Chicago Lyric Opera's two Ponelle stagings - not the usual fare
The Chicago Lyric Opera's artistic director, Ardis Krainik, has been in the news of late. She has put her financially ailing institution into the black in an age where operating budgets are on the verge of outrunning the ability to raise funds to match them.
It is all fine and dandy to put an opera company in the black. But if the product on stage is wanting, no amount of budget surplus is going to do the company any good in the long run. While here I had a chance to catch up with two evenings of Chicago Lyric.
In one sense, it was not Lyric as usual, since both productions had been borrowed from San Francisco. Both happened, as well, to be Jean-Pierre Ponnelle stagings that have not always been received with uniform praise. ''Der Fliegende Hollander'' (''The Flying Dutchman''), in particular, has become something of a cause celebre. It turns Wagner's impassioned tale of redemption through woman's love into the frantic jealous nightmare of the Steersman (an incidental character in the original).
The other production, of Rossini's ''La Cenerentola'' (''Cinderella''), is a highly stylized affair that requires split-second timing on everyone's part to make all the clever staging bits work.
These two nights were not really representative of Lyric at its finest. Yet both offered important singers, up-to-date productions, and a clear sense of doing what's best to make sure a show will work for its audience.
For this run of ''Cinderella'' performances, Lyric boasted Agnes Baltsa in the title role and the American tenor Rockwell Blake as Don Ramiro (this opera's answer to Prince Charming). Miss Baltsa is best known in this country for her recordings of the dramatic mezzo roles with Herbert von Karajan. In Europe, her fame rests far more with the Rossini literature; the forays into heavy material are generally reserved for the recording studio.
Hers is a bold, decisive stage presence. She also brought a fierceness to moments of the score that were welcome relief from the usual coy simperings one is apt to encounter.
Vocally, the part suited her wide range well - from rich, resonant lows to potent, shimmering highs. In the final aria and cabaletta - ''Nacqui all'affanno'' and ''Non piu mesta'' - the virtuoso finale of the opera, she pulled out all the stops in a dazzling display of large-house Rossini singing.
Mr. Blake has all the floridity and style needed for the music at hand, if not the plushness of vocal timbre one might wish. Still, his Don Ramiro was put forth with conviction, personal charm, and flair. Timothy Nolen's engaging, mercurial Dandini and Claudio Desderi's amusing Don Magnifico filled out the principal cast. Gabriele Ferro proved quite a find - a young conductor with a true sense of the musical style and a flair for getting the Lyric Orchestra to play well for him.
The Ponnelle ''Dutchman'' looked far better here than it had in New York. This staging trivializes the entire plot of the opera. When the Steersman wakes up during the ''redemption'' music, an effective ending is betrayed. The entire opera becomes retroactively reduced to cheap farce.
As it unfolds, however, some moments have a profoundly visual impact; there are scenes that actually heighten the phantasmagorical effect Wagner sought. Duane Schuler's lighting was particularly splendid here, and with the smaller chorus the set did not look so cramped and tiny as it did at the Met.
Siegmund Nimsgern should have been an ideal Dutchman, but he was in touchy voice all night long, with most of the upper range sounding hoarse. Clarice Carson's Senta made little impact; Hans Sotin's once-noble bass appeared somewhat reduced on this occasion; Robert Schunk sang the double role of Steersman-Erik with lovely tones alternated with forced ones. In the pit, Christof Pirick led a solid performance.
The season in Chicago closes with a revival of its handsome ''La Boheme'' and a production of Massenet's ''Manon,'' with Renata Scotto and Alfredo Krauss. The final performance of the latter is Dec. 17.