Review: HE/SHE (Chicago Opera Theater)

  
  

A stark stage filled with robust emotion

  
  
Joseph Kaiser in Chicago Opera Theater's "HE/SHE". Photo by Liz Lauren. Jennifer Johnson Cano in Chicago Opera Theater's "HE/SHE". Photo by Liz Lauren.
  
  
Chicago Opera Theater presents
  
HE/SHE
  
Music by Robert Schuman and Leos Janáček
at Harris Theater, Millennium Park (map)
through May 8  |  tickets: $25-$75  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh 

Act One

  

Act Two

        
     Frauenliebe und Leben     The Diary of One Who Disappeared
            by Robert Schuman                             by Leos Janáček
         

Reviewed by Katy Walsh 

She loves him.  He loves her.  A woman and man express the spectrum of emotions for loving the wrong person.  Chicago Opera Theater concludes its 2011 Spring Season with HE/SHE, a operatic tribute to obsessive loveDeviating from a traditional show, Chicago Opera Theater presents a concert experience.  In the first half, a mezzo-soprano sings in German Frauenliebe und Leben by Robert Schumann.  Following the intermission, a tenor sings in Czech The Diary of One Who Disappeared by Leos Janáček.  The combination proves an intriguing and entertaining gender sing-off. It’s not just another he-sang/she-sang side of the same Jennifer Johnson Cano in story.  The pieces are totally separate but connected through the misery of mutual unrequited love.  HE/SHE passionately sings his/her heart out for the love of her/him.  

After the stunning spectacles of Death and the Powers (our review ★★★) and Medea (review ★★★★); the simplicity of the HE/SHE set-up startles initially: a piano; he or she.  There is no elaborate scenery, costumes or chorus.  The orchestra pit is empty.  It has a no-thrills send-off feel.  When the music starts, the stark stage fills up with robust emotion.  Jennifer Johnson Cano sings exquisitely the story of her man.  Cano shares the relational joys and pain with a controlled ‘this must be a dream’ desperation.  Cano poignantly sings about ‘staring into an empty world.‘  Her sadness permeates the audience with lingering despair.  It’s a powerful contrast to Joseph Kaiser.  Kaiser commandingly sings with a fury of intensity. An animated Kaiser thunders about the bewitching powers of a gypsy.  His emotional rant engages through to a climatic finale.  Brandy Lynn Hawkins (gypsy) and the off-stage voices of Lelia Bowie, Hannah Dixon and Megan Rose Williams aid the storytelling with sweet, haunting melodies.

For both segments, the back of the stage turns into a full-length movie screen.  Traditionally, supertitles are projected in snippets above the stage.  For HE/SHE, the supertitles become illustrations of the emotion.  For Frauenliebe und Leben, the supertitles are romantic, handwritten script.  They gradually appear and disappear in a montage of old fashion photographs.  The black and white photos beautifully Jennifer Johnson Cano in Chicago Opera Theater's "HE/SHE". Photo by Liz Lauren.chronicle a woman’s life from childhood to marriage to death.  The Diary of One Who Disappeared  uses a chaotic, bold font.  The words are spliced onto lush, vibrant images of nature.  Within the abstract artistry, a ghostly woman sporadically appears.  Projection designer Hillary Leben effectively gives the audience snapshots of what’s going on inside the heads of the tormented lovers.

The entire show is accompanied by a solo pianist Craig Terry.  The uncomplicated choice continues to draw focus to the complex emotional singing.  In theory, the decision is simple and strong.  In reality, the Harris Theater’s concrete facade is an echo chamber.  Without an orchestra to provide a sound buffer, every cough, whisper, dropped program is an audible distraction.  Despite that unwanted soundtrack, HE/SHE boldly finishes off Chicago Opera Theater’s innovative season with a return to the basics: spectacular operatic singing!

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
     

Joseph Kaiser in Chicago Opera Theater's "HE/SHE". Photo by Liz Lauren.

