Chicago Opera Theater

at the Athenaeum Theatre

It is no secret that Chicago Opera Theater is fighting for its financial life. Disappointing ticket sales for Where the Wild Things Are coupled with unexpected costs for Carousel at the Shubert have left COT at the end of its rope. Only an eleventh-hour appeal for funds prevented the cancellation of the season and the dissolution of the company.

The current production of Idomeneo indicates that the company is also fighting for its artistic life. In the grand scheme of things Chicago Opera Theater has established its niche as a fish swimming near the maw of the Lyric shark, snapping up the morsels that escape. Its stock-in-trade is mounting productions of moderate size in a more accessible and intimate format than is available from its wealthier cousin. The accessibility comes from the use of English translations and appropriate repertory, the intimacy from the comfortable size of the Athenaeum Theatre.

The company desperately needs a hit now, but unfortunately we are presented not with a workmanlike production that would help expand the general interest and accessibility of opera, but with a bit of recycled Eurotrash. This refuse is in the tradition of the overwrought, angst-ridden aesthetic that came predominantly from Germany after about 1970 and supplanted the austere approach of the late Wieland Wagner, which no longer seemed sufficiently avant-garde to the jaded cosmopolites who reckon themselves the arbiters of the artistic world. There have been occasional contributions to this dismal parade from France and even this country, but mostly they have been a poor lot, aping their Teutonic mentors.

The problems for COT start with the very choice of Idomeneo. This opera–a 1780 commission from the Munich Hoftheater for which Mozart’s librettist Giambattista Varesco made use of an earlier libretto by Antoine Danchet–is sometimes called an opera seria, though it’s really more reminiscent of the mid-18th-century style of Gluck. It is difficult to make such static works interesting to today’s audiences. Though it originally premiered in 1781, Idomeneo took a century and a half to cross the English Channel and another 30 years to journey over the Atlantic, in strong contrast to Mozart’s other mature works.

The plot is the typical mythic mishmash preferred for works of the period. Idomeneo, the king of Crete, makes a tragic vow to Neptune, promising to sacrifice the first person he sees if he is delivered from the fury of a storm. Murphy’s law intervenes, and that person is his son Idamante. The rest of the opera consists of Idomeneo avoiding Idamante in the hope of evading his vow, and Idamante’s anguish at this unexplained aversion. The resolution is achieved through the respected means of a deus ex machina, usually known as the oracle or Neptune, though in this production known simply as the Voice. The Voice orders Idomeneo to relinquish his throne to Idamante, but no other atonement is necessary, perhaps because hundreds of Cretans have already been devoured by Neptune’s monster.

From a musical standpoint, the bright spots of the evening were Gwendolyn Jones as Idamante and Karen Hunt as the lovelorn Ilia. Alberto Mizrahi in the title role was unable to handle the coloratura aspects of the Cretan king with any facility and was a complete stiff dramatically. Candace Goetz got snickers for her onstage primping and her low-cut dress, the most notable aspects of her performance as Electra. Still, she got more notice than Richard Gersten as Arbace (his arias sensibly cut) and C. Edward Trimarco as Neptune’s High Priest, who were both ciphers. Peter Loehle, the Voice, was the victim of an artistic crime that made it impossible to evaluate his vocal abilities. His bass was piped through an awful amplification system that distorted it at high output levels. The orchestra performed only adequately for Henry Holt.

The staging and set design were cheap imitations of stale ideas that have been done more pretentiously elsewhere in America and in Europe. Contemporary dress no longer shocks even the most naive operagoer. However, it can be dull, and it does nothing to assist the players in conveying a sense of the drama. Robert Tannenbaum’s stage direction was as empty as his supercilious moralizing in the program notes. Since he apparently has no understanding of the aesthetic that underlies this 210- year-old work, it is hardly surprising that his direction was without aim or purpose. John Boesche’s projections were even more irrelevant than the ones he used last fall for Lyric’s The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe.

If COT is to have a future–and I very much hope it does–it must provide reliable, serious treatments of opera that will bring in an audience that’s looking for a deeper understanding of opera without the excessive glitter that sometimes intrudes at Lyric. This means ignoring fads and concentrating on solid productions of famous and not-so-famous works suited to a small opera house.

It is not possible to conclude without commenting on the absolutely appalling conditions under which the February 16 performance was given. The Athenaeum is not a wonderful house at the best of times, but it is intolerable when a loud wedding celebration is going on in the basement. All of the artists were wronged by this distraction. One could almost conclude that the management of the Athenaeum was trying to drive the final nail into COT’s coffin. If COT has signed a contract with the Athenaeum’s management that allows such events to be scheduled on performance nights, perhaps some of COT’s deficit might be made up by a malpractice judgment obtained against whoever is doing its legal work.

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