Light Opera Works | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Light Opera Works




Johann Strauss II, discouraged from pursuing music by his composer father, secretly learned the violin and studied composition--and in his teens openly defied Johann I by forming an ensemble to play the work of both Strausses. The father wrote over 150 waltzes before he died in 1849, but his son would compose nearly 400, including "The Blue Danube"--earning the nickname "the Waltz King" and becoming a symbol of sophisticated late-19th-century Vienna. In 1930, Moravian-born composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold--best known for his film music, like the Oscar-winning sound track to The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)--seized on the conflict between Strauss and his father as the inspiration for Waltzes From Vienna, an operetta scored with reorchestrations of the Strausses' most beloved tunes. When the show premiered in Vienna it wasn't a hit, but by the time it opened in New York in 1934--retitled The Great Waltz, with its book reshaped by Moss Hart--it had evolved into a reliable crowd pleaser. (The finale featured a 53-piece orchestra, eight giant crystal chandeliers descending from the ceiling, and the entire cast of 180 dancing in lavish period costume.) Korngold returned to the operetta in 1949, working with lyricists Robert Wright and George Forrest, who would revise it yet again after Korngold's death to create the 1965 version that Light Opera Works will perform this week. All the retoolings have given The Great Waltz more depth, especially in the father-son rivalry: the role of Johann I is more substantial, and he and his son compete not only professionally but for the attention of an opera diva, Helene Vernet. (Later in the story, the younger Strauss thankfully finds his own love interest, a young woman named Resi.) Musically, Korngold's arrangements have an extraordinary lushness--the scoring calls for plenty of winds and brass, whereas the Strausses often relied exclusively on strings--but the production's operatic rigor prevents the familiar waltzes from sinking into schmaltz. Light Opera Works has cast charming soprano Alicia Berneche, who recently filled in for Dawn Upshaw in the Lyric Opera's The Great Gatsby, as Resi; tenor James Cornelison, who's appeared at the Lyric in Carmen and Tristan und Isolde, will play the junior Johann, full of romantic rapture and youthful indignation. LOW regular Ronn Toebaas directs, and Ed Zelnis conducts the 31-member LOW orchestra. Tuesday, December 26, 8 PM, Wednesday and Thursday, December 27 and 28, 2 PM, next Friday and Saturday, December 29 and 30, 8 PM, and next Sunday, December 31, 2 and 8 PM, Cahn Auditorium, Northwestern University, 600 Emerson, Evanston; 847-869-6300.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rich Foreman.

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