REVIEW: Three Decembers (Chicago Opera Theater)

Fredericka von Stade soars above score’s weaknesses

    

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Chicago Opera Theater presents
   
Three Decembers
  
Jake Heggie, Composer; Gene Scheer, Librettist
Based on a short play by
Terrence McNally
at
Harris Theater, Millennium Park (map)
through May 16th  | tickets$30-$120  | more info

Review by Mark D. Ball

Criticism comes easy. Composition does not. In fact, this opera’s composer, Jake Heggie, colorfully writes in his program notes that sometimes he has to “[smash his] head…on a keyboard to get any notes out at all”. So, with due respect to the difficulty and nobility of the enterprise, and to those who passionately answer the call anyway, I’m going to offer what is probably a minority opinion among critics and opera-lovers alike in questioning the outcome in the case of Heggie’s opera Three Decembers.

COT-three-decembers003 Librettist Gene Scheer based the story on a short play by Terrence McNally. An adult brother and sister (Charlie and Bea) are struggling with their relationship with their mother (Madeline), a famous actress who neglected them to advance her career. Eventually, the mother reveals a surprising family secret that clarifies her behavior and makes forgiveness possible. Unfortunately, as a portrayal of family dysfunction, the story is simplistic and trite. Despite its aspiration to depict a fascinating but fractured family in the manner of Tennessee Williams, the libretto is largely an exercise in resentful adolescent whining.

Nevertheless, this production did have some strengths. First, the legendary mezzo-soprano Fredericka von Stade sang the role of the celebrated actress and indifferent mother. Her blithe, graceful singing testified to her status as one of the world’s great lyric sopranos. Stade’s Madeline was both selfish and charming, a result of skillful acting that wove flamboyance and naivete into a single fabric. There was no dissimulation in her character – just obliviousness. Hers was a classic diva whose narcissism was almost benign, being tempered by a dormant conscience.

Matthew Worth sang the role of Madeline’s gay son, Charlie. His character’s indignation and stubbornness were explicit, and I heard the ring of sincerity in the fear that Charlie felt during his partner’s illness and the sadness after his death. Because Worth didn’t hyperbolize the affectivity in his role – and despite the driving petulance written into his lines – he delivered some touching moments.

In the role of Bea, Sara Jakubiak did what she could with bad material. Her good singing notwithstanding, she couldn’t overcome the banality of her character.

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Reaction depends on expectation. Not having heard Three Decembers before, but being aware of Heggie’s postmodernist tendencies, I didn’t go to the performance expecting Puccini. Rather, I was looking forward to interesting musical surprises, perhaps dissonance, fragmentation, or structural disunity, while hoping for enough neoromanticism to give some meaning to those surprises.

The tonality of the score would probably please Puccini after all, but the totality might appeal more to Janáček . Within the strong dissonances of Heggie’s music there are passages of long, lithe melodies with pleasant lyricism, especially in the duets and trios. Sophisticated harmony is present, along with tantalizing unpredictability. Even so, however, most of the vocal lines give the impression of confused and aimless arioso. Whether musicologists ultimately classify it as such, or as Sprechstimme or recitative, the music feels arbitrary and unstable, as though trying hard not to be hummable just so it can claim originality. Furthermore, the frequent screeching of dissonant woodwinds made me wince. What wasn’t boring was downright irritating.

Three Decembers could be a compelling opera if the story were fresher and the music shaped by what Heggie’s modernist/premodernist predecessors (Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bernstein, and others) understood about antagonism and synergism as they apply to convention and innovation. As it is, Heggie’s score assaults or frustrates the senses more often than it uses them to frame an emotion or an idea. Disappointment wasn’t among my expectations as the curtain rose, but, I regret to say, it was my reaction as the curtain fell.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  
COT-three-decembers004 Production Team

Conductor:
Stephen Hargreaves
Production by:
Leonard Foglia
Costume Designer:
Cesar Galdino
Original Lighting Designer:
Brian Nason
Lighting Designer:
Keith Parham

Cast List

Bea:
Sara Jakubiak
Madeline:
Frederica von Stade
Charlie:
Matthew Worth

    

   

REVIEW: Jason (Chicago Opera Theater)

Delightfully mixing witty vulgarity with keen refinement

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Chicago Opera Theater presents
 
Jason
 
Composed by Francesco Cavalli
Libretto by Giacinto Andrea Cicognini
Conducted by Christian Curnyn
at Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph (Millennium Park)
thru May 2nd  |  buy tickets  |  more info

Review by Mark D. Ball

Jason Photo 8 Even though human culture has changed since Apollonius wrote about Jason and the Argonauts, human nature has remained basically the same. Cavalli’s 17th-century opera Jason punctuates this simple truth. Whether we approach Jason as an ancient myth, a Baroque soap opera, or a hybrid of the two, Chicago Opera Theater’s current production keeps it meaningful to a 21st-century audience by distilling the drama and comedy from the story, along with the gravity and silliness of human life, the wisdom and folly, and the nobility and profligacy. And all this in a tidy 165-minute package that delights the ears and the eyes.

