I hadn’t been to Chicago in a while and certainly not in November. I guess I shouldn’t complain as I had overall nice, sunny weather. But now I know why they call it the Windy City. No, it’s not because of Mother Nature’s blowjobs. Rather, it refers to the city’s windbag politicians. Still, I would’ve been much happier if someone had turned off the wind machine. Sigh…
Despite that, I had quite an enjoyable visit. If I didn’t get to see any theater in the Second City (of its two major theater companies, the Goodman and Steppenwolf, one was between productions and one was presenting a show I had seen in NYC), I lucked out as my visit coincided with the premiere of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of the great Czech composer Leoš Janácek’s Jenufa starring world-renowned sopranos Lise Davidsen and Nina Stemme.
Lise Davidsen, Nina Stemme (in front) and other featured members of Jenufa (photo by Michael Brosilow)
Jenufa takes place in a small, provincial Moravian town and tells the sad story of its title character, a young lady who’s become pregnant by her caddish beau, Števa. He’s abandoned her after his half-brother Laca has scarred her face in a jealous rage. Because having a child out of wedlock would ruin her and bring tremendous shame on the family, Jenufa’s pious stepmother, Kostelnicka, takes the newborn child and drowns it in the town’s river, telling Jenufa that it had passed away. Two months later, after Jenufa has forgiven Laca, on their wedding day, the baby’s body is found. At first, the townspeople are ready to stone Jenufa, but Kostelnicka admits what she did; after she is led off to jail, Laca forgives Jenufa whom he’s always loved, and they (hopefully) will live happily after.
If the libretto–filled with heartbreaking moments, but devoid of sentimentality–challenges credibility, Janácek’s gorgeous, shimmering music seduces the ear and so perfectly defines the characters as to make the plot believable. There are hints of Wagner in the score and sprinklings of Verdi, but Janácek’s genius used folk rhythms and the patterns of the Czech language for the vocal lines to create music that never feels arbitrary like so much of today’s operatic scoring. As I watched, I kept wondering why Jenufa (and Janácek’s other works) aren’t even more firmly embedded in the standard repertoire.
Claus Guth’s stylized production worked well, in general, as it created the claustrophobic feel of village life, though I could’ve done without some of the more symbolic touches like a giant crow that perches on the home of Jenufa and Kostelnicka, or the young boy who walked across the stage representing the baby’s death (shouldn’t he have crawled then?). If Set Designer Michael Levine and Costume Designer Gesine Völlm’s muted color pallette was visually drab, James Farncombe’s terrific lighting cast imposing shadows on the back walls. Jakub Hruša conducted superbly, bringing out all the various colorations in Janácek’s score.
And what a treat hearing Stemme and Davidsen, who was making her role staged debut. Davidsen sang gloriously and shaped a touching portrait of Jenufa. Stemme used her warm soprano to penetrating effect; I’ll not soon forget her anguished declaration in the opera’s final moments. As these two Scandinavian singers blended their voices magnificently, one sensed the passing of the torch from one generation to another (tho I was surprised to discover that Stemme just turned 60; I’d’ve thought she was 10 years younger).
Both tenors, Pavel Cernoch as Laca and Richard Trey Smagur as Števa (one of the most pompous assholes in all operadom), were excellent with Cernoch floating notes of inner despair. My only quibble is that Cernoch is probably too handsome for Laca, Jenufa’s second place man crush.
There are just two more performances of Jenufa. If you are in Chicago, don’t miss this too rare treat. More info at https://www.lyricopera.org/shows/upcoming/2023-24/jenufa/
Also a treat was getting to see the Civic Opera House for the first time, tho it was a little odd going into a theater in a 45-story office tower from 1929. The 3,563-seat Opera House, the second-largest opera auditorium in North America, has a beautiful Art Deco interior, with a large orchestra, 3 balconies and a stunning golden curtain.
The interior of the Civic Opera House
No visit to Chicago is complete without a stop at the Art Institute of Chicago, home to four of the most iconic paintings in the world (Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte”, Caillebotte’s “Paris Street; Rainy Day”, Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks”, and “American Gothic” by Grant Wood).
A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — 1884 (1884-86) by Georges Seurat (1859-1891)
In addition to its outstanding permanent collection, currently there are a number of special exhibitions, my favorite of which was Remedios Varo: Science Fictions. Varo (1908–1963) fled Europe in 1941 due to the growing dangers of World War II and emigrated permanently to Mexico City, where she worked amid a community of Mexican and European artists. Hers is a unique style incorporating imagery from disciplines as wide-ranging as chivalric romance, alchemy, feminist critique, mysticism, and the occult.
I thought her works looked familiar but couldn’t place them until I came to her semi-autobiographical triptych which I knew I had seen before (turned out it was at the Metropolitan Museum’s Surrealism Beyond Borders show two years ago). If you’re a fan of the surreal, as I am, and want to see a wildly imaginative artist’s works in her first museum exhibition in the U.S. since 2000, make sure to see this show before it closes on November 27.
Bordando el manto terrestre (Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle) (1961) by Remedios Varo (1908–1963) from her semi-autobiographical triptych
Another female artist, French sculptor Camille Claudel (1864–1943) is also being featured at the Art Institute (thru Feb. 19). Both a muse to and mentee of Rodin, I found her works a little too traditional for my tastes except for one sublime creation, “The Chatterboxes”, showing four nude women gossiping in green marble onyx.
The Chatterboxes (1896-98) by Camille Claudel (1864–1943)
There are also small exhibits focusing on Caravaggio (thru Dec. 31), Picasso (Apr. 8), and Dan Friedman, an American designer & sculptor who created genre-bending assemblages before succumbing to AIDS in 1995 (thru Feb. 4). (https://www.artic.edu/)
A short walk from the Art Institute is The Field Museum, which reminded me of NYC’s American Museum of Natural History with its dioramas and vast collection of seemingly every type of flora and fauna on the planet!
