Critic Picks for 2018-19 season

Wed Aug 22, 2018 at 12:20 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Matthew Polenzani (with Nadine Sierra) sings the title role of Mozart’s “Idomeneo” October 13- November 2 at Lyric Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl / Metropolitan Opera

2018-19 is shaping up as one of the least adventurous seasons on Chicago’s classical scene since CCR launched nearly a decade ago. It almost seems as if many of the large organizations and presenters are engaged in a private tournament to see who can provide the most familiar and least interesting repertoire. Sad!

Fortunately, the local music beat is varied and expansive enough that one can still come up with intriguing Critic Picks for this season. The following nine events stand out amid the sea of safety-first programming.

The Collaborative Works Festival. September 5-7

The landscape for serious vocal recitals is even more barren than usual in Chicago’s upcoming season. Fortunately, the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago is once again expertly filling the void with its Collaborative Works Festival. Vocal artists this fall include CAIC cofounder, tenor Nicholas Phan, soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano and baritone Tyler Duncan. The festival’s 2018 rep casts an even wider and more adventurous net than usual: a commissioned world premiere by Missy Mazzoli, alongside song cycles by Brahms, Schoenberg, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Leos Janácek.

Handel’s Serse. Haymarket Opera. September 29-October 2

Haymarket Opera has gone from strength to strength in its recent productions of Ariane et Bachus and L’Orontea, and the time is right for the company to finally tackle an evening-length Handel work with Serse. Mezzo Suzanne Lommler takes the title trousers role of the amorous King of Persia, backed by a cast of company regulars including Angela Young Smucker, Erica Schiller, Ryan de Ryke and David Govertsen. One of Handel’s richest works, the three-act serio-comic opera contains much indelible music, not least the celebrated “Ombra mai fu”—the most beautiful aria ever sung to a tree.

Mozart’s Idomeneo. Lyric Opera. October 13-November 2

Matthew Polenzani is at the top of his game these days and having the American singer tackle the solo part in Mozart’s greatest tenor role is self-recommending. With Andrew Davis conducting and a supporting cast that includes Erin Wall and Janai Brugger, this is easily the best bet at Lyric Opera this season.

Charpentier’s Acteon and Rameau’s Pygmalion. Opera Atelier. November 15-16

In a bounteous fall for Baroque opera, the Toronto-based Opera Atelier makes its Chicago debut at the Harris Theater with a double bill of French Baroque masterworks. These performances will be sumptuously staged with a corps de ballet, and the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra in the pit.

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Music of the Baroque. November 25-26

Declan McGovern, Music of the Baroque’s new executive director, has a stated goal of bringing new audiences into the hall for MOB concerts. In his first programmed season, that populist outreach is evident: MOB will make its Pritzker Pavilion debut on Sept. 12 with a program of excerpts from favorite Baroque and Classical works; and the fall season contains ample box-office bait, like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Bach’s Second Orchestral Suite and the Mozart Requiem.

MOB’s best bet for 2018-19 is Bach’s epic Christmas Oratorio (complete). After music of Mozart, Jane Glover is at her best in large-scale Baroque vocal works such as this.

Jake Heggie’s “Moby-Dick” will have its Chicago premiere April 25 and 28 at Chicago Opera Theater. Photo: Dana Sohm

Massenet’s Cendrillon. Lyric Opera. December 1-January 20, 2019

A wild card pick since Andrew Davis has tapped Siobhan Stagg, a virtually unknown Australian soprano, to make her company debut in the title role of Cinderella. Massenet’s gorgeous, neglected score seems to finally be waltzing in from the shadows with a well-received Met production last year, which will travel here. Alice Coote is Prince Charming and Marie-Eve Munger, the Fairy Godmother. These holiday-new year performances mark Cendrillon’s belated Lyric Opera premiere.

Strauss and Bartok. Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor. March 28-April 2

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s concerts with the CSO are invariably season highlights. The Finnish conductor is only booked for a single week this season but his program promises to be a striking one: Richard Strauss’s brilliant tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra, and Bartok’s bleak, atmospheric opera Bluebeard’s Castle with soloists Michelle De Young and John Relyea.

Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick. Chicago Opera Theater. April 25 and 28

For many, Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick is the finest American opera of recent decades; kudos to Chicago Opera Theater for bringing this important, belated Chicago premiere to local audiences. Heggie’s tightly wrought setting of Herman Melville’s sprawling, complex novel manages to hit all the book’s high points as well as the lurking subtexts in music that is memorable and theatrically effective. Thomas Studebaker takes on the role of the obsessed Captain Ahab, with Aleksey Bogdanov as Starbuck, Vince Wallace as Queequeg, Andrew Bidlack as Greenhorn and Summer Hassan as Pip. Lidiya Yankovskaya conducts, with a well-received production from Utah Opera.

Verdi’s Aida. Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Riccardo Muti, conductor. June 21-25

Riccardo Muti’s concert performances of Verdi operas have been consistent high points amid the repetitive, Eurocentric programming that has largely characterized his CSO tenure. These season-ending concert performances of Verdi’s Aida promise to be in the same grand tradition with Krassimira Stoyanova in the title role, Francesco Meli as her lover Radames, Anita Rachvelishvili as Amneris, and Kiril Manolov as Amonasro.

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