The King and I

At the Lyric Opera

By Dan Zeff

Chicago – The Lyric Opera’s annual venture into Broadway musical comedy is the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “The King and I.” The results are mixed, some problems built into the show and others residing with the production. But the negatives are more than neutralized by Kate Baldwin’s magnificent performance as the “I” of the title.

         Baldwin plays Anna Leonowens, a widow with a young son who travels to Siam (now Thailand) to teach the many children of Mongkut, the king of Siam, during the 1860’s. The story is built on Anna’s actual experiences in Siam popularized in Margaret Landon’s novel “Anna and the King of Siam.”  Baldwin has a wonderfully supple and expressive singing voice, not a surprise in any star performance at the world class Lyric Opera. Where Baldwin triumphs is in her rendering of a intelligent, resilient, resourceful woman alone in the man’s world of the mid Victorian 1800’s, strong willed but never willful, a feminist before such a term existed but never abrasive or self righteous. Baldwin’s performance is a vocal triumph, but the depth and maturity (garnished with occasional playfulness) of her acting elevates her Anna to the definitive level.

         The story of “The King and I” is basically the prickly relationship between Anna and the king, a culture clash pitting the independent minded woman from the West and the autocratic monarch from the East. Gradually the barriers are breached and the two come to a respectful, possibly affectionate accommodation before the show’s somber and emotional ending.

         Traditionally the show belongs to the actor playing the king, mostly because of the legendary performance by Yul Brynner, who was the original king when the musical first opened in 1951. He went on to play the role more than 4,600 times. Brynner invested the king with a wonderful stage presence as the king fighting for his kingdom against outside forces that threatened the sovereignty of Siam. I saw Brynner twice and his wry humor blended with royal authority carried the show.


PHOTO Credit:Todd Rosenberg

         Paolo Montalban is a lightweight king at the Lyric Opera, giving a performance that leans on the comic elements in the character while short changing Mongkut’s strengths as the social and political centerpiece of his country. The indication of an erotic charge between the king and Anna near the end of the show is difficult to accept, given the strength of Anna’s personality matched against the almost two-dimensional king. The problem is that Montalban’s king isn’t royal enough. He’s more of a cartoon bully who terrorizes those around him, especially the women. That upsets the dramatic balance between the dominant figures in the show and for the first time in my exposure to the musical, “The King and I” becomes Anna’s show, a challenge Baldwin fortunately seizes with joyous results.

         In fairness to Montalban, and any actor who plays the king, Rodgers and Hammerstein are at fault in their delineation of the king and his world. There is a patronizing attitude toward the Siamese from the king on down. The show often treats them as innocent, almost childlike exotics to be viewed with tolerant condescension from the Western viewpoint. That may have been acceptable back in 1951 but it has a whiff of racism today. The show has not been a favorite in Thailand, where people consider the portrait of the king and the Siamese court a national insult and the suggestion of sexual tension between the king and Anna an affront.

         Director Lee Blakeley has been content to allow the comic opportunities in the book to run free, earning many laughs from the audience at my performance. The majestic possibilities of the story recede to the background. “The King and I” can be funny, but it undercuts the dramatic heft of the story to make it this funny.

         The physical staging is a mixed bag. The story allows for much spectacle in bringing the color of 19th century Siam to a Western audience. Sue Blane’s costume designs are a glorious rainbow of colors, especially the wardrobe of the many females in the show. But Jean-Marc Puissant’s set design doesn’t take advantage of the exoticism of the Bangkok of 150 years ago. The scene changes are marked by giant sliding panels and screens that barely suggest the eye-catching architecture of the country. The Lyric has the resources to wow its audiences with the colorful locale, an opportunity deliberately minimized in favor of abstract designs that only vaguely indicate a subdued Eastern flavor.

         The original choreography by Jerome Robbins was a prime contributor to making “The King and I” a super hit, especially in the two major production numbers, “The March of the Siamese Children” and “The Small House of Uncle Thomas.” At the Lyric, choreographer Peggy Hickey hasn’t done much to put a special stamp on either number. The march does introduce a selection of the king’s many children to the newly arrived Anna. The children are all adorable, but the number as a whole never builds either musically or choreographically under the direction of conductor David Chase.

