Chicago Opera Theater

at Rosary College

Four hundred years ago the Florentine Camerata attempted to raise ancient Greek drama from the dead. They gathered the items that had belonged to Greek drama–music, drama, verse, chorus–and reassembled them. But when they connected the dead parts, what they got was not exactly what they expected; instead of reviving an old creature, they gave birth to a new. But between 50 and 150 years after its birth, opera seemed headed toward extinction as an art form. Drama faded under the pressure for vocal beauty and embellishments, and opera often became merely a kind of musical divertissement–until Christoph Gluck reemphasized its dramatic elements.

The operatic form is under siege again, though now it’s the theatrical elements that threaten to crowd out the musical. When music is unable to hold up its end of the synthesis, opera ceases to exist, leaving us with an odd genre of theater. Like the musical excesses of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, such works may be satisfying in themselves but fail as opera.

Chicago Opera Theater concluded its 1992 season with a double bill of 20th-century opera: a small opera in the tradition of 19th-century verismo and an even smaller work typical of the late 20th century.

A Water Bird Talk was a one-man show by Dominick Argento. Baritone Robert Orth is a fine singing actor and exactly fills the bill for this vignette of a frazzled husband trapped in a life he abhors, scorned by his wife and mocked by his daughters. The libretto is an adaptation of the Chekhov one-act On the Harmfulness of Tobacco, but its lecture has been placed in late-19th-century Maryland and the topic has been changed to water birds. The musical score, while difficult in places, can only be considered trivial in impact when viewed separate from the hypertrophic drama. Orth carried the show through his acting ability alone (he also accompanied himself on the piano), but he could have given just as satisfying a performance without singing. This is the Argento of the not particularly musically sparkling Postcard From Morocco done by COT last year, and not the Argento of the more inventive The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe.

The second part of this double bill isn’t much older than A Water Bird Talk, but here both the music and the drama pull their own weight. Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium, first produced at Columbia University in 1946, was his fourth opera and the one that put him on the map as an opera composer. Since his style has shown little change in the last 40-odd years, The Medium may stand as an archetype. Like much of his work, it is a favorite of smaller opera companies and university programs because it requires only modest forces.

The plot of The Medium concerns Madame Flora, who, assisted by her daughter Monica and the street urchin Toby, bilks people through her phony seances. When she is startled by what she thinks is a genuinely supernatural manifestation, she drops out of the racket. Obsessed by the cold hand she felt on her throat, she tries to get the mute Toby to admit that he was somehow responsible, and her descent into insanity ultimately leads her to murder the child.

What was unusual in this production was the presence of Metropolitan Opera star Mignon Dunn in the role of Madame Flora. Dunn is familiar to regular Chicago operagoers from years of Met radio broadcasts and from her appearances as the harridans in Strauss’s Elektra and Salome. Evidently she wanted to do the role, and COT cheerfully accommodated her. Dunn provided the show with a powerful voice and a touch of glamour. Everything went well for her voice, though she had some blending problems in her duet with Monica. Her dramatic abilities are equal to her vocal abilities, and it was sometimes difficult to concentrate on the other characters when she was onstage. Unfortunately, an intermission shattered the mood; it hardly seemed necessary considering the relatively modest demands of the 75-minute show on the cast. The ending, with Dunn staring maniacally at the audience, was perhaps a bit too understated.

Patrice Michaels Bedi made a very warm and attractive Monica, particularly when defending her playmate Toby, and her voice was very good. The casting of the seance customers was extremely strong. Robert Orth seemed almost overcast in the role of the affable, credulous Mr. Gobineau, and Diane Ragains made an appropriately mousy Mrs. Gobineau, successfully evoking our sympathy for her loss of her infant child. Claudia Kerski-Nienow (Mrs. Nolan) had an acceptable voice, but she could have projected a greater air of neurosis. Though there was nothing objectionable about his Toby, John Schroeder was simply too big and muscular to be convincing as a boy who’s physically intimidated and abused by a middle-aged woman.

Both shows were handled well by the COT orchestra under the direction of Kurt Klippstatter (Dunn’s husband), who was making his debut with COT. Richard Pearlman’s direction was generally understated and excellent; he seems to have had the good sense to let his talented, experienced cast work with him in the staging.

The sets by John King Jr. and the costumes by Frances Maggio were uniformly good, much better than one often sees in a COT production: The Medium had an appropriate degree of tawdry finery; the Maryland club where A Water Bird Talk was given had a nice stuffy Victorian feel. The sets may have appeared to greater advantage in the clean, bright, air-conditioned auditorium of Rosary College, a conspicuous contrast with the down-at-the-heels Athenaeum.

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