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Lyric Opera of Chicago season enriched by bold, new work. Philip Glass spectacle shares stage with Verdi and Gounod standards

Lyric Opera of Chicago has always been a standard-repertoire, singer-oriented house, and this season is no exception, opening with Verdi's ``Il Trovatore'' and continuing with Gounod's ``Faust.'' But general director Ardis Krainik has also taken a rather bold step by including Philip Glass's ``Satyagraha'' in the first three offerings of the season; later on, Alban Berg's ``Lulu'' will also be presented. In a season of nine productions, this is more than a generous nod to 20th-century opera.

``Satyagraha'' is not so much an opera as a total musico-theatrical encounter. Glass's score - the best of his operas to date - casts a unique spell. Robert Israel's designs are consistently arresting, and Richard Riddell's lighting striking. David Poutney's production - much modified since the Artpark/BAM presentation five years ago - now stresses in the clearest possible terms the story of Mohandas Gandhi's South African years, as the Sanskrit text - culled from the Bhagavad-Gita - is intoned by the cast and chorus.

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Christopher Keene conducted this score masterfully. Douglas Perry remains an ideal Gandhi, vocally and histrionically. I cannot stress too much how impressive this production looked on the Lyric stage.

How fitting, too, that this prominent voice-oriented company should be the one to prove that conservative audiences will take to contemporary opera if it is well chosen and done with care and brilliance. Here credit must go to Lyric's chorus, which really showed its versatility and strength in this work; to the Opera Center singers, who filled in the smaller roles impressively; and to the orchestra, which played Glass as if it were Verdi or Bizet.

`Il Trovatore'

Few companies have been able to cope so gracefully with last-minute cancellations as the Lyric Opera has this year. Even as troublesome a cancellation as superstar Luciano Pavarotti (slated for Manrico in the opening ``Il Trovatore'' production) was dealt with effectively.

The penultimate performance of `` Il Trovatore'' was mostly a grand night of singing, led first and foremost by Anna Tomowa-Sintow. She is a Verdian soprano of the first order, possessed of a warm instrument, even and strong in all its registers. She does not just sing radiantly, she illuminates every phrase. It is always a pleasure to hear Piero Cappuccilli, who is, in my opinion, the last great Italian Verdi baritone, and his Di Luna was rich vocal stuff indeed.

Bruno Sebastian, singing his first Lyric Manrico, may not have emerged as the most refined or consistent of tenors, nor is he much of an actor. But at its best, the voice was large and rang freely - a true Manrico sound, which is cause for rejoicing in these tenor-scarce times.

Shirley Verrett, who has made Azucena one of her most acclaimed roles, cannot manage the voice as efficiently as she once could, but she gave the sort of volatile performance that arouses audiences to boisterous ovations. Artistic director Bruno Bartoletti led a propulsive account of the score that perked along, once he and his singers had come to terms on matters of tempo.

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I have yet to see a ``Trovatore'' that was not a hardship on the eyes, and Nicola Benois's designs were no exception. At least his silvery sets evoked period and locale, whereas Soni Frisell's direction stretched credibility beyond the breaking point.


Samuel Ramey dominated the all-American-cast ``Faust'' with his extraordinary M'ephistoph'el`es. His Devil was utterly French in timbre, movement, and declamation. The role held no vocal problems for him, and he handily demonstrated why there is no finer portrayer of this role in all its aspects today.

For the most part, the role of Faust suits Neil Shicoff well vocally and temperamentally; his voice rang out freely, richly, thrillingly. Shicoff and Ramey may have had their share of quibbles with conductor Jean Fournet, but once the tempo was agreed upon, their work fused with Fournet's low-key Gallic elegance to good effect.

Nancy Gustafson was summoned at the last minute to play the role of Marguerite. Her characterization may not yet be fully wrought, but at this early point in her career she is already a poised, assured performer with a voice that is very beautiful and easily produced, and a personality that is at once ingratiating and keenly alert to histrionic nuance.

The ``Faust'' had its visually wonderful moments, thanks to Pier Luigi Samaritani's painterly sets. The treacherously raked playing space - looking like the top of the world - created more than its share of awkward moments for director Antonello Madau Diaz's otherwise earnest work.

Lighting designer Duane Schuler's work in both ``Trovatore'' and ``Faust'' - challenging and difficult productions - demonstrated anew why he is the finest operatic lighting designer in the US today.

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