John Frayne: Opera production 'loverly;' CUSO finale enlightening

John Frayne: Opera production 'loverly;' CUSO finale enlightening

I attended the March 3 matinee performance of the University of Illinois Opera Program's production of the classic musical "My Fair Lady," and I thought it a delightful show — with one reservation, which I will discuss later.

The description of this event as "semi-staged/concert version" made me uneasy. From experience I have found opera performances in evening dress with a few props to be disappointing. But not this show! With the orchestra pit covered, the band in the back and left and right stage used for different locations, the dramatic illusion was maintained with force and charm.

Scott Bradley is thus to be congratulated for his scenic design. The costumes designed by Samantha C. Jones were lovely ("loverly"?) and spot-on for suggesting class distinctions. The lighting design by Kevin Peltz helped greatly in changing the action from one area to another. The singing and acting level of the players was very high, and for this director Ricardo Herrera deserves high praise.

It was a joy to hear the wonderful melodies of Frederick Loewe set to the dramatically vivid words of Alan Jay Lerner. And let us not forget the brilliant genius who thought up the whole thing: George Bernard Shaw.

On this afternoon, Eliza Doolittle was played by Wendy Muir, and I found her portrayal of the transition from cockney flower girl to lady a delight to the eye and ear.

It was one of the most beguiling portrayals, moving both to laughter and to tears, I have ever seen in the Tryon Festival Theatre at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. She was spellbinding in the magical moments of the drama, when she breaks the vowel barrier in "The Rains in Spain" episode, and also when she sits in stony silence while the men triumph over her success, until she explodes in rage.

Timothy Renner gave a very strong performance as the master of accents Henry Higgins, and Rick E. Calk III evoked much laughter as Col. Pickering. In the big number "Get Me to the Church on Time," Daniel Judd was splendid as Eliza's father, Alfred P. Doolittle.

But here I come to my reservation. Some of the male leads spoke so fast that their words became unintelligible. And many of their lines were shouted. Since voices were amplified, this raised the level of the shouting to ear-splitting effect. My major problem was about the level of sound, but several people I spoke to complained loud and long about not being able to understand the dialogue. Surely this problem should be spotted at dress rehearsals. Cassandra Jackson, as Mrs. Higgins, got much comic impact out of speaking her lines slowly and softly. Maybe supertitles would be the solution.

Returning to the delights of this show, let me say that the on-stage orchestra performed with stylish elan, and Eduardo Diazmunoz conducted with force and finesse, displaying at one point dashing footwork.

The dancing, choreographed by Rebecca Nettl-Fiol, was especially graceful, and the dancing of Katja Lindholm and Alex Tecza was a brilliant highlight. I wish I had the space to praise all the other players, singers, dancers and instrumentalists who made this a mostly joyous occasion.

Now, if I could just get "I could have danced all night" out of my head!

Final CUSO contender appears

On Saturday night, the fourth and final contender for the post of music director of the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra was heard in a concert of music by Richard Wagner, Sergei Prokofiev and Jean Sibelius.

Stephen Alltop, who led the orchestra, is based in Chicago, where he directs the Apollo Chorus and the Elmhurst Symphony Orchestra as well as teaching at Northwestern University.

Before the concert began, Kip Pope praised retiring harpist Shirley Blankenship for her work with the orchestra over many decades.

Alltop is evidently a conductor of wide experience. In the opening work, Wagner's Prelude to "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg," Alltop showed a smooth and efficient baton technique. The tempo shifts and the intertwining of melodic voices were managed with skill.

The orchestra sounded in full bloom, with tuba player Mark Moore having a field day.

After Wagner's grandiose march rhythms, we moved on to the astringent, satiric hijinks of Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto, which was first heard in Chicago in 1922, with the composer at the piano.

The soloist on Saturday night was the young Canadian pianist Winston Choi, who has studied at Indiana University with Menahem Pressler.

Prokofiev wrote for himself a concerto designed to show off his brilliant virtuosity, and Choi clearly has the fleetfingered skills to project the most showy passages with dramatic effect. Alltop matched well with Choi in the rhythmic complexities of this work, but at times the orchestra overwhelmed the sound of the piano. But Prokofiev arranged moments of near total silence for the piano to speak softly and clearly, and here Choi played with admirable delicacy.

The barn-burning coda of the first movement drew hefty applause from the audience, and rightly so. The composer clearly wanted applause, and Choi on this occasion got it.

At the end of the concerto Choi with Alltop and the orchestra received strong applause, with some standing.

Before Sibelius' monumental Second Symphony, Alltop gave a brief speech in which with clarity and eloquence he outlined the structural unity of this great work.

And unity of effect was clearly the goal of Alltop's leadership through the four contrasting movements to the triumphant conclusion of this symphony, which made Sibelius world famous. Along the way there was solo playing which emphasized what a cultural treasure this orchestra is to our community.

Highlights were the solos of J. David Harris, clarinet; Mary Leathers Chapman, flute; John Dee, oboe; Timothy McGovern, bassoon; and William Moersch, timpani. The brass choirs were outstanding, especially in the moving final chorale, and the strings excelled in the more lyrical passages of this work. It was a triumphant ending to an intriguing season, and out of these four memorable concerts will emerge a winner.

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the University of Illinois. He can be reached at frayne@illinois.edu.

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