Opera (UK) 2012 Season Review
by Jon von Rhein
In the final production of his final season as general director of ChIcago Opera Theater, Brian Dickie took his leave in much the same way as he had begun 13 years ago, offering his audience a worthwhile Baroque rarity sung at the highest level by a young, talented cast. Teseo, which opened on April 21 at the HarrIs Theater for Muisic and Dance, was the sixth Handel work the company has mounted under Dickie's watch. It completed the trilogy of early operas based on the Medea myth he initiated here with Cavalli's Giasone in 2010 and continued with Charpentier's Médée in 2011.
While the production was rather static and spartan compared to its livelier, more visually inventive predecessors, the singing and orchestral work were of a quality to make one appreciate the musical virtues of Handel's third Italian opera for London, premiered in 1713, with a libretto lifted (more or less) from that of Lully's five-act lyric tragedy, Thésée. The scoring-including harpsichord, theorbo, Baroque guitar, oboes, recorders and drum-was stylishly attended to by the conductor Michael Beattie, leading the 22 players of Chicago's period-instrument ensemble, Baroque Band, plus an able continuo group. Only minimal cuts (two arias, to be exact) were made. Directing and designing the costumes for his second Medea opera at COT, James Darrah was less successful in turning low-budget necessity into a virtue here than he had been with the 2011 Médée. François-Pierre Couture's set, dimly-lit most of the time, consisted of large vertical panels hung like louvered doors within an angled frame. The beige and brown costumes were modern. Teseo sported a blood-red breastplate beneath a dark jacket that the sorceress Medea seductively peeled off him while he poured out his love for his absent sweetheart, Agilea.
The production also stripped away most of Medea's supernatural aura, leaving her to stalk her prey imperiously, armed with nothing but a dagger and a poisoned goblet. Fortunately Renée Tatum was such a commanding vocal and dramatic presence that she held one's attention whenever she was on stage. Though she lacked a true trill, her agility in coloratura and the rich tonal and expressive nuances she brought to her showpiece arias were thrilling. No less compelling was the Italian soprano Manuela Bisceglie as the virtuous Agilea, a role that allowed her to pour out a steady stream of luscious, lyrical sound. In the trouser role of Teseo, the American mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall capitalized on both vocal beauty and rock-solid technique as she spun the ornate vocal lines. She sounded like a young singer poised on the brink of an important career. The bright, freshvoiced soprano Deanna Breiwick and the pleasingly sweet-toned countertenor David Trudgen sang delectably as Clizia and Arcano. The other countertenor, Gerald Thompson, negotiated Egeo's wild fioriture with aplomb.
Only an hour before the curtain was to go up on COT's season-opening production of Dmitri Shostakovich's Moscow, Cheryomushki (April 14), company officials learned that the lift in the pit had broken down. What to do with the orchestra? The conductor Alexander Platt's chamber band was summarily re-installed behind the two large construction-site scaffolds that dominated Anya Klepikov's colourful unit set. Few audience members could have suspected that anything unusual was going on. Shostakovich's only operetta was the 23rd work to receive a first Chicago performance during Dickie's tenure and one of the most enterprising rarities he's brought to the city. Composed in 1958, Moscow, Cheryomushki takes its name from an actual place, one of those hideous, high-rise apartment blocks Nikita Khrushchev put up on the cheap all around Moscow during the 1950s. The work's comedy resides in the ironic disconnect between the characters' youthful idealism and the bureaucratic reality that stifles their ambitions, while the jokey, quotation-filled score is such a thoroughgoing delight that it silences any reservations one may have about the flimsy plot.
The director Mike Donahue integrated the singing, acting, spoken dialogue and ballet sequences smoothly, keeping the show moving along at a lively pace. Scene changes were briskly handled by members of the chorus and dancers wearing orange construction vests and yellow hardhats. An edgier, more topical translation such as David Pountney prepared for his Opera North production would not have gone amiss; the one COT commissioned from Meg Miroshnik was much too bland to match the tanginess of Shostakovich's score, heard here in Gerard McBurney's effective reduction for 14 players. Platt conducted his merry band with vigour, authority and a precision thatwas remarkable given their eleventh-hour repositioning.
The company fielded a winning ensemble of singing actors. Who knew that Paul Larosa (Boris) and Sara Heaton (Lidochka), who in their previous work at COT and Lyric Opera of Chicago have impressed as terrific singers and comic actors, were also such terrific dancers? Their act 2 pas de deux brought the house down. Emily Fons and Adrian Kramer were adorable as the amorous Masha and Sasha, whose flat was invaded by partying neighbours and a wrecking ball. The Lusya, Sophie Gordeladze, revealed a luscious soprano in her US operatic debut. Matt Boehler (Drebednyov) and Ashleigh Semkiw (Vava) played their comic scenes broadly. Dominic Armstrong (Sergey), Paul Scholten (Baburov), and Paul Corona as Barabashkin, the despised ‘super' of Cherry Tree Towers, also added to the success of the evening.
It wasn't a bad way for Dickie to go gently into the good night of retirement, on the day that marked his 50 years as an opera administrator. It has been an illustrious odyssey indeed, One that took in various managerial posts at Glyndebourne, the general directorship of the Canadian Opera Company, and, finally, Chicago, where at the city's second opera company he significantly raised standards of performance and production, while making the COT brand synonymous with a bracing sense of artistic adventure. The affable Brit will be missed.