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Crisis of Leadership 

Chicago Opera Theater

By Sarah Bryan Miller

Opera was once ruled by sopranos--and to a smaller extent primos uomos--with whims of iron and the ability to toss a company-paralyzing fit on the slightest pretext. Composers hastened to write them arias that would show off their voices to the greatest possible advantage, and all other considerations were secondary to their ability to get out the money notes; the standard acting style was stand and deliver, and the occasional movement was usually of the semaphore school of acting.

Later conductors became the tyrants, cutting musical passages when it suited them and restoring them without regard to the preferences of the performers. The sadistic conductor could fix offending singers or instrumentalists with a basilisk eye and reduce them to mush--and many did so just for their own amusement. Is it a coincidence that the age of the conductor was also the time of Europe's most monstrous dictators?

Both eras have passed, and now we're suffering through the age of the director, as directors seek to impose their worldviews and ideas on classics that are frequently at odds with them. To Jean-Pierre Ponnelle all was revolution, to Patrice Chereau all is Marxism and the unfortunate by-products of capitalism, to David and Christopher Alden all is decadence. To make their points such directors twist the intent of composers and librettists beyond recognition and force singers to perform in ways that flatter neither their voices nor the music.

This is not to say that the influence of the director has been altogether a bad thing, for the dramatic and visual aspects of opera are now accorded far more importance than in past eras. These aspects sometimes take precedence over musical considerations, but one can't blame the directors alone for that. Strong music directors have to do battle with stage directors when necessary, and management has to be willing to back the musicians up.

Great operas often succeed even with unimaginative or traffic-cop direction, especially if they have great singers. For example, the Metropolitan Opera's Ring cycle, after many revivals by different hands, is missing a directorial point of view, yet the music overcomes that difficulty. But more problematic operas demand ideas from a director--who can then make or break a production. Frank Galati, for instance, was able to take Gertrude Stein's seminonsensical libretto for Virgil Thomson's The Mother of Us All and turn it into a coherent work with genuine characters that audiences could care about.

Chicago Opera Theater's 1997 season, which ended with last weekend's performances of Shining Brow, has been intensely inconsistent--one mediocrity, one atrocity, and one dramatic triumph. And the blame or praise for each belongs almost entirely to the director, who's the leader of the idea team responsible for the sets, costumes, and lighting--although of course the people running the company are ultimately responsible.

One fashion among directors who wish to be important is a contemporary update of an older work, and COT gave its audiences a complete makeover of an antique operetta for its season opener. Emboldened by the success of last year's The Italian Girl in Algiers, COT went a step further this season and did an extreme rewrite of Jacques Offenbach's charming The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein, refashioning it as The Grand Duchess of Helmsley-Stein, the story of a woman, her hotel, a bellboy, and the Internal Revenue Service. The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein stands on its own perfectly well and isn't performed very often, so it would have been more gratifying to see a production of the original operetta. And it would have been at least as funny if it had kept the hotel setting but called its heroine something other than Leona and focused instead on local foibles. (After all, how many Chicagoans really know or care that much about Liz Smith and Gotham tabloids?) But taken on its own terms, this work made for a reasonably amusing evening.

Director-librettist Carl Ratner came up with a text that ranged from the banal to the ingenious, while conductor-arranger Bradley Vieth boiled the orchestration down to a 13-piece ensemble that played onstage as just another amenity at the Palace Hotel. The sound suffered somewhat from the positioning, but it did allow the players--especially Vieth--to take part in various gags.

In the title role mezzo-soprano Melanie Sonnenberg walked off with every scene in which she appeared; she has a fine voice and great comic presence and used them both to great effect. She was well supported by a droll trio of character singers: Michael Sokol as pompous General Boom (here reduced to heading the bellboys and cleaning staff), Keith Brautigam as the cynical Puck, now an accountant, and Warren Moulton as Prince Paul, renamed Harry.

As the bellboy Fritz, Leona's lust object du jour, tenor James Doing was properly insouciant; his vocal gifts are modest, but he made the most of them. The greatest disappointment was the casting of Lyndy Simons as Wanda, Fritz's soubrette true love; she lacks presence, and her voice has an annoying fast vibrato and grows screechy in its higher range. Ratner's stagings tend to be uneven, and this one was no exception, with clever moments mixed with their opposite; his continuing affinity for 1970s dance routines is inexplicable.

