A half century ago, a trio of twentysomething operaphiles offered Chicago what they dubbed a "calling card" production of Mozart's Don Giovanni to see if they might bring full operatic seasons back to the city.
These chance-takers were no slouches. In their first full season, they presented the American debut of one Maria Callas. Fifty years on, the Lyric Opera reigns as one of the world's leading companies.
To revisit Mozart's Don for their anniversary season, Lyric has pulled out all the casting stops - enticing Welsh superstar bass-baritone Bryn Terfel to give one more shot at the title role despite his oft-stated wish to stick with Leporello from now on.
Finnish soprano sensation Karita Mattila was to be Donna Anna; American mezzo Susan Graham, today's reigning Cherubino, agreed to give Chicago her role debut as Donna Elvira; puckish Italian bass-baritone Ildebrando D'Arcangelo would be a perfect foil to Terfel as Leporello and American tenor Kurt Streit would seem just the singing actor to make Don Ottavio, too often coming across as the hapless chap whose car broke down in the opera next door, appear as a real Mensch.
All of this could be done because Lyric - the chance-taking house that gave Peter Sellars his major company debut, let Robert Wilson take on Gluck's Alceste and introduced screen innovator Robert Altman as an opera director - had enlisted one of the few living legends of stage direction, Germany's fastidious and uncompromising Peter Stein to make his belated US debut with his first-ever Mozart.
Stein and his cast did not disappoint even if there was some opening-night drama when Mattila, sidelined by a fever and sore throat, was replaced by the Canadian-American newcomer Erin Wall. (Wall more than held her own and is clearly headed for great things.)
Obviously fed up with the Eurotrash productions that have become standard on his beloved German stages, Stein not only shunned any modernising touches but stripped away all extraneous matter and decoration to place his carefully (and beautifully) costumed singers front and centre in a setting of 1795 Venice (how distant a cousin is Casanova from Mozart and Da Ponte's Don after all?) in stage pictures where the characters were the architecture.
Stein, who studied violin for 10 years, breathes music, and every move of Giovanni's attempted seductions and their aftermath moved with and arose from the score. The cast eagerly rose to Stein's bar with Graham and Streit particularly shining in his re-humanising conception.
Stein enlisted Christoph Eschenbach as his orchestral partner, but his too-frequently odd tempo choices, while never distracting from the magic on stage did not add the one additional and necessary element to make this great golden jubilee evening truly one for the ages.
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