This commission by Chicago Opera Theater brings to town a new opera by the prolific and celebrated Belize-born British composer, singer, pianist, and performer Errollyn Wallen, with librettist Deborah Brevoort. Loosely based on S.I. Martin’s novel Incomparable World, the story is grounded in the little-known historical fact that the Brits recruited enslaved people in the colonies to fight on their side in the American Revolutionary War by promising them pensions and a life of freedom in England. It focuses on one man who took them up on it—Juba Freeman—and what he found when he got there. After selling his dearest possession, his violin, to pay for passage to London, Freeman learns that there’s no pension, no paying jobs for former slaves, and no welcome from the British Black gentry. Racism morphing into classism.
Fri 4/29, 7:30 PM and Sat 5/1, 3 PM; Studebaker Theater, Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan, chicagooperatheater.org, $20-$150. Sung in English with English supertitles; vaccine proof and masks required; no intermission.
Packed into 90 minutes, with a love-lost plot, stock characters, and an affirmative “do your own thing” final message, it’s melodramatic and, in its best moments (as in a hilarious faux-baroque trio), satirical. Wallen’s rich orchestral score moves everything along on a vibrant river of sound, and her ensemble and choral pieces are strong, but, as in much of contemporary opera, there’s a lack of memorable arias. The many fine performances in this production include tenor Curtis Bannister as Juba and soprano Flora Hawk as Amelia, the young English woman he falls for, as well as bass-baritone Damien Geter as Juba’s mapmaker friend Quamino, and the excellent soprano Kimberly E. Jones as Amelia’s priggish and pissed-off mom. Leah Dexter as a dominatrix and Tyrone Chambers II as a crazed seer nearly steal the show. Jeri Lynne Johnson conducts a 37-piece orchestra; stage direction by Kimille Howard.