Chicago Opera Theater

By Sarah Bryan Miller

Chicago Opera Theater nearly died a few years ago, the result of losses sustained over several seasons as a result of poor business decisions and bad guesses about what its audience wanted. It was saved by an aptly named businessman, Charles Angell, who helped raise the money to bail the company out, gave it office space, and put a new artistic team in place.

He found the team ready-made in Lawrence Rapchak and Carl Ratner, who for 11 years had run a rough-and-ready little company called Chamber Opera Chicago. Performing in the tiny Ruth Page Theater, COC presented often ludicrously underpowered productions of operatic classics. While they performed the valuable service of offering young artists the chance to work and learn, their shows were never in the same league as Chicago Opera Theater. Many eyebrows strained for the ceiling when their COT appointment was announced.

Rapchak is an extremely talented but sometimes wrongheaded musician. Several sources say he lost the chance to become an assistant conductor with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra when he insisted on leading the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony using the composer’s original tempo markings–“about three times faster than anyone has ever conducted it, including Beethoven,” according to one of these sources. Ratner is a capable director of the traffic-cop school, but he lacks the imaginative sparkle that comedy demands–and comedy, in accessible, understandable English, is a staple at COT.

Their second full season (the final performance was July 13) came close to the old COT formula of three operas: one Mozart or Rossini, one contemporary, one oddball. Ratner and Rapchak had the clever idea of doing the first two shows in repertory, but none of the productions was as successful as it might have been.

The two operas that ran in repertory, Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos and Paul Griffiths’s The Jewel Box, are related in concept and era. Strauss fancifully mixed the two primary strains of 18th-century opera–commedia dell’arte and opera seria–in Ariadne auf Naxos. Griffiths, music critic for the New Yorker, mixed commedia and a basketful of Mozartean outtakes and numbers written for other people’s operas in Jewel Box.

Like Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos harks back to Mozartean conventions. It opens with a young composer (a travesti performance by a mezzo-soprano, another Mozartean touch) preparing to present his new opera seria, commissioned by a wealthy lord, and attempting to deal with the backstage hysteria of the prima donna, primo tenore, and assorted other characters, including a commedia dell’arte troupe that’s to perform the same evening. The lord’s majordomo makes several distressing announcements, the last of which are that the opera and the comedy will somehow have to be combined and that the show must end promptly by nine o’clock, as fireworks are scheduled to begin then in the garden. The Composer is at first distraught at each assault on his work, but soon he’s enchanted by Zerbinetta, the comedy troupe’s leading lady, and resigns himself to the changes–delivering himself along the way of one of the most exquisite anthems to the holy art of music ever penned. The second half of this opera is the misbegotten entertainment itself.

COT’s first mistake, a considerable one, was to update Ariadne by a century, which destroys some of its most basic premises. In the 18th century dim and fickle aristocrats were the primary patrons of the arts, and a scenario like that of Ariadne is imaginable. But by the 19th century composers relied on the public, through impresarios, for their commissions. The composer of the 18th century would have bowed his head and made the required changes to his beloved opera seria; the composer of the 19th century–who wouldn’t write an outdated opera seria in the first place–would have hurled his score into the flames before submitting. And commedia dell’arte, still very much a going concern in the 18th century, was rather passe a hundred years later. One has to wonder what was going through the production team members’ minds when they decided on the update. Did they simply not think it through? Did they imagine that no one would notice? They didn’t mention the update in preseason publicity, though much was made of their contemporary setting of Rossini’s The Italian Girl in Algiers.

Ratner’s direction was sporadically amusing but all too often highly predictable. He did little with the tete-a-tete between the Composer and Zerbinetta, and he erred in his treatment of the four male members of her troupe: Harlequin, Scaramuccio, Brighella, and Truffaldino are similar servant characters, and Zerbinetta may choose this one today, that one tomorrow. But here they were cast as one slick dude and three interchangeable buffoons. Harlequin wasn’t even onstage for the prologue with the rest of the troupe, though the score calls for him to be, and when he made his entrance it was with all the swagger of the confirmed leading man.

None of this was helped by Shifra Werch’s clueless costuming. We know what Harlequin is supposed to look like, and it isn’t Harold Hill in a community-theater production of The Music Man. The designs for Ariadne and Bacchus appeared to have been borrowed from an early production of Tristan und Isolde–sorry, wrong mythology–and Zerbinetta looked like a dance-hall girl from a B western. Werch, who last year gave us a dirt-poor Dust Bowl farm child in white patent-leather Mary Janes, is a COC holdover who’s simply out of her league.

