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Andrew Patner on Arts and Culture

Critic's Choice: What Is Criticism – Part 1 of 2 (rebroadcast)

This Critic’s Choice segment was first aired December 4, 2013, and makes reference to the following post on Andrew’s View From Here weblog from December 1, 2013:

My first 2013-2014 Lyric Opera of Chicago Sun-Times review received an interesting reply from Sun-Times news and feature columnist Neil Steinberg on his weblog Every goddamn day.  Neil is an adult-onset opera enthusiast who regularly and successfully introduces his readers (and his sons) to productions, takes them backstage, and literally takes them to the Opera House once a year when he draws the names of 50 couples to be Lyric’s and his guests for a performance.  Was I too much of a connoisseur in my review? Neil wondered.  Did I  “know too much” to appreciate the evening?  Fir his part, did Neil enjoy the presentation as much as he did because “ignorance is bliss”?  Neil’s web essay then drew a response from me and comments from his readers as well as from New Yorker music critic Alex Ross and Bay Area classical music weblogger Lisa Hircsh.

A number of commenters both at Neil’s site and on his and my facebook page noted how refreshing it was to have some back and forth about a review, the nature of criticism, and the different types of appreciation, and to have all of that discussed in a civil and respectful — but not dry and dull — way.

My full inital review (with a trim on aspects of the set design restored) is below.  Neil’s November 23 web entry is here.  Signed comments still welcomed.


Chicago Sun-Times and

Thursday, November 21, 2013 

Lyric Opera’s ‘La traviata’ fails to impress

Traviata Rebeka Nov 2013

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s “La traviata” stars Marina Rebeka in the title role. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2013




Through December 20

Lyric Opera of Chicago, Civic Opera House, 20 North Wacker Drive

Tickets : $34 to $229

Info: (312) 332-2244;


While some may think of a night at the opera as an abstract means of escape, the art form and its presentation exist very much in time and space.

An audience brings memories of other casts and productions, often in the same opera house.  The ability now to access recordings from almost any period or place throws on more layers of experience.  Other symphony orchestras and chamber ensembles can make a city or festival a bazaar of comparisons and contrasts.

In almost all of these regards, the latest production of Verdi’s La traviata by Lyric Opera of Chicago — the 14th in the nearly 60 years of Lyric’s history — has a hard time making its case for a remounting.  Chicago audiences now see themselves as spoiled by having a steady stream of Verdi at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the composer’s greatest living interpreter, music director Riccardo Muti.  But what they actually have become is educated.

One would have thought that Italian conductor Massimo Zanetti’s scattershot and unconvincing approach to Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at the Civic Opera House two seasons ago would have been enough to persuade local leadership to look elsewhere for direction of such canonical works.  But here we are again with constant and unnecessary racing, tweaking, arbitrary accents and ritards, none from the score and none adding anything to Verdi’s work.  Balances with the singers were a bit better than in the orchestrally overpowering, uncoordinated Lucia. But after Muti’sMacbeth, Otello, and frequent Requiems with the CSO here, why do we need to hear the second- or third-rate at a house of Lyric’s level and importance?

Casting, too, is problematic. Lyric has tapped the Baltics for a physically winning soprano, Latvian Marina Rebeka.  But after Violetta’s Act 1 half-hour mini-opera, the wan singer just does not have the voice for the next two highly demanding acts.  She is even almost inaudible in the famed letter-reading introduction to the Act 3 signature, “Addio del passato,” normally a chance for acting chops to make up for any limitations as a singer.

Quinn Kelsey, the Hawaiian baritone and Ryan Center alumnus who is a local favorite — and a favorite of mine, too — also fails to stake his claim on the elder Germont, the father of Violetta’s lover, who demands that the courtesan abandon his son thus sending the opera on its tragic way.  While Kelsey becomes more well-rounded in the Act 2 “Di Provenza il mar,” he is generally hulking, skulking. and one-dimensional in both his singing and in his acting.

As Alfredo Germont, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja comes off best here vocally, though he falls a bit short of the stronger impression he made in last season’s La bohème.   Not much of an actor, his warm, wonderfully old-fashioned tight vibrato must come across as honeyed balm on a radio broadcast.  I look forward to hearing one.

First-time Lyric stage director Arin Arbus seems to have little to say about the opera itself or its three characters.  They stand, they sing, they walk across or around the stage.  But she does get the chorus scenes and dance set piece right.  Perhaps as a young New York artist she knows that real decadence has a strong creative quality, and she gives us wonderfully lush and detailed party scenes.  The production is aided by costume and (giant, brilliant) puppet designer Cait O’Connor’s creations, Sarah Hatten’s wigs and makeup, Austin McCormick’s appropriately lurid choreography, and Michael Black’s expert Lyric Chorus.  (Not much is added by sets and lighting of Riccardo Hernandez and Marcus Doshi, respectively, although shadow plays before each act intrigue but are not followed up on.)

Arbus also gives us — semi-spoiler alert — a clever death scene with Violetta literally in Alfredo’s arms. But the operative word after three hours (including two intermissions) remains “Why?”