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: 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.

Jason Photo 7 Jason Photo 10
Jason Photo 6 Jason Photo 5 Jason Photo 12

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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