Ravinia stages two Mozart operas
Operas at Ravinia
‘The Magic Flute,’ 7 p.m. Aug. 16 and 1 p.m. Aug. 18
‘Idomeneo,’ 7 p.m. Aug. 17 and 1 p.m. Aug. 19
$80/$10 lawn admission
(847) 266-5100 or visit www.ravinia.org
Updated: August 10, 2012 10:46AM
Operas in Ravinia’s Martin Theatre? Yes, and festival’s music director James Conlon has been presenting them every other August since 2008.
In fact the 850-seat house, the only original building remaining from the 1904 park, is well suited for performances of the composer’s classical operas.
“The Martin provides the audience with an intimate experience,” Conlon said, when reached by telephone in Southern California, where he is music director of the Los Angeles Opera. “There is a direct contact between the audience and the performers.”
Intimacy and opera almost seem a contradiction, he admitted. His Los Angeles Opera, for example, has 2,700 seats, the count at Lyric Opera of Chicago is exactly 3,563, surpassed only by the Metropolitan Opera House in New York’s 3,800 seats.
“The Martin is much closer to the size of the theaters where Mozart’s operas were originally performed,” he continued. “And we have about 30 members of the Chicago Symphony playing — that’s close to the normal number in Mozart’s time.”
He has assembled a cast for “The Magic Flute” which includes popular baritone Nathan Gunn as Papageno, soprano Lei Xu as Papagena, soprano Ailyn Perez as Pamina and tenor Charles Castronovo as Tamino. Soprano Erika Miklosa is the Queen of the Night, and bass Morris Robinson, the professional football player who became an opera singer, takes the role of Sarastro.
Robinson is the voice of the Oracle in “Idomeneo.” Tenor Robert Croft has the title role and soprano Susanna Phillips is cast as Ilia, the Trojan princess.
“These two operas are very different,” Conlon explained. “’Idomeneo’ was an Italian opera seria and premiered in 1781, while ‘The Magic Flute’ was a popular theater piece, written in German a full decade later.
“Idomeneo” received only one performance in Mozart’s lifetime in Munich. “It was forgotten,” he explained. “It is difficult to cast and to pace dramatically. There is a very intricate sextet.”
Plus the father-son conflict has rich mythological and scriptural roots, he added. “It is a very complex work. Mozart took the opera seria form and expanded it to meet his needs,” he said. “It is the most revolutionary of the operas he wrote.”
However, the complicated nature of “The Magic Flute” and its relationship to Freemasonry has never impeded its popularity. “It emphasizes a luminous enlightenment,” Conlon declared, “where men and women are called upon to reach the highest levels of humanity. It has an exalted view of human possibilities.”
But in brilliant contrast to these lofty ideals is Queen’s bird-catcher Papageno, a comic character who simply desires a sweetheart of his own.
(In an amazing confluence of attention, in addition to this performance at Ravinia, the Lyric Opera of Chicago presented “The Magic Flute” last season and Chicago Opera Theater opens its production Sept. 15 at the Harris Theater.)
Conlon’s Mozart project began in August of 2008, with the presentation of “The Abduction from the Seraglio” and “Don Giovanni,” followed by “Cosi fan tutte” and “Le Nozze di Figaro” in 2010.
They are not the only operas he has conducted at the festival, however. In 2005 he presented Ullmann’s “Der Kaiser von Atlantis,” as part of his “Breaking the Silence” initiative, highlighting composers whose lives or careers were cut shot by the Holocaust.
He led Verdi’s “Otello” in 2005, Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” in 2007, Verdi’s “Rigoletto” in 2009, and Puccini’s “Tosca” in 2011.
“I can’t see how any conductor wouldn’t want to do both symphony and operatic conducting,” he said. “It is only since World War II that there has been a tendency to separate the two, and it is an American phenomenon. In Europe for centuries the conductors did both.”
As examples, he mentions Riccardo Muti and James Levine as superb conductors at home in opera houses and symphony halls.
He regards opera as the more difficult of the two. “If you are able to master the exigencies of opera, the coordination of all the elements, then you should be able to handle an orchestral concert,” he concluded, “and conducting opera with all its dramatic content can help you infuse more emotion into your symphonic conducting.”
Conlon will lead a free pre-concert discussion in the Mirabelle restaurant in the festival’s dining pavilion one hour before each performance for anyone with a lawn ticket or reserved seat in the Martin.