HE/SHE is sung in German with English supertitle and in Czech with English supertitles. Run Time: 90 minutes including one intermission

All photos by Liz Lauren 

   

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Review: Medea (Chicago Opera Theater)

  
  

Medea casts its dark, irresistible spell

  
  

Anna Stephany as Medea, ensemble in background. Photo by Liz Lauren

  
Chicago Opera Theater presents
  
Medea
  
Written by Marc-Antoine Charpentier
Stage Directed by James Durrah
Conducted by Christian Curnyn
at Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph (map)
thru May 1  |  tickets: $30-$120  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Visually stunning, musically sumptuous, Director James Durrah’s vision for Marc-Antione Charpentier’s Medea (Médée) unifies contemporary minimalism with the controlled, ritualistic stateliness of French Baroque opera. Every sleek and suggestive element of Chicago Opera Theater’s production not only buttresses the underlying power and deadly magnificence of its central character, Médée (Anna Stephany), the sorceress who’s been done wrong by her man, but also establishes the pernicious atmosphere at the court of mendacious royalty.

Anna Stephany, as Medea, stands with her 2 children. Photo by Liz Lauren. From modern dance movement to costuming (also Durrah), to the stark, bold set design of bent wood clashed against metal (François-Pierre Couture), to the lighting design’s color palette of sepia, gold, pale yellow, copper, dark blue and smoky black (Julian Pike), COT’s design elements load their production with chic sophistication that meshes easily with the lush and powerful elegance of Charpentier’s compositions. Such a well-integrated design not only pays off in building to and amplifying Médée’s mournful rages and witchy moments, but also frames and supports the intrigues carried out at the court of Corinth.

Jason (Colin Ainsworth), Médée and their sons have fled to Corinth in the wake of Médée’s murder of Thessaly’s King Pelias. While Jason sues for protection from King Creon (Evan Boyer), Médée already suspects that he has fallen in love with the king’s daughter Creuse (Micaëla Oeste). Stephany’s deeply psychological performance strikes the right tenuous balance, wavering over Médée’s love for Jason, for whom she has killed and sacrificed, and yielding to jealous suspicions that become confirmed with each hour. Once Jason arrives, Ainsworth and Stephany convincingly render the sensual tension between this troubled pair. Jason tries to persuade Médée that every favor he pursues with Creuse he does only to secure their refuge. Adding insult to injury, Jason persuades Médée to give her cloak to Creuse, since the princess has admired it and such a gift may help their plea.

The cloak is everything. Rich, velvety black with a glossy persimmon lining, the cloak sets Médée apart, particularly as she enters at the back of the stage, hand-in-hand with her two sons in their pajamas of blue white. It’s an otherworldly moment that contrasts potent, mysterious danger with unsuspecting innocence. Likewise, once Creuse dons the cloak in Act Four (already poisoned by Médée), she flaunts it like a spoiled rich girl who has usurped Medee’s power. Certainly much fun is had in interim scenes, wherein Médée calls upon the spirits of the underworld to poison the cloak for Creuse’s undoing. (Trust the Chorus to act out their zombie best!) But the more accessible power plays come through each woman’s possession and manipulation of the cloak.

Micaela Oeste as Creuse, background: Ensemble. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Anna Stephany as Medea, Colin Ainsworth as Jason. Photo by Liz Lauren Paul LaRosa as Oronte, surrounded by Ensemble. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Being baroque opera, manipulation and intrigue is key. King Creon lures Oronte (Paul LaRosa) to Corinth’s defense against the Thessalians with the promise of marriage to Creuse. But Creon really intends Creuse for Jason and makes every move to remove the threat of Médée’s presence by sending her into exile without her children. Fools–they should know not to mess with Médée. But often, more compelling than her carrying out her revenge are scenes in which characters are still sorting out everyone’s hidden agenda.

The cast is theatrically adept and vocally powerful. The Baroque Band, a Chicago-based ensemble since 2007, conducted by Christian Curnyn, provides rich, majestic and period-perfect musical underpinning to each character’s lies and deceptions. Under the veneer of civilization beats passionate hearts, just as driven to satisfy desire as Médée’s — they only lack the mojo to back it up.

Well, COT’s Medea has tons of mojo. More’s the pity that there are only three more performances before it closes–run, do not walk, to see them.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

The ensemble of Chicago Opera Theater's 'Medea' surrounds Anna Stephany (Medea).  Photo by Liz Lauren.

