They say it's all about the presentation, and it's true for meals (at home or in restaurants), job-related ideas, as well as artistic endeavors. To make the best impression, the showcase should be direct and to-the-point. Sometimes, it's low keyed and subtle. Other times, the big-and-flashy approach is needed.
In terms of music, when one thinks of large dimensions, there are a few names that come to mind. Probably the first is Wagner, right? When his operas are given, you arrive early and bring a lunch. His works just simply unfold on a grand scale over several hours. To those who love it, the time goes by in a flash. Those who aren't impressed can get a much-needed rest, undisturbed by anything except the glorious sounds of his music.
But this article is NOT about ol' Richard W. There are others whose works are big. In the symphonic realm, the two giants who covered acres of canvas are Bruckner and Mahler. Each of these masters created orchestral pieces which occupy an entire evening's program. But again, this article is NOT about either one of them. Nor is this about the eccentric English composer Havergal Brian, whose life and works rarely gave consideration to the economies of performance.
The big work at hand this time is by the French composer Hector Berlioz. You remember him from the "Symphonie Fantastique" and the "Damnation of Faust" and his famous overtures like "Corsair" and "Roman Carnival." Well, the Chicago Symphony is about to embark on his massive opera "The Trojans." It *can* be done in a single evening, but it's a long one, rivaling "Die Meistersinger" and "Gotterdammerung" by Wagner. So we'll be getting it as two concerts - one this week, and the rest a year from now.
Good old Berlioz. He just wrote what he wanted and then realized it couldn't get produced. Pragmatism finally kicked in, so he reluctantly divided the work into two operas: "The Fall of Troy" and "The Trojans at Carthage." Nowadays, when it's done in two parts, we simply accept the fact that it's one long opera, and enjoy part one tonight and return another night for part two.
The Chicago Symphony has done this complete opera before. In 1978, James Levine brought it to the Ravinia Festival and spread it over two successive nights. I remember sitting in a box seat and loving every moment. Grand opera on that grand panoramic stage in Highland Park with great voices and that superb orchestra. An open-air spectacular at its best.
For the record, the Chicago Symphony has done a few big works downtown, also. When Solti gave us "Die Meistersinger" in September of 1995, he spread it over two evenings. Needless to say, it was spectacular, and the London recording from those performances shows it. He even put horns and percussion in the balcony, but we'll discuss ‘musicians in the audience' in a future article.
In the opera house, even Wagner ran out of time with just a single evening, so his "Ring" cycle - which returns to Lyric Opera in coming seasons - covers four performances. Spread over a week, it's a nice way to immerse yourself in the drama and music. Solti and others have given single acts of some of the Wagner operas at Orchestra Hall. We've had Act I of "Die Walkure" (a perennial favorite running just an hour), Act II of "Parsifal" and Act III of "Gotterdammerung".
Afficionados of modern opera know that Karl-Heinz Stockhausen has gone Wagner one better - or three-better to be exact - by creating a seven-day opus collectively called "Licht". Each of the operas bears the name of a day of the week, and though still unfinished, performances of most of the operas have been given to appreciative audiences. For fans of the truly outrageous, one of the days includes a string quartet in which the players perform in separate helicopters! Their music is radioed to the concert hall and mixed by an engineer for the audience to hear along with television shots of the performers and their birds-eye view of the whole shebang. As Anna Russell would say, "I'm not making this up, you know!" There's a recording on CD by the Arditti Quartet, and you can check out more on the Stockhausen homepage.
But back to Chicago and "The Trojans."
This time, Zubin Mehta, who led Lyric's "Ring" (which was built one-opera-per-year and then given three full cycles in 1996) will conduct Part I of "The Trojans" on February 8, 9, and 10 at Orchestra Hall. Among the singers will be Deborah Voigt and Jon Villars as Cassandra and Aeneas. Dido has to wait until Part II for her appearance, so we'll get to hear her next season! Voigt is currently singing Wagner and Strauss roles, including her newest EMI recording of duets from Wagner's "Tristan" and "Siegfried" with Placido Domingo. Jon Villars was at Lyric in 1998 for the heroic role of Bacchus in Strauss' "Ariadne auf Naxos." He has recorded Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde" which is usually reserved for large-voiced tenors, along with Michelle DeYoung, who, incidentally, was Brangaene in the Lyric "Tristan" last season. That is on Reference Recordings with the Minnesota Orchestra.
As I mentioned, the second part of the Chicago Symphony production of "The Trojans" will be in 2002. And we get even more Berlioz the following year! His other large opera, "Benvenuto Cellini" will be at Lyric in 2003 with Marcello Giordani in the title role. Giordani was here last month as Cavarodossi in "Tosca".
And so it continues. Great music is a continuing line, and great cities such as Chicago demand and get greatness in their artistic endeavors. When the snow piles up and the cold wind blows, performances such as these make living here worthwhile.
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CityTalk Magazine, February 9, 2001