The single greatest strength of this production lies in the characterizations. Every singer defines his or her character sharply, and as a result the wonderful wit in this opera sparkles. Even while flirting with exaggeration, the cast had the good judgment to stop before becoming cardboard caricatures. Because the singers understand that Cavalli’s music usually parallels Cicognini’s text in the rhythms of speech, their singing was cogent and perceptive. This is especially merciful because recitativo can be a crushing bore in unimaginative or undiscerning musical hands. COT, however, vivified the score by infusing it alternately with verve, flair, delicacy, and warmth.

The connection between Jason and the story of Jason and the Argonauts is more or less nominal. Gone are the adventures. Jason is a married father of twins, and he’s cheating on his wife with Medea, who has also borne him a set of twins. And up until the happy ending, we’re treated to humor, scheming, deception, bawdiness, misapprehension, and attempted murder. But no little ones are killed.

Jason Photo 2 In the title role, Franco Fagioli gave us a believably selfish and hedonistic Jason, who seeks sexual conquest more than he does military glory. But his dormant conscience, which redeems him in the end, was always at the edge of detectability. Fagioli’s countertenor was as smooth as a river pebble, and it had an athletic quality with a refreshing clarity throughout his range.

Fagioli set the tone for the entire drama with Jason’s first aria, in which he captured the “hero’s” sizeable character weakness and underscored the fact that Jason hadn’t gotten where he is by means of a John-Wayne-style grit. Because of Fagioli’s success in this regard, transposing Jason into a 1960s James Bond was all the more clever in its sarcasm. Consequently, Jason’s redemption at the end was especially convincing as he came to recognize his appalling behavior.

Singing the role of Medea was Sasha Cooke. Her skillful mezzo soprano and the panache in her acting gave us one of the finest moments in the performance: her invocation of the powers of darkness to help Jason in his quest for the Fleece. The feeling she created wasn’t one of temporary madness, though her hinges did loosen. Rather, she capitalized on the changing meters and the repeating notes to create a driving energy that was rational and singularly focused on Medea’s purpose.

Julius Ahn brought forth the politically incorrect comedy relief as the servant Demo, the clubfooted, hunchbacked, stuttering dwarf. The unique coloratura of this role differs from that of traditional bel canto in that Cavalli’s music actually uses the peculiarities of stuttering for its structure and speed. Demo’s problem swells in his melismas but recedes in his arias. Aware of this device, Ahn sang the false starts and minced repetitions with apparent ease, while having his character display the expected, and sympathetic, frustration.

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In the role of the disgraced Isifile, Jason’s wife, Grazia Doronzio sang movingly. But the abandoned wife and mother showed more than just a soupçon of self-pity, and there were a few times when I found myself wishing that she’d stop wallowing in it. After all, she is a rich and powerful queen. Tyler Nelson’s portrayal of Delfa, Medea’s servant, was quite funny, albeit just one cigarette away from being a cliché. Vale Rideout made Egeo’s unhealthful obsession with Medea suitably disturbing until the end, when we forgave him for being a victim of love. Although his tone was deep and rich, his vibrato was so wide in the melismas that the pitch sometimes disappeared.

The flaws in this production, though noticeable, didn’t detract from the experience. But they do recommend some additional polishing. A few times the singers and their lights had to find each other on stage, and the stagehands were visible while moving set pieces during the action. Moreover, the movable scene dividers were a bit tacky, inasmuch as they looked like large boxes onto which gift-wrapping paper had been pasted, with creases and seams clearly visible.

Despite the passing of three and a half centuries, Jason hasn’t lost its relevance. The regret is there, alongside the grief and the spitefulness, all three of which burned right through this sizzling production. And what about the low humor? Maybe it’s cynical to say so, but even the cognoscenti feel less guilty about laughing at it when higher expectations are standing by. Like their predecessors, modern audiences do enjoy a witty mix of vulgarity and refinement, especially, as in this opera, when vice can bump up against virtue with a wink and a grin.