Chicago Opera Theater’s Medea continues at Millennium Park’s Harris Theater through May 1st, with performances April 27 and 29 at 7:30, and May 1 at 3pm.  Tickets are $30-$120, and can be purchased by phone (312-334-7777) or on the web (HarrisTheaterChicago.org).  For more info, visit the company’s website:  www.chicagooperatheater.org. Medea is sung in French, with English supertitles.

 

     

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Review: Death and the Powers (Chicago Opera Theater)

  
  

Avatars create their own opera

  
  

Sara Heaton, soprano: Miranda; Hal Cazalet, tenor: Nicholas - in Chicago Opera Theater's 'Death and the Powers'. Photo credit: Paula Aguilera

  
Chicago Opera Theater presents
   
Death and the Powers: The Robots’ Opera
   
Written by Tod Machover and Robert Pinsky
Directed by Diane Paulus
at Harris Theater, Millennium Park (map)
through April 10  |  tickets: $30-$120   |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

You could call it an elaborate futuristic puppet show or a techo triumph that pushes opera deep into the 21st century. But you won’t confuse Death and the Powers: The Robots’ Opera with any staging you’ve seen. Developed by composer Tod Machover’s Opera of the Future Group at the MIT Media Lab, this 90-minute cyborg concoction, a Midwest premiere, is based on a libretto by former poet laureate Robert Pinsky and staged by Diane Paulus, who recently revived Hair on Broadway. Together they’ve created a curious amalgam, a sci-fi one-act opera that could also pass for a domestic tragedy.

James Maddalena, baritone: Simon Powers in 'Death and the Powers' at Chicago Opera TheaterThe plot quirkily combines our fear of death with our ardor for and reliance on technology. Though apparently unwilling to risk consigning his dying body to frozen cryonics, multi-billionaire inventor Simon Power still refuses to die in the flesh when he can live in the circuitry. As dying focuses his faculties, he devises a scheme to “download” himself into the world he refuses to leave behind, to escape from matter into the machine. It’s called The System: This Matrix-like hive of embedded memories and personality will perpetuate Powers indefinitely. You CAN take it with you, it seems.

Of course, those left behind can’t help but feel a bit abandoned, especially his doting daughter Miranda (an allusion to the magician Prospero’s daughter in The Tempest). She clings to the world of “sweat and death,” but her mother Evvy, now a semi-widow, is gradually captivated by the System: Evvy cherishes how well this sprawling motherboard has cloned Simon–even though she still craves to be touched. Behind all the Frankenstein-like wizardry is a bionic boy named Nicholas whose arm was transformed by Simon’s benevolence and who wants to repay the favor with electronic immortality.

But the System’s scheme requires the reconstituted Power to turn his back on the finite world of flesh. His “departure” causes a worldwide financial depression. When confronted by the Miseries, a wailing crowd of distressed supernumeraries, not so simple “Simon” retreats back into his cyber cocoon. Miranda is left to choose between real life and an authentic simulation.

It’s easy to find the brain behind this bold enterprise, a bit harder to locate the heart. (More on that later.) With its “disembodied performance” of feedback sensors, customized audio system of 143 speakers, analysis software, surround sound, movable and brightly lit robotic androids, collapsible, bird-like Chandelier, and massive rotating control banks (the bookshelf-like “Walls”) that reflect Simon’s every mood change, the production is itself a “system” that dominates the doings. Far more impressive than affecting, Death and the Powers keeps us as detached emotionally as Simon is physically removed from reality.

     
Emily Albrink, soprano: Evvy - Death and the Powers at Chicago Opera Theater Sara Heaton, soprano: Miranda in 'Death and the Powers' at Chicago Opera Theater
Hal Cazalet, tenor: Nicholas;  Emily Albrink, soprano: Evvy - Death and the Powers at Chicago Opera Theater Hal Cazalet, tenor: Nicholas - Chicago Opera Theater

Happily, James Maddalena’s all-controlling Simon refuses to be cowed by the elaborate equipment that surrounds and finally absorbs the mad mogul. He sings up a storm, a swan song that haunts the action. Simon’s “second coming” obsession with a cyber rather than cellular afterlife is echoed by Hal Cazalet’s equally possessed Nicholas. It’s even shared by Emily Albrink’s easily converted Evvy. (This wife loves Simon enough even to feel him in banks of modules and flashing book spines.) It’s up to an anguished and effective Sara Heaton to keep tortured Miranda in the real world. Valiantly and defiantly, she refuses to sacrifice the “meat” of mortality for the sinful pride of becoming your own posterity.