Most of the large cast was quite good, though there were odd lapses. Bruce Hall exhibited a rich voice as the Music Master, and the commedia quartet sang well. Judith Raddue, a warm and sympathetic performer, sang superbly as Ariadne, and Lorraine Ernest as Zerbinetta did an outstanding job with her killer scena. Carl Tanner as Bacchus sang well, but his wooden performance undermined his vocal work; Janine Hawley’s Composer sounded lovely in the lower range, but her voice spreads and gets a metallic tone when she goes above the staff, which the role of the Composer does a lot.

For some reason COT seems to have trouble assembling well-matched girls’ glees, as demonstrated with last year’s ladies in The Magic Flute and this year’s nymphs. Debra Rentz as Naiad and Tracy Mould Watson as Dryad both sounded fine, but they–and some of the most wonderful music in this or any opera–were sabotaged by Yoko Shimazaki’s weak Echo. Conductor Bruce Hangen did a fair job with a complicated score, though the orchestra simply wasn’t big enough to bring it off entirely; the strings sounded particularly anemic in places. Ariadne isn’t chamber opera; it’s a work that’s probably best left to companies with the resources to do it properly, such as the Lyric.

For his homage to commedia and Mozart, Griffiths picked pieces of music from various works, gave them new lyrics, and even made Mozart and his father characters (things get a bit leaden in the pop-psychology department at times). The Jewel Box nods to Strauss as well, with its travesti Composer and its use of commedia figures.

The Jewel Box opens with the beginning of Mozart’s unfinished Lo sposo deluso. When the four commedia players run out of music they turn to the Composer (it helps that he’s susceptible to the charms of Columbina), who enters their world and becomes involved with them, writing music for their buffa opera. They’re periodically interrupted by the Singer (performing concert arias originally written for Mozart’s sister-in-law, the first Queen of the Night), who demands that the Composer return to his proper calling of writing opera seria, and then by the Father, who’s also displeased to find his son cavorting with such low characters. When the Composer withdraws, the characters try going it alone, with disastrous results. In the end all are reconciled, and the Composer assumes his rightful place as their leader.

If one is going to do pastiche, it’s important (as John Corigliano failed to see when he wrote The Ghosts of Versailles) to keep it short. The Jewel Box is a clever idea, but it runs out of steam a good half hour to 45 minutes too soon. Not all Mozartean leftovers are of equal quality, and not all arias need to have all their repeats performed. And Griffiths, while capable of some very clever lines, will never be mistaken for da Ponte.

Of course to perform Mozart properly you need Mozartean singers. COT provided one splendid singer, three very good ones, and three not-so-hot ones. The evening’s laurels belonged to soprano Kimberly Jones, who has a rich, beautiful voice, flawless technique, and warm personality. Soprano Sunny Joy Langton brought charm and comic timing to her Columbina; tenor William Watson sang beautifully; and bass Kurt Link was a sturdy Father. Warren Mouton’s Doctor and Keith Brautigam’s Pantalone were vocally mediocre. Theresa Ludden’s Singer started out poorly, with bad intonation and an underpowered delivery, sang quite well for her first number of the second act, then reverted to bad form for her final, interminable aria. It was hard not to wonder what Lorraine Ernest could have done with the part. Everyone would have benefited from some work with a diction coach.

Director Charles Newell demonstrated a sure hand and good grasp of his material; the group hug in the second act was one of the few false notes in an otherwise superb staging. William Henry Curry conducted sympathetically and idiomatically.

The Italian Girl in Algiers has been heard both at COT and at the Lyric, so if one must do updated versions of classic operas it’s a fair candidate. And here, because Ratner and Rapchak had license to dink around with the English translation of the libretto, the update worked far better than it would have had the original text been used. But with the exception of mezzo-soprano Susan Hofflander (in the title role) and the chorus (well-trained stalwarts from the Lyric Opera regular and supplementary choruses) the singing was mediocre. That was a shame, and it was unnecessary. Yes, good tenors are hard to find, though Mark Calkins’s looks made up for some tense vocalism. But good comic baritones, basses, and lyric sopranos aren’t particularly rare. On opening night there were musical mistakes and indifferent singing from too many members of the cast, though in fairness, nearly everyone’s diction was outstanding.

The staging–most of which looked a great deal more like the work of Marc Verzatt, officially the choreographer, than of Carl Ratner–was bright and engaging, though it favored the belly laugh over the subtler chuckle. Rapchak exhibited a sure hand in the pit, and the orchestra rewarded him by playing well.

Chicago Opera Theater deserves to survive and to succeed, but Ratner and Rapchak are going to have to bring their productions to a higher, more consistent level. Their record to date is far too uneven.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photograph of six cast members (possible Bruce Hall, Judith Radue, Lorraine Ernest, Carl Tanner, Janine Hawley, Debra Rentz, Tracy Mould) in “Ariadne Auf Naxos” by Dan Rest.