Back when COT was COSI (Chicago Opera Studio, Inc.) it made its name with outstanding productions of the Mozart-Da Ponte operas, which made this year's Don Giovanni a special disappointment. In fact, it instantly rocketed to near the top of my list of "Ten Worst Professional Productions Ever."

Curiously, the creator of this enormity was Charles Newell, artistic director of the Court Theatre and director of COT's enjoyable The Jewel Box last year. He was assisted in his crimes by scenic designer Todd Rosenthal and costume designer Virgil Johnson, both of whom apparently harbor a deep hatred of singers. The sins commenced with the overture, during which Don Giovanni got dressed (in black leather) and then groped each of the drably unisex choristers one by one. Things went downhill from there.

The set, which resembled a rusted water tank, was bisected by a steeply inclined staircase the unfortunate performers had to negotiate, often while singing. For the catalog aria, Leporello snapped on a bare lightbulb beneath the stairs to illuminate photos--male and female, apparently clipped from back issues of fashion magazines--plastered to the wall. The chorus sang the wedding scene with all the charm of the prisoners' chorus from Fidelio.

Charm was generally absent from this Giovanni; Mozart called his opera a dramma giocoso, but there was no humor here. Nor was the production redeemed by the singing. Samuel Mungo--a wolfish, malevolent Giovanni, more vampire than lover--has a good voice, but it sounds almost tenorial, which is odd in a role normally taken by a dark baritone. Philip Ross, whose Leporello resembled Captain Kangaroo with a ponytail, was wobbly and tired of voice, and the scene in which he and Giovanni exchange clothes required more suspension of disbelief than usual.

The best singing came from Elizabeth Carter as Donna Anna, although she was bizarrely costumed to resemble a medieval Wagnerian heroine. Karen Bogan's Donna Elvira, resembling a refugee from the bordello scene in The Rake's Progress, was generally shrill; soprano Martha Cares as Zerlina sang prettily but without conviction. John Marcus Bindel's Masetto was robustly sung but without much regard for Mozart's notation (though he should have been paid extra for having to appear in a humiliating costume).

Alexander Platt, conducting flaccidly and without any indication that he'd studied the score, nevertheless decided to improve on Mozart, addressing the composer's failure to write chorus music for the first act finale by having the choristers sing along with the principals--and women singing the men's parts--and cutting directly from Giovanni's confrontation with the statue of the Commendatore, tension free in this production, to the final sextet.

Here was clearly a case where management should have overruled the director. Did COT's management team even look at the production designs? Did they attend any rehearsals and see how vile the staging and conducting were? Do they accept responsibility for this debacle?

Fortunately the final production of the season gives one hope. Back in the days when the Lyric avoided contemporary opera on principle, COT picked up the slack, with superb productions done on a shoestring. Shining Brow, the operatic treatment of Frank Lloyd Wright's tempestuous life by composer Daron Aric Hagen and librettist Paul Muldoon, is a reversion to that fine tradition.

The greatest revelation was COT debutant Ken Cazan's outstanding work as director; he perfectly framed each scene and brought out all the dramatic possibilities to near perfection. Shining Brow was his triumph more than anyone else's. He was given invaluable assistance by COT's music director, Lawrence Rapchak--whose conducting, though overly slow, was thoughtful--and by scenic and costume designers Kevin Snow and Jeff Bauer.

The opera itself is more than worthwhile, but it's overly literary in places and has a tendency to beat its themes to death. Phrases like "a pencil in the hand" and "For everything that's built, something is destroyed" are repeated until they become trite and laughable. Baritone Robert Orth, as Wright, deserves special applause for singing such lines as "I am the humpbacked whale...my mouth is full of krill" with a straight face. (Everyone's mouth seems to be full of something odd--steel, iodine, nails.) Bits that start out promisingly--the amusing barbershop quartet of reporters, the tragic final scene--go on far too long. The whole thing could stand to be cut by 45 minutes, which might even put it into the standard repertoire.

The singing, however, was weak. Orth has always been more of an all- around performer than a pure singer; he was dramatically outstanding as the century's first world-class self-promoter (and even managed to capture Wright's expressions) but showed signs of vocal strain. Barry Busse's Louis Sullivan was painfully wobbly and pushed, but Brenda Harris was a compelling Mamah Cheney. Most of the best singing came from the members of the chorus, singly and together.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Shining Brow photo by Dan Rest.

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