Chicago Opera Theater

at the Athenaeum

Chicago Opera Theater has apparently returned from the grave. After last year’s financial difficulties–the final production of the season, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, was canceled–it seemed unlikely that a COT production would ever again see the light of day. However, a number of angels (including COT board president Charles T. Angell) seem to have intervened.

This season COT is offering a sensibly abbreviated season of two productions, the current Beatrice and Benedict and, in May, Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe. These selections show that the company is returning to the relatively simple formula that allowed it to succeed in a city where it will necessarily be overshadowed by Lyric Opera: Select works that are less known, suitable for an intimate setting, and a bit too avant-garde for the average operagoer. Assemble an eager, young, and relatively unknown cast. And peddle the result to the cognoscenti clustered on the north side.

This formula gave the company a small niche that served it well from the mid-70s on. But in some recent seasons the company seemed to be suffering from a desire to compete with Lyric, scheduling standard works (Madama Butterfly, La traviata) or Broadway (Carousel), several of which were not artistic successes, notably La traviata.

With Hector Berlioz’s Beatrice and Benedict COT returns to its roots. This is a reasonably obscure work, known only through the Colin Davis Berlioz series recordings. Berlioz rarely sees the boards of regular opera houses. He struggled for recognition in his native France throughout his life. Perhaps ironically, given the increasingly jingoistic European states of the middle to late 19th century, his operas sometimes seemed to be more widely appreciated in Germany than in France, judging by the locations of their first productions. Beatrice and Benedict premiered in Baden-Baden in 1862, and his magnum opus, Les Troyens, first saw the stage in its entirety in Karlsruhe in 1890.

Beatrice and Benedict is essentially a series of vignettes based rather loosely on the Shakespeare play Much Ado About Nothing. Berlioz himself adapted the libretto from the play. The story revolves around the incessant verbal sparring of the title characters and the plot to trick them into falling in love with each other–a thin plot, even for a comic opera. But Berlioz’s music is light and frivolous without being vulgar, as were so many products of 19th-century French composers.

COT is extremely fortunate in its production. It needed to deliver a respectable show to reestablish credibility, and this one is more than respectable. It is among the finest efforts in COT’s history. The singing was uniformly superb, and the cast looked good. Kristine Jepson as Beatrice delivered a performance that was vocally and visually arresting. Jennifer Kittinger was a lovely Hero vocally, but seemed a bit affected in her spoken dialogue and stiff in her acting when she wasn’t singing. Bonita Suzanne Hyman contributed a marvelously rich contralto to the role of Ursula.

Bruce Fowler gave an energetic performance as a boyish and mischievous Benedict; his clear lyric tenor was ideal for this role. Chris Owens’s clowning as Somarone was particularly fun in its mockery of fussy chorus masters, and Scott Gregory as the handsome Claudio was well matched with Kittinger. Chorus and orchestra were both excellent under the baton of Lawrence Rapchak, and the sets by Bill Bartelt and costuming by Shifra Werch were among the best COT has ever had. The stage situation could be rather static, but Marc Verzatt’s intelligent direction kept the principals and chorus hopping.

(A note to Alan Stone, founder and artistic director emeritus: the time has come to relinquish the spotlight. Taking a bow from the front row after every performance is not fair to the performers, and it’s out of line with the custom of opera houses the world over.)

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