With musical amplification by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project conducted by Gil Rose, Mahover’s pulsating score eschews melodic rhapsodies for the coiled intensity of frenetic passages and occasionally rhapsodic outbursts. Pinsky’s brilliant libretto lifts it throughout. This proud poet delivers fascinating riffs on the paradox of running out of matter but not out of time and the hubristic arrogance of Power’s neo-Faustian bargain with the all-sustaining System.

It’s an awesome tour de force, enough to cement C.O.T.’s reputation for enterprising risk-taking, not the usual menu you encounter from an opera company. This state-of-the-art showcase for electronic innovation is probably not the future of opera (it still comes down to singing a story). But it’s a bracing look at a brave new world. Death and the Powers will either soon be dated or depict the shape of things to come. But until the computer writes the review, I pick meat over machinery.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Hal Cazalet, tenor: Nicholas - Chicago Opera Theater

All photos by Paula Aguilera and Jonathan Williams

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Chicago Opera Theater 2nd-annual Opera Cruise

navypier-boat

cot-logo

 

2nd Annual Opera Cruise

High C’s on the High Seas

 

Thursday, August 12th

 

Don’t miss out! This Thursday, August 12th, the Chicago Opera Theater (COT) will set sail on Lake Michigan to celebrate a memorable evening of opera on its second annual Opera Cruise. The cruise will feature a short performance by soprano Nancy Gustafson and baritone Paul La Rosa.

I am thrilled to set sail again on beautiful Lake Michigan for a second straight year with our COT friends and family," said General Director Brian Dickie. "Last year was a remarkable success, and we hope to raise even more money for COT this year.

The voyage will begin at 6pm (boarding begins at 5:30pm) with hors d’oeuvres and an open bar including wine, beer, and COT’s Signature Cocktail, the "Operatini". In addition, there will be a raffle featuring prizes of a studio suite at Hotel Sax, a three month membership to Equinox, a wine tasting party for ten people at Tasting deVine Cellars, plus much more!

 

nancy gustafson

Nancy Gustafson

paul larosa

Paul La Rosa

The highlight of the evening will be a short concert by international opera star Nancy Gustafson, singing with Paul La Rosa, member of Lyric Opera’s esteemed Ryan Opera Center. Ms. Gustafson’s engagements in America have included the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and the Lyric Opera of Chicago.  In Europe she has performed in Vienna and Munich, at La Scala, Milan, and London’s Covent Garden, and appeared in Hamburg, Geneva, Rome, Turin, and Berlin, and at the Bastille Opera in Paris. She received rave reviews in Chicago Opera Theater’s production of Erwartung in 2007. Mr. La Rosa made his debut in 2009 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago as Kuligin in Kát’a Kabanová and also sang Cascada in The Merry Widow. (our review ★★★½)

The Opera Cruise will continue with dancing under the stars and over Lake Michigan until the boat docks at 8pm.

What:         "High Cs on the High Seas" – 2nd Annual Opera Cruise on Lake Michigan

When:         Thursday August 12, 2010, 5:30-8:00pm
Where:       Boat leaves at 6:00pm from Navy Pier on Kanan Cruises (boarding begins at 5:30pm)  Click here for directions.

Cost:

  • $85 per person includes concert, dancing, hors-d’oeuvres and open bar
  • $100 per person includes all of the above plus 3 raffle tickets.  (Raffle tickets will also be sold on boat:  3 for $20)
  • $60 per person is the discounted Opera Underground ticket for young persons aged 21-45 (ID required).

Tickets: 312.704.8414 or ChicagoOperaTheater.org

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REVIEW: Three Decembers (Chicago Opera Theater)

Fredericka von Stade soars above score’s weaknesses

    

COT-three-decembers012

   
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

 Jason Photo 9

 
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).

 

Extra Credit:

 

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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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