A must-see specimen there is SUE, one of the largest (40 feet long!) and most complete (90%!) Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons ever discovered. Since 2018, Sue has been housed in her own large room (the original skull is displayed in an anteroom to more easily accommodate further studies, among other reasons). There is fascinating background material about SUE’s finding, info about how she lived, and a media experience that sets T. rex in motion as it recreates South Dakota 67 million years ago. There are other really really cool fossilized skeletons (A ground sloth! A glyptodont! An edaphosaurid synapsid!) in the Griffin Halls of Evolving Planet, but SUE reigns over all.
SUE, the Tyrannosaurus rex
It’ll cost you extra, but Bloodsuckers: Legends to Leeches (thru Sept. 2, 2024), the Field’s captivating and beautifully done new special exhibit is worth it. An overview of all sorts of creatures who dine on blood, from bats & fleas to bedbugs & mosquitos, Bloodsuckers offers both hard science, engagingly so, as well as the realm of the imagination with a deep dive into vampire lore as well as a reel of film clips from Dracula to Little Shop of Horrors. My favorite part? An aquarium containing live sea lampreys who have teeth on their tongues and mouths that form a suction disc to extract their meal. Truth truly is stranger than fiction!
A quartet of sea lampreys in Bloodsuckers: Legends to Leeches
You could probably spend a week, maybe a month, at the Field and not see all of it. I envy those Chicagoans who get to return again and again. (https://www.fieldmuseum.org/)
You might want to return again and again to the Museum of Ice Cream (MOIC) since it’s so much fun…it could, however, be dangerous for your waistline!
I had never heard of MOIC before my Chicago visit (a little googling as I’m writing this led me to discover that MOIC has been around since 2016; its first permanent location, in Manhattan’s SoHo, opened 4 years ago) and didn’t quite know what to expect. You’re promised unlimited samplings of 5 different ice cream treats, but would it be educational as well as entertaining, the way Bloodsuckers is?
The answer is, for the most part “Yes”. You start off with a Dove Bar–Yum!–before taking a (virtual) train ride thru Icecreamlandia which deposits you in the cocktail bar cum soda shoppe where you can purchase a variety of beverages, alcoholic and non; my “Cookie Monster” milkshake was delish. (A VIP ticket gets you a complimentary drink.)
The “Cookie Monster” milkshake
You then enter a jelly bean-themed room where a refreshing vanilla, orange or swirled soft ice cream is served. A “banana jungle” follows in which you navigate through hundreds of hanging pink life-sized plastic bananas. Cool, but it’s more for the kids.
Although I certainly was smiling, I was beginning to wonder when I’d encounter the “museum” part of the MOIC. Sure enough, the next room is the heart (“brains” might be the more apt word) of the installation.
On one wall are a series of vitrines relating to ice cream. They contain all sorts of goodies like a reproduction of the 1924 patent application for the first ice cream scooper and a photo of Barack Obama with a wall plaque informing us that he “began his first job scooping ice cream at a Honolulu Baskin Robbins during the summer of 1978.” (This is 100% true; when I visited Honolulu last year my friend who went to high school with the future President showed me the location where he once worked.)
On another wall plays a very informative video featuring “Food Designer” Sarah Masoni who talks about what goes into making ice cream.
Best of all, on yet another wall, is the “Inside Scoop”, a 4 x 8 array of softball-sized scoops in all sorts of colors. Each has a name underneath it like “Affogato” or “Helado de Paila” or “Dondurma” and, when you lift the scoop, you learn where it comes from (Italy, Ecuador and Turkey, respectively) and a bit about it. For example, the fuchsia-colored (or is it more amethyst?) Akutaq is “a frozen treat unique to western Alaska and northern Canada, made by whipping caribou fat together with salmonberries, fish, tundra greens, and a dash of seal oil.” Who knew?
The “Inside Scoop” display
Things could only be better if (a) the top level of vitrines were moved further down; you need to be a giant to get a good look at them and (b) the lettering on the wall plaques were darker; pink on pink, even if different shades, doesn’t make for easy reading.
The Museum continues with a 3-hole putt-putt course (the giant whipped cream can offers great photo ops) where a hot dog-flavored ice cream is served on a bun (don’t ask!); a room filled with amusement park games (thank gawd for the funhouse mirror that makes you slimmer); and a sprinkle pool for kids of all ages.
In the game room, you get three ice cream options (I believe you can have all three but by then you’re probably feeling full); I chose the Banana Pudding which I enjoyed. Given that vanilla is America’s favorite ice cream flavor (a li’l factoid I learned), I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the MOIC’s offerings were all vanilla-ish, but I do wish there had been some chocolate (or better yet, chocolate chip mint) in the mix.
As much fun as I had during my hour-long journey, I suspect the MOIC is even more of a blast if you go with a group of friends, especially on a weekend night when you’re in the mood to party. Just be careful you don’t lose your cherry on top! (https://www.museumoficecream.com/chicago/)
The Christmas tree in Macy’s Walnut Room
Other places I enjoyed visiting included Macy’s Walnut Room with its gigantic Christmas tree; the Ukrainian restaurant Tryzub, whose Chicken Paprikash in Baked Pumpkin was one of the best dishes I’ve ever had; the two-story DePaul Art Museum in Lincoln Park where admission is free; and the International Museum of Surgical Science, where you’ll either want to spend hours exploring or run screaming from its potentially nightmare-inducing exhibits.
Tryzub’s Chicken Paprikash in Baked Pumpkin
Not sure when my next visit to Chicago will be but, by then, hope the Obama Presidential Center will be open (it’s currently under construction). And that the wind machine might be off, or, at least, on low.