Sunday, April 24, 2016

Janus Theatre Turns Tragedy to Victory in "Hamlet"

With the audience seated tightly together in a cluttered utility room, the stage manager turns off the only light, leaves the room and shuts the door. So begins Janus Theatre Company's promenade-style production of The Tragical History of Hamlet.

The action takes place in a series of minimally-lit "found spaces" within the Elgin Art Showcase, divided by black curtains. Between each of its eight segments adapted from historic versions of the original play, the audience moves through a doorway or a draped passage to another small set, where the cast performs a classic scene in Janus's trademark intimate style.

Described metaphorically by Artistic Director Sean Hargadon as "a maze of Hamlet's mind," the sequence of spaces borrows ingeniously from the modern-day theatrical haunted house, in which a group of strangers is ushered through harshly lit, draped rooms amid disembodied noises, images of violence and intermittent appearances by ghosts. It's the perfect vehicle in which to experience the psychodramatic journey of Hamlet.

But there are few props, minimal makeup and costume — nothing to distract from Shakespeare's story and brilliant use of language. Unfazed by the Elizabethan English of the script, the actors trade lines as if they were written yesterday, yet you'll recognize many of the Bard's famous phrases and snippets of verse that have taken on lives of their own.

And you'll feel an attachment to the characters unlike anything you've experienced in an auditorium. The action is so close, you are inside the scene — and seeing the raw humanity of skin, spit, and sweat as actors stammer and tussle their way through dialogues activates all the emotions that drama is supposed to evoke.

The cast is anchored by returning Janus players Kelly Bolton, whose cunning comedic delivery was perfectly cast as the Gravedigger, and Melody Jefferies (Ophelia), whose command of character never fails to amaze us.

Newcomer Jim Hinton (Ghost/Claudius) is in fact a highly experienced actor and singer whose excellence of craft is apparent, and Joe Cattoggio in the title role channeled a conflicted and introspective Hamlet through his own naturally tense and impetuous persona. The tears we held back in the final scene with Ben Vogt (Horatio) were quite unexpected.

The Tragical History of Hamlet continues through May 7th. See for exact dates and times.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Elgin Master Chorale Wraps its Season with Restless "Requiem"

Ninety singers were joined by a twenty-five piece orchestra on the Blizzard Theatre stage Sunday for a concert of classics that a city ten times Elgin's size would be fortunate to hear.

This joint appearance with a chamber-sized Elgin Symphony Orchestra and four professional soloists marked the end of a glorious season that included works by Schubert, Beethoven, Rossini, and Verdi performed in venues throughout Elgin in numerous artistic collaborations.

The top of this program featured Vivaldi's Gloria in D Major (ca. 1715), including its introductory Ostro picta sung by soprano Kirsten Hedegaard. She was joined for the Gloria by countertenor Thomas Aláan who covered parts originally written for soprano and contralto.

Their voices traced ornate melodies over long vowels like the arcs of water in a Venetian fountain, and blended beautifully a due with excellent timing and intonation. The chorus surrounded them like an April force of nature: at times stormy or serene, dark or heavenly radiant.

Unamplified music sounds surprisingly good in the Blizzard Theatre; only a cathedral could have improved matters by providing a pipe organ with a voice to match this ensemble. We strained to hear the excellent keyboard work of Jon Warfel, who is recognized locally as the Choirmaster at Elgin's First Congregational Church.

The highlight of the afternoon was the Requiem in C Minor by Johann Michael Haydn, composed for an Archbishop's funeral during a two-week period in December 1771. The younger Haydn has been historically overshadowed by his brother Franz Joseph, though he produced a wealth of music of comparable quality.

But there is nothing much restful in this requiem. The chorus stands throughout the forty-minute work, in which many sections of the Mass are joined together without breaks. Subconscious turmoil is palpable in the counterpoint, and anguished dissonances have led historians to suggest that Haydn's own bereavement at the recent loss of his infant daughter influenced its creation.

Soprano Kirsten Hedegaard, countertenor Thomas Aláan, Maestro Andrew Lewis,
tenor Matthew Dean and baritone Eric Miranda with the Elgin Master Chorale
and the Elgin Symphony Orchestra.

The pathos was evident in solo and duo passages by tenor Matthew Dean and baritone Eric Miranda, and the combination of all four voices as a solo quartet was spectacular. The chorus managed each entrance with great concentration and enunciated the Latin text so well that it was easy to follow in the printed transcription.

The Elgin Master Chorale, its singers, staff and board, accomplished a magnificent feat in this concert, in which every aspect — from the artists to the program booklet — was of the highest caliber. Maestro Andrew Lewis, celebrating ten years as Music Director, presented the chorus in its most highly practiced form, and exhibited complete control of the most important notes of every movement, especially the last one.

And this ensemble in particular represents the ever rising quality of amateur artists in the area, who join together with professionals in significant performances like these to create a record of excellence that continues to redefine Elgin as an important center for the arts.

For more information on coming events, including a rare summer outdoor performance, visit

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Soirée Lyrique's Stimulating "Viennese Concert"

Vienna is one of the world's great cities, famous not only for its musical legacy, but also for its great thinkers and classic cuisine. Imagine a Sunday afternoon of comic and lyrical songs and waltzes from this great tradition ... now imagine it performed mit höchste künstlerische Qualität in downtown Elgin.

The lovely atmosphere and excellent acoustics of First Congregational Church provided the setting for "A Viennese Concert," presented by Soirée Lyrique NFP, the premiere local arts group devoted to classical vocal performance.

This 90-minute program featured works by Strauss, Mozart, Korngold and Léhar in a variety of periods and styles, performed by a stellar group of soloists, accompanied by pianist Dr. Chiayi Lee and a string quartet from Chamber Music on the Fox.

If you think you have no appetite for opera, one taste of music by soprano Solange Sior, founder and Artistic Director of Soirée Lyrique, will awaken your cravings for more. In solos from Giuditta and Die tote Stadt, her voice was like apricot pastry, both sweet and tart, and so rich it leaves an impression on your conscience as well as your memory.

The cinnamon and vanilla tones of soprano Genevieve Thiers were the coffee of a Viennese dessert: simultaneously light and dark; part vision, taste and temptation. And like the finest torte, the sublety of her execution in solos from The Merry Widow and Die Fledermaus belied the depth of talent and craft in their preparation.

No Viennese coffeehouse would be complete without the aroma of smoking pipes and the glow of gas lights. Nicholas Provenzale's smooth, smoky baritone filled the room with just the right flavor of Italian briar in songs from Die Zauberflöte and The Desert Song, and the white dinner jacket of Simon Kyung Lee reflected the warmth and radiance of his solos "Dein is mein ganzes Hertz" and "Vienna, City of my Dreams."

With characteristically relaxed elegance, the string quartet anchored by cellist Sara Sitzer, founding Co-Aristic Director of Chamber Music on the Fox, reminded us how fortunate we are in Elgin to have the resources of Chicago's world-class music community right in our backyard — and in many cases, literally just down the street.

The changing repertoire and amazing artistic lineup of Soirée Lyrique is exceeded only by the friendly ease and accessibility of its concerts, staged in familiar venues in and around Elgin. Visit for details on its upcoming June event.