         “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” is one of the great ballets in Broadway history, rendering the novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” into a Siamese spectacle. The Lyric interpretation was long and curiously unspectacular, with portions more resembling “Swan Lake” than the colorful dance tradition of the East.


PHOTO Credit:Todd Rosenberg

         Balanced against the difficulties in the book and the revival are the magnificent Rodgers and Hammerstein songs. The list of titles is a hall of fame of wonderful melody and stirring lyrics. The honor roll starts with “I Whistle a Happy Tune” and continues with “Getting to Know You,” “We Kiss in a Shadow,” “Something Wonderful,” “I Have Dreamed,” “Hello, Young Lovers,” and “Shall We Dance”—each one a gem.

         The show centers on Anna and the king but the supporting roles at the Lyric are filled satisfactorily or better. In particular, Ali Woldt displays a radiant voice as Tuptim, part of tragic love affair that forms the show’s subplot. The Lyric has recruited a large assemblage of area children to play the king’s young children. They are all cute, and the audience ate them up, especially a tiny tot who looked about three years old but delivered her stage moments with a professionalism that drew appreciative “awws” of affection from the spectators.

         I left the Civic Opera House with a feeling of disappointment. On the plus side is Kate Baldwin’s magnificent performance as Anna, the blazing color of the costumes, and the wonderful music.  Nothing much can be done about the patronizing Westernized view of Siamese culture, which is integral to the book. But its effect could have been mitigated by a more complex king and a visual presentation that more vividly honored the splendor of a rich culture with roots that went back centuries.

                       The show gets a rating of three stars.

The last performance of “The King and I” is May 22. For schedule and ticket information, call 312 332 2244 extension 5600, go to the box office at 20 North Wacker Drive, or visit

Contact Dan at    May 8, 2016

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Der Rosenkavalier

By The Lyric Opera of Chicago

By Dan Zeff


Chicago – “Der Rosenkavalier” will suit audiences who like their   opera accessible, beautifully sung, with a delicate blend of the comic and the serious. Richard Strauss wrote “Der Rosenkavalier” for a 1911 premiere, but the opera takes the spectator back to the aristocratic Vienna of the 1740’s, drenched in passionate love, yearning, catchy waltzes, visual comedy, and pageantry.

         The Strauss opera requires the resources of a world-class company to meet the vocal and scenic requirements of the show, which puts near 50 characters on stage at one time. The Lyric Opera of Chicago has the talent pool and deep pockets to make “Der Rosenkavalier” a long and leisurely but rewarding evening. The music is magnificent and for a change, the libretto is actually worth the spectator’s attention.

         “Der Rosenkavalier” is packed with characters but only four matter—a sophisticated middle-aged princess commonly called the Marschallin, a young nobleman named Octavian, the beautiful young Sophie, and the lecherous and boorish Baron Ochs, who provides the show’s villainy and most of its comedy.

The first act is devoted to the amours of the Marschallin and her 17-year old lover Octavian in the woman’s palatial boudoir. The second act shifts from the boudoir to a town house reception room. Octavian has been commissioned to deliver a symbolic rose to beautiful young Sophie as a traditional gesture leading up to the wedding of Sophie and Baron Ochs. The two young people first meet as Octavian hands the silver rose to Sophie. Their eyes connect, and before you can say Romeo and Juliet, they are smitten. The third act moves to an inn where farcical comedy takes over as Octavian and Sophie and their allies plot to defeat the baron’s plans to marry the unwilling Sophie.


                    PHOTO: Cory Weaver

The young lovers and the Marschallin claim the audience’s sympathies but the engine that drives the narrative is Baron Ochs. The Marschallin doesn’t appear in the middle act and Sophie isn’t introduced until the second act. Baron Ochs is prominent in all three acts, with his vulgarity and self regard providing comic garnish for the more affecting scenes involving the romantic threesome.

The richest character is the Marschallin, an intelligent and mature woman locked into a loveless marriage to an absentee husband who grasps the teen-age Octavian as a life-restoring lover. The Marschallin is the most clear-sighted of the major characters, realizing that her affair with Octavian cannot last. He will find romance with someone his own age, even though he pledges eternal devotion, while she slips inevitably into a loveless old age, a grim fate for a sensual woman who needs affection as much as she does physical love.

