to his heroines, Massenet created a characterization of Werther that remains one of French opera’s greatest gifts to the tenor voice. Ever since the Belgian singer Ernest Van Dyck (a Wagnerian, surprisingly) created the role, lyric tenors of particularly elegant style have measured themselves against the requirements of Werther. Not that the heroine, Charlotte, is given short shrift; her emotional outpourings in the second half of the opera give an interpretively sensitive, warm-toned lyric mezzo-soprano ample opportunity to shape musically exquisite lines that can reach genuinely profound depths of expressiveness.
Werther, a poet, loves Charlotte, who fulfills her mother’s dying wish by marrying Albert. Three months later she meets Werther, only to send him away, telling him to return at Christmas. In Act Three of the opera, he does indeed return. At Charlotte’s home the two turn quietly nostalgic. When Charlotte shows Werther a poem of Ossian that he had begun to translate, he recites the words (beginning “Why awaken me, oh breath of spring?”) that perfectly express the misery and loneliness of his life without Charlotte.
Earlier in Act Three, Charlotte is alone, rereading Werther’s letters and apprehensively thinking of his impending return. Her sister Sophie visits and is unsuccessful in buoying her spirits. Desperately unhappy, Charlotte speaks of tears and heartbreak in a brief but deeply affecting aria.
Bizet, The Pearl Fishers, “Au fond du temple saint”
Les pêcheurs de perles (1863) was first heard at Paris’s Théâtre Lyrique, a venue that introduced any number of significant works to the city’s operacrazed public. Not yet 25 at the time, Georges Bizet had yet to establish himself in the Parisian music scene. The public seemed to enjoy the piece, and despite a hostile and dismissive reaction from the press, other composers, notably Hector Berlioz, found in it much to praise. In recent decades it has gained considerable popularity in opera houses worldwide.
The opera tells the tale of two pearl fishermen, Zurga and Nadir, whose friendship was almost torn apart by loving the same woman when they were younger. Now the men are reunited and affirm their bond, vowing to be faithful friends until death in the most famous of all tenor-baritone duets.
Wagner, Die Walküre, Ride of the Valkyries; “Leb’ wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind”
Of the four operas in Richard Wagner’s monumental Ring cycle, Die Walküre (The Valkyrie, premiered in 1870) boasts the most familiar music. The lovestruck arias of Siegmund and Sieglinde and the exhilarating battle cry of the warrior maiden Brünnhilde (the Valkyrie of the title) are justly celebrated, but their renown is superseded by two scenes in the last of the opera’s three acts.
Act Three opens with the hair-raising “Walkürenritt” (Ride of the Valkyries). Gathering on a mountain summit are the daughters of the chief god Wotan – youthfully vigorous goddesses whose task it is to carry fallen heroes aloft to defend the gods’ fortress, Valhalla. The ever-popular central theme of this passage has been popularized in commercials, as well as in films as diverse as Apocalypse Now and Looney Tunes’s What’s Opera, Doc?.
The chief god, Wotan, has been adamant in his wish to punish Brünnhilde for disobeying him. Her pleas lead him to put her to sleep on a rock surrounded by blazing fire, penetrable only by the world’s bravest hero. Wotan bids farewell to Brünnhilde in an outpouring of emotion that transitions from stupendous grandeur to moving intimacy. He kisses the eyes of his favorite daughter, removing her godhead. Once she falls asleep, he calls on Loge, the demigod of fire, to create the flames. Wagner’s lyrically expressive “Magic Fire Music” brings the opera to a memorable close.
Roger Pines, Dramaturg