 

Rating: ★★★½

 

 

Video Trailer of Cavalli’s Jason (Giasone) – First Rehearsal

 

ABOVE:  Director Justin Way and conductor Christian Curnyn talk about Chicago Opera Theater’s new production of Cavalli’s Jason (Giasone).

 

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REVIEW: Moses in Egypt (Chicago Opera Theater)

Rossini’s “Moses” soars from darkness to redemption

 

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Chicago Opera Theater presents
 
Moses in Egypt
 
Composed by Gioacchino Rossini
Musical Direction by Leonardo Vordoni
Directed by Andrew Eggert
through April 25th  (more info)

Reviewed by Mark D. Ball

Tragic love is an alluring theme. It’s even more alluring when the context is something to which we can react viscerally, especially when we can blame it for the lovers’ agony. There were Romeo and Juliet, destroyed by the seething hatred between their families; Vronsky and Anna, trapped in a hypocritical and harshly unforgiving society; Abélard and Héloïse, victims of a brutal religious culture; Rodolfo and Mimì, torn apart by the petulance and perilousness of bohemian life.

Photo 6 So it is with Rossini’s Moses in Egypt, a melodramatic tale of forbidden love between Elcia, a Hebrew slave girl, and Osiride, son of Pharoah, set against the epic struggle of the Israelites to escape their bondage in Egypt. In fact, the connection between our lovers and the Exodus itself is what defines the tragedy, the outcome of a collision between arrogance and wrath on one side, and loyalty and devotion on the other.

To me, regrettably, Chicago Opera Theater’s current production of Moses fails as a love story. This is unfortunate because much of the opera focuses on the doomed couple. But with a nod to the redemption that comes at the end of the story, the production soars in nearly every other respect. It presents a fresh, lean, musically interesting opera with an exciting variety of voices, a dazzling minimalist set, costumes that create the illusion of shifting colors, and an orchestra that plays crisply and attentively. The flaws, which include some strained symbolism, were not difficult to overlook.

Taylor Stayton, who played Osiride, and Siân Davies, as Elcia, sang their roles with individual success, but left me unconvinced that their characters were in love. Of the two, though, it was Stayton whom believability eluded. And this is ironic because his performance otherwise sparkled. Stayton’s tenor voice was effulgent and powerful Photo 3 from top to bottom, yet agile enough for bel canto acrobatics. He sings with brio, and his accuracy is impressive in the musical leaping this role requires. Although his characterization was appropriately conceited (presumably) for a prince of Egypt, Stayton uncovers some unexpected depth in this tormented young man and uses his vocal skill to highlight Osiride’s emotional instability.

Davies’ voice is strong and expressive, though her vibrato sounds shaky and uncontrolled at the top of her range. Her Elcina was gentle, loving, and dutiful, so much so, in fact, that the contrast with Stayton’s volatile Osiride makes their putative love all the more puzzling. Additionally, I must admit to hoping that Davies would take Elcina in the direction of delirium, alluding to Lucia di Lammermoor, but she chose not to do so.

In the role of Moses is Andrea Concetti, whose rich basso has the stentorian resonance necessary for authoritative declamations. Tom Corbeil sings Pharoah, creating a credibly indecisive hand-wringing quasi-villain who stands in opposition to his queen, the realistic and prudent Amaltea, a role that Kathryn Leemhuis sings beautifully. Tenor Jorge Prego, who sings Aaron, has a voice that isn’t to my taste, though the audience seemed to enjoy it. Moreover, he awkwardly missed his pitch a few times.

The principals are musically gracious in their ensembles. They clearly listen to each other, blend smoothly for unity of sound, and yield for individual emphasis. The result is energetic, colorful, textured singing of breathtaking elegance.

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In Act I, the dramatic transformation from darkness to light as God restores the sun over Egypt, symbolized by the key change from minor to major, is sleek and sharply synchronized. Whether intentionally or not, the production honors the well-known similarity between this moment in the opera and Haydn’s Creation to engender a brief but genuinely stirring experience − even for a nonbeliever who appreciates the metaphor of it all. The key change and the orchestra’s swell in these few seconds even brings to mind Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

So engaging is the performance, so eloquent the singing, that by the final curtain, the production’s weak portrayal of love fades into insignificance. I wonder whether this means that Moses isn’t so much a love story superimposed on the Exodus as it is an example of how our focus can inflate the importance of any individual at any point in human history. Along that line, I’m reminded of another doomed love affair that ends with the smart little dictum that “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”.

 
 
Rating: ★★★½
 
 

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