Brian Dickie's swan song to COT puts the emphasis on the fresh and unusual
Lyric Opera has folded up its tents for the season, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra embarks this weekend on a spring tour of Russia and Italy. Their absence leaves a gaping hole in the middle of the city's classical music life Chicago Opera Theater promises to fill, in the innovative manner local operagoers have come to associate with Brian Dickie.
In his 13th and final season as COT general director, Dickie once again is providing local audiences with unusual repertory they are unlikely to encounter elsewhere, in new productions cast with some of the best young talent around.
As much appears true of the operas that are receiving their area premieres in the spring portion of COT's 2012 season - Dmitri Shostakovich's musical, "Moscow, Cheryomushki," which opens Saturday; and George Frideric Handel's "Teseo," which will begin its run on April 21. These works represent the 23rd and 24th Chicago premieres, respectively, the city's second opera company will have presented under Dickie's watch.
"Moscow, Cheryomushki" was chosen by audience members in COT's 2009 People's Opera fundraiser. "Teseo" ("Theseus") completes the trilogy of Baroque operas based on the Medea myth the company launched with Cavalli's "Giasone" in 2010 and continued with Charpentier's "Medea" last season.
A Shostakovich musical? Listeners might have trouble associating this light-hearted satire on the Soviet-era housing shortage with the composer of big, serious symphonies and dark, troubled string quartets. But the very fact that "Moscow, Cheryomushki" introduces audiences to an all-but-unknown side of Shostakovich is what makes it so fascinating.
Although the composer later disavowed his 1958 operetta as "boring, feeble and stupid," those who've actually seen it staged or on film (Decca has released a DVD of an enjoyable 1963 Russian movie version, "Cherry Town") will beg to differ. The music - part Broadway tunefulness, part Hollywood rom-com - is a delight, while the Khrushchev-era burlesque comes with a serious point, that common folk can triumph when they band together in the collectivist spirit.
"Rather than the austere Shostakovich with whom listeners are most familiar, this is Shostakovich the mature craftsman, recapturing his youthful ebullience," Dickie explains.
Director Mike Donahue says his intention was to ground the fanciful romance at the heart of the libretto in what he calls "authentic historical absurdity," using choreography by Eric Sean Fogel and late-Soviet-era set and costume designs by Anya Klepikov to support the concept.
Playwright Meg Miroshnik's English adaptation retains the political jibes, physical shtick and double entendres of the original Russian libretto, emphasizing what the director describes as "the connection between the need for love and the need for housing."
It is the 1950s and we follow a motley group of young men and women - the Khrushchev generation - desperate to acquire places to live. At a construction site on the outskirts of Moscow where an apartment complex, Cherry Tree Towers, is going up, the three couples find their biggest obstacle is inept Communist party-bureaucrats. But a magic garden, complete with a truth-telling bench, may provide a way out of the tangle of red tape.
In casting the Shostakovich, Dickie once again turned to the deep bench of vocal talent at Lyric's Ryan Opera Center. Indeed, four leading roles will be filled with some of the most promising young singers in the training program - Emily Fons as Masha, Paul LaRosa as Boris, Paul Scholten as Baburov and Paul Corona as Barabashkin. Also on board will be COT regulars Matt Boehler (Drebednev), Sara Heaton (Lidochka) and Ashleigh Semkiw (Vava), along with several newcomers. Alexander Platt returns to COT to conduct the orchestra in CSO creative director Gerard McBurney's adaptation of the score for a chamber orchestra of 14 players.
"Teseo" marks the sixth Handel opera COT will have staged since 2001, following "Acis and Galatea," "Semele," "Agrippina," "La Resurrezione" and "Orlando." All but "Orlando" have been Chicago premieres.
Listeners who admired Lyric's production of Handel's "Rinaldo" last month should feel the same about "Teseo." The score is rich with opportunities for vocal display and represents Handel at his most original. Integral to both plots is a sorceress who uses supernatural powers to further her objectives. In "Teseo," the ruthless Medea (mezzo Renee Tatum of the Metropolitan Opera's young artists development program) attempts to thwart the fulfillment of the hero Theseus' destiny to become founder-king of Athens. Taking the trouser role of Teseo will be mezzo Cecelia Hall, one of the brightest rising stars of the Lyric program.
"Teseo" will reunite the production team from last season's "Medea" - director and costumer James Darrah and set designer Francois-Pierre Couture. Michael Beattie will double as conductor and harpsichordist, pacing Chicago's period-instrument group, Baroque Band.
Dickie's Chicago operatic swan song will arrive about two weeks following the expiration of his contract - Mozart's "The Magic Flute," scheduled for Sept. 15-23, just ahead of Lyric's fall-season opener.
"Magic Flute" originally was to have reunited COT's practiced Mozartean duo of conductor Jane Glover and director Diane Paulus. But scheduling conflicts intervened, which resulted in Dickie's engaging Steuart Bedford as conductor and Michael Gieleta as director. The new production will be the first to be administered by Dickie's successor, Andreas Mitisek.
I recently asked Dickie (who on April 23 will celebrate his 50th year as an international opera administrator) if he is departing COT with any bittersweet feelings.
"I hope my leaving is not bitter, but I can't say it's sweet, either," he replied, smiling. "The fact of the matter is I still hugely enjoy my job. I hope we've taken care of the repertory and looked after the interests of serious, inquisitive opera-goers. We have brought them pieces of undoubted merit that have not been seen before in Chicago. And we have provided a springboard for a good many young singers who have launched themselves in national and international careers.
"I shall miss all of that, and I shall particularly miss my dear colleagues at COT. They are my professional family, and working with them these 13 years has been a joy."
COT's "Moscow, Cheryomushki" opens at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, continuing April 20, 22 and 25. "Teseo" begins April 21 and continues April 27 and 29, and May 2. Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph Drive.