Chamber Opera Chicago

In Mexico All Saints’ Day–or the Day of the Dead–has the character of a sacred holiday, unlike our mostly secular Halloween. It’s a day for celebrating death with everything from nighttime candle-lighted processions to cemeteries to giving children candy skeletons.

Mexican culture rarely approaches death with fear, but rather as an inevitable part of life itself.

Ray Bradbury used this culture that surrounds death in Mexico as a springboard for his short story “The Lifework of Juan Diaz.” He also added another well-known aspect of Mexican death culture, mummification as it was practiced in Guanajuato. Bradbury had seen the mummy catacombs there after the war and was so fascinated–if not horrified–by the sight of them that they became the basis for at least two of his short stories. In 1964 he adapted “The Lifework of Juan Diaz” for an Alfred Hitchcock Presents teleplay–which Lawrence Rapchak has now used as the basis for his new opera, given its world premiere here April 21.

The plot centers around an impoverished man who, before he dies, takes what little money he has and pays two years’ rent on a grave in the tiny, overcrowded village cemetery. After he dies, the greedy grave digger comes a year early to extort more money from the dead man’s family, demanding written proof of the two-year agreement. When they are unable to provide such proof or to pay anything further, the grave digger sighs that he will have to evict his “tenant” to the mummy catacombs. But the man’s courageous and loving wife has ideas of her own.

Rapchak’s instinct that this was material for the opera house was excellent. The Lifework of Juan Diaz is a work of startling originality. It has a pulsating, rhythmic score, bursting with southwestern color as well as unusual effects. He created an enormous challenge for himself and met it admirably.

From a musical perspective, I see no reason why this opera couldn’t eventually find a place in the repertoire beyond Chamber Opera Chicago. But from a dramatic perspective, there are problems, most of which stem from the fact that there is no real libretto–for the credited librettist Carl Ratner did little to transpose the action to the world of opera. The fairly literal adaptation of the Bradbury teleplay that’s being used is needlessly chatty and gives us details that are appropriate when spoken quickly in a television drama, but waste valuable stage time when they are sung. Entire scenes and conversations could have easily been reworked or omitted without disturbing the plot, and that would have made the work far more attention grabbing. (The scene at the police station, for example, is unnecessary, given that everything that happens in it is clear from the following scene.)

I think Rapchak was right in deciding that this is basically a love story and that the scenes with Juan and Maria together–alive or dead–are at the center and therefore most worthy of extending through music, which communicates what the spoken word could never do: the love, devotion, and loyalty that exists between them. But even in their scenes there is too much literal dialogue.

Bradbury’s teleplay clocks in at 50 minutes, Rapchak’s opera at almost 90. That in itself would mean very little if there weren’t the slow spots. I suspect that even Bradbury would agree that his every word did not have to be preserved but should be rethought for opera, much as Verdi’s librettist Boito so brilliantly transposed Shakespeare for Otello and Falstaff. The Lifework of Juan Diaz could probably be tightened up to an hour or so, which would give it the relentless quality Bradbury’s teleplay has. Rapchak and Ratner seem to have forgotten that much can be said without words when there is effective music to communicate it–which in this case there is.

This was an amazing accomplishment on the part of Rapchak and Chamber Opera Chicago. As with any new work, particularly an opera, producing it was an incredible risk. The costumes, sets, and lighting are all impressively foreboding, particularly the realistic mummies in the catacombs. There were small glitches that will probably be worked out, but by and large things went well for singers and orchestra (conducted by Rapchak), although poor string intonation often marred the effect of the higher string passages.

The standout vocally was baritone Richard Alderson as the grave digger; he has a rich, dark timbre and is a fine actor, though he was difficult to understand because he tended to swallow his consonants. Soprano Carol Loverde as Maria Diaz was also impressive, though she was not in her best voice on this occasion and was also often difficult to understand. Baritone Robert Hovencamp’s brief scenes as the dying Juan Diaz were quite moving; tenor Darrell Rowader as the police chief was often straining. Some of the work’s most poignant musical passages were the trios sung by the Diaz children–Jason Whitmer, Amanda Armato, and Joanna Lind.

As part of its generous double bill, COC offers another view of death in Puccini’s comic one-act opera Gianni Schicchi, a clever juxtaposition and contrast with The Lifework of Juan Diaz. As the music begins, Buoso Donati passes away, setting off a riotous plot on the part of his relatives to make sure they are remembered in his will, though he stated that his money be given to a local monastery. The timing of this production is swift and hilarious, and the singing, acting, and ensembling are mostly of a very high quality. Philip Kraus is a cutup as the swindler Gianni Schicchi, and will leave you laughing at the end of the evening.

The most amazing thing about COC presenting two such challenging works on the same bill is that neither suffered in quality, a remarkable achievement for any opera company, let alone one that is presenting its first world premiere.