The quartet of leading performers consists of Illinois native Amanda Majeski as the Marschallin, Sophie Koch as Octavian (the role is always played by a female singer), Christine Landshamer as Sophie, and Matthew Rose as Baron Ochs (there are some cast changes midway through the run). They all sing superbly, with Majeski capturing the mature sensibility of the Marschallin, her worldly self-knowledge blended with the pain of recognizing that her best days are behind her, love-wise.

The chemistry between Koch and Landshamer wasn’t quite as believable and incendiary as it might be, part of the problem doubtless coming from the fact that Octavian was being played by a female who could not be mistaken for a male outside the forgiving world of the opera, no matter how masculine the costumes. Both were slightly upstaged by Majeski and Rose, who didn’t let low comedy nastiness dominate his character. The Baron is an unpleasant fellow but Fox kept him within the bounds of credibility and didn’t allow him to slide into grotesque caricature.

                          PHOTO: Cory Weaver

Rene Barbera made a stunning impression as a character known only as the singer. He is part of a reception the Marschallin holds in her boudoir for a motley collection of moochers, including a milliner, a notary, footmen, an animal trainer, and three cackling adult female orphans. He is on stage solely to sing a tenor aria. It was a musical moment that has nothing to do with the main business of the opera but was still ravishing to hear.

The Hugo von Hofmannsthal libretto is sung in German with the English titles projected as usual at the Lyric, above the stage. The titles were out of sync with the performers with part of the second act and abandoned altogether in the eloquent trio involving the Marschallin, Octavian, and Sophie near the end of the production, but generally the titles were discreet lifesavers for the spectators who weren’t fluent in German, which was virtually everyone.

British conductor Edward Gardner is making his Lyric debut and was at his best with the score’s lush sonorities, especially the familiar waltzes. Martina Weber likewise is making her debut as a director at the Lyric. She does not rush the story, which runs four hours with two intermissions. The third act crowd scene in the inn is predictably frantic but Weber’s sensitivity to the delicate emotions that engulf the three lovesick characters is continually affecting, leading to that moving trio at the ends of the opera.

Thierry Bosquet designed the costumes and set, which capture the elegance of the mid 18th century for those with unlimited financial resources. The costumes were especially stylish, as needs be in an opera that lends itself to spectacle.
         “Der Rosenkavalier” is a connoisseur’s opera for patrons whose tastes run to sophistication, charm, and the subtle investigation of love, both requited and unrequited. For people who attend opera for the pleasures of hearing beautiful singing, Strauss has created a classic. It’s not an action-packed evening but it cannily spreads its entertainment among the comic and the rueful and the joyous. Mostly it’s a pleasure to see and a joy to hear.

“Der Rosenkavalier” runs through March 13 at the Civic Opera House, 20 North Wacker Drive. Performances are February 13, 16, and 20, and March 4, 10 and 13. Call 312 332 2244 or visit 

The show gets a rating of 3½ stars        February 2016

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The Merry Widow

By The Lyric Opera of Chicago

By Dan Zeff

Chicago – Put one of the world’s leading sopranos on the stage of one of the world’s leading opera houses in one of the greatest operettas ever composed and good things are likely to happen. And so it has come to pass with the Lyric Opera’s staging of Franz Lehar’s “The Merry Widow,” starring the eminent Renee Fleming. And just to ensure that the production looked and sounded its best, Susan Stroman was signed to direct and choreograph the production, the same Susan Stroman who directed and choreographed “The Producers” and “Young Frankenstein” and choreographed “Crazy for You.”

“The Merry Widow” is being presented for 10 performances, the first 7 starring Fleming. The run will be completed by Nicole Cabell. This is a sumptuous production, filled with spectacle and pageantry to illuminate the Lehar score that includes such operetta standards as “Going to Maxims,” “Vilja” and, of course, “The Merry Widow Waltz.”

The story takes place in Paris in 1905 and centers on a wealthy and beautiful recently widowed lady named Hanna Glawari. Hanna is a native of Pontevedro, one of those mythical Balkan countries that pop up in so frequently in operettas of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The government of Pontevedro is near bankruptcy and sees its salvation in having one of their men marry Hanna for her fortune, which can then pay off the country’s debts. That’s a plot as good as most in operetta land. In any case, it gets the narrative ball rolling.


