Chicago Opera Theater's Thérèse Raquin is pretty grim—simulated cunnilingus and all | Bleader

Monday, February 23, 2015

Chicago Opera Theater's Thérèse Raquin is pretty grim—simulated cunnilingus and all

Posted By on 02.23.15 at 03:00 PM

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Mary Ann Stewart and Ed Parks starting something theyll regret in Thérèse Raquin

It seemed like things were bleak enough in this Siberian deep freeze before Chicago Opera Theater brought composer Tobias Picker’s version of Thérèse Raquin to town.

The opera, which opened Friday at the Harris Theater for a four-performance run, may have been easier to bear in sunny California, where it played last month at COT's coproducer, Long Beach Opera.

Here, in our winter wasteland, it's harder to summon up the tolerance demanded by this vocally abrasive version of Emile Zola's 1867 novel.

Zola's "scandalous" story of erotic attraction, adultery, murder, and remorse, originally published as a tabloid serial and which he considered to be a scientific study of the human animal, is exceptionally grim stuff. Opera can thrive on grim, of course, but not with this adaptation. In place of Zola's deftly descriptive prose, there's a clunky rhyming libretto by Gene Scheer, and Picker's score, like too much contemporary opera, sends the singers and orchestra off in different directions, with the orchestra getting the melodic advantage. There are some dramatically effective duets and ensemble pieces, but the vocal score primarily consists of plodding recitative, with a propensity to lurch into something between a bark and a bray. COT offers a sample here.

Given that, the cast does what it can. Tenor Matthew DiBattista, as Thérèse's cuckolded husband, Camille, and baritone Ed Parks as his predatory friend, Laurent, deliver solid vocal performances; statuesque Mary Ann Stewart, in the title role, is more effective as actor than singer: her unremarkable soprano turns harsh on the high notes. COT regular Suzan Hanson, as Camille's mother, gives her usual strong performance—though it's hard to forget that this supposedly old and (ultimately) disabled woman has been the charismatic object of lust in so many previous productions. The company's general director, Andreas Mitisek, conducts an 18-piece orchestra.

Sets are bare bones but effective and mainly consist of a couple of platforms that slide in and out of view, as well as a few curtains that are artfully used. Director Ken Cazan explains in his program note that the action has been moved up to 1946. That allows for post-WWII costumes (seamed nylons), but makes the whole suffocating social environment, including Thérèse's dire trapped-wife predicament, less convincing.

COT often amps up its shoestring productions by turning up the erotic heat. This Thérèse Raquin is no slouch in that department, offering cunnilingus (simulated, far as I could tell), plus a really good horror-flick-like gotcha moment. Does that sound like compensation enough for having to trek out in Chicago in February?

Performances continue at 7:30 PM Wednesday, 2/25, and Saturday, 2/28, at the Harris Theater.

A postscript: Conductor and general director Andreas Mitisek replaced his usual witty preperformance money pitch with a brief dedication of this production to two major figures in the Chicago opera scene: Lyric Opera President Kenneth Pigott and critic Andrew Patner, both of whom died suddenly this month and will be sorely missed.

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