The first week of November at Krannert Center was a musical smorgasbord, a piling up of musical events leaving this concertgoer in a state of blissful exhaustion. The first event I attended was the second visit here of Apollo's Fire Baroque Orchestra, conducted by Jeanette Sorrell. Last year they offered Johann Sebastian Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. This year they performed a resplendent version of Claudio Monteverdi's "Vespers of 1610." This magnificent work, designed for evening services in the Western Catholic Church, is properly called "Vespers of the Blessed Virgin," intended for use on church holidays dedicated to Mary, mother of Jesus. Put simply, the traditional form of Catholic Vespers involved the singing of five Psalms and a concluding "Magnificat," a setting of the account of the Annunciation in the Gospel of Luke.
I have heard recordings of this work over many years with pleasure, but the impact of a live performance by so professionally accomplished a group as Apollo's Fire was overwhelming. Monteverdi's then revolutionary combination of ancient plainsong and Renaissance polyphony with contemporary vocal and instrumental forms result in a work full of delights, with a special sense that something new is around in every corner of this score. Apollo's Fire employed what is considered a midsized number of performers, 20 singers and 16 instrumentalists. Out of the 20 singers, seven emerged to sing solo vocal parts.
The choral singing was excellent in ensemble discipline, and the ability of these singers to control phrasing, volume, and intricate blending of voices was most impressive. The solo singers were outstanding in their vivid enunciation of the Latin Psalm texts. The instrumental sound of the therbos (large lutes) and sackbuts (trombones) stood out in the delightful aural array of ancient instruments. Conductor Sorrell did a superb job in maintaining forward momentum in this complex and monumental score. One small complaint: the house lights were turned so low that it was very hard to follow the seven pages of Latin texts and English translations. Monteverdi's word-painting is detailed and delightful.
Two evenings later, on Thursday, November 8, I went to the opening night of the new "Lyric Theatre Illinois" production of Gaetano Donizetti's sparkling comedy "L'Elisir d' Amore" ("The Elixir of Love"). This work received from the Lyric Theatre's participants a joyous and bracing performance. The engaging story of true love being fueled by a phony love potion was allowed to work its enchantment in a traditional setting, without distracting concept impositions. Director Jerold Siena deserves high praise in getting engaging performances from the youthful solos singers and choristers. The enunciation of the Italian text was first rate. The modest set designed by Emily Lohrbach was attractive in appearance and seemed highly singer-friendly. Ellen Danforth's costumes combined realism with visual variety.
This opera was double cast. On opening night, You Jin Kim gave a sparkling portrayal of the attractive, yet flighty heroine Adina. Kim's delivery of the coloratura fireworks of this part was quite exciting. Humberto Carlo Rivera used his sweet-toned tenor voice to pleasant effect in the part of nave but likeable bumpkin Nemorino. His singing of the famous aria "Una Furtiva Lagrima" was justly the vocal climax of the evening. Adrian Sanchez, with his trusty band of marching soldiers, was quite impressive and funny as the lady-killing "glory-hound soldier." Jorge Belonni provided most of the evening's laughs as the mountebank Dr. Dulcamara, making the most of his hot-air balloon arrival, exotically assisted by a gorilla ( a.k.a. Timothy Renner, the Dulcamara of the other cast. Maybe the elixir had an unexpected effect?). Susan Bywaters was suitably pert and alluring in leading the mini-mob of girl choristers who pursue newly rich Nemorino.
Guest conductor from Chicago, Eric Weimer, got a highly polished performance of the student orchestra. Michael Tilley trained the choristers to sing lustily, and he contributed informative program notes. Dennis Helmrich's supertitles allowed us to get the jokes. The ultimate "coup de theater" was when Adina got the message of her love to Nemorino by dragging him to the front of the stage and pointing up at the supertitle, which read "I Love You!"
The stage band was made up of members of the Fighting Illini, who seemed to be having as much fun as at Memorial Stadium. Before the curtain went up, Julie Jordan Gunn, Director of Lyric Theatre Studies, introduced the audience to the newly named "Lyric Theatre." The performance that followed was an eloquent and auspicious beginning to this new "Lyric Theatre."