The Pontevedro ambassador to France hand picks Danilo Danilovich, a Pontevedro diplomat by day and a playboy by night, to woo Hanna into marriage and fiscal salvation for her country. But Danilo is the most confirmed of bachelors and just as bad, he and Hanna have a romantic history that ended badly. Throughout the opera, two bicker back and forth like Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedick. Needless to say, by the final curtain the couple recognize they love each other and all ends happily, both for Hanna and Danilo and presumably for Pontevedro.

That’s the main plot but it has to compete with all kinds of romantic subplots for the audience’s attention. In the aristocratic society of Paris of the time, the men seemed to spend most of their time trying to seduce the wives of colleagues and the wives spend as much time trying to be seduced. That leads to an unending series of complications, with mistaken identities and lovers just missing meetings by a hairbreadth that would have revealed their machinations to the unsuspecting husband or wife.

One attends an operetta in a tolerant and forgiving mood as far as the story is concerned. The plots are woven of purest dramatic thistledown, primarily filler that separates the songs and dances from the dialogue. But as narratives go, “The Merry Widow” is far better than average, with lots of witty lines, some decent clowning, and embarrassing encounters and near encounters that are actually humorous. But one attends for the music and that’s where Lehar provides the big payoff.

The Lyric Opera production is not only sung beautifully, its sets and costumes are ravishing. Those sets and costumes originated with the Metropolitan Opera revival in New York City, which premiered on New Year’s Eve, 2014. The first act opens in the luxurious ballroom of the Pontevedro embassy, lusciously designed by Julian Crouch, who also designed Hanna’s handsome mansion gardens in the second act and the interior of Maxim’s famous night club in the third act. William Ivey Long has outfitted the dozens of performers in elegant period gowns and formal wear, as well as sexy outfits worn by the grisettes employed to dance the can-can (and otherwise entertain the gentleman guests) at Maxim’s.

The production is thus a suitably opulent setting for a star of the fame and talent of Renee Fleming. She not only sings radiantly but she can act persuasively, an observation that cannot be made about all divas. Fleming is charming and beautiful, and it’s easy to think that “The Merry Widow” was created as a star vehicle especially for her. In particular, her rendering of the beautiful “Vilja” is both musically magnificent and emotionally stirring.


Fleming is masterfully partnered by Thomas Hampson, one of the leading baritones in opera today. He has the voice for the role of Danilo, as well as the good looks and acting chops and stage presence. Their barbs tossed back and forth are literate comedy when they aren’t singing luminously.

Fleming and Hampson don’t monopolize the singing honors. Heidi Strober and Michael Spyres earn high honors as one of the aristocratic couples ensnared in a love affair that is responsible for many of the romantic confusions of the plot as Valencienne and the count Camille de Rosillon. With Valencienne’s husband coming between them, their way to a successful affair is bumpy, but it all works out in the end. Patrick Carfizzi does well as Baron Mirko Zeta, Valencienne’s husband and a man born to wear the cuckold’s horns.

Fleming and Hampson bring a surprising level of credibility to their characters’s erratic course toward true love. The cliché about opera singers being all vocal skills and limited acting abilities does not apply to them. Indeed, the supporting players, male and female, are all decent actors or better, allowing for some of the preposterous situations the composer places them in.

The huge supporting cast is peppered with local performers familiar to attendees of the Marriott Theatre and the Drury Lane Theatre, Chicagoland’s two chief purveyors of musical comedy. First among equals is Jeff Dumas, who scores big as Njegus, Danilo’s assistant, a man always is putting his foot in his mouth in commenting about the illicit romances afoot. Other familiar local names in the ensemble include Jonathan Weir, Jennie Sophia, Michael Weber, Ariane Dolan, and McKinley Carter.

  Stroman’s choreography is elegant at the embassy dance, folksy, in Hanna’s mansion gardens, and sexy at Maxim’s. She ensures that the broad comedy isn’t too broad and the assorted intrigues are kept clear, thanks in part to the invaluable projections of the lyrics and dialogue above the stage. This version is presented in English (Lehar wrote the show in German) but I, for one, was grateful for the subtitle assistance.

“The Merry Widow” runs through December 13 at the Civic  Opera House, 20 North Wacker Drive. For performance times and ticket information, call 312 332 2244 or visit 

The show gets a rating of 3½ stars                               November, 2015

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