at the John G. Shedd Aquarium

April 20

When I asked a member of the City Musick recently why they were performing Mozart’s Idomeneo at the Shedd Aquarium, I was told with an utterly serious look, “Believe me, not just for the halibut.”

There is a certain appropriateness to hearing Mozart’s early opera–concerning a Greek king’s vow to Neptune–surrounded by the classical white columns of the aquarium lobby, with a tank of sea creatures situated directly behind the stage action casting its glowing green hues across the ceiling. Many of the audience members were claiming to have seen the various creatures literally move in rhythm to the music. (That same week, researchers had revealed that dolphins responded ecstatically to baroque and classical music and swam away from rock.)

The City Musick, Chicago’s first period-instrument ensemble, has had a success that is unique in the cautious and often cynical world of classical music. What founder and artistic director Elaine Scott Banks has accomplished in three short seasons is truly remarkable. The former cellist of the Lyric Opera has single-handedly taken an idea–whose time had come–from its humble beginnings at the Church of the Ascension and run with it. This season she was able to give up her Lyric job and is starting to present fully staged operas of her own.

Judging by this first attempt, it is a most welcome addition indeed to the Chicago opera scene. Although we already have two outstanding opera companies (Lyric Opera in the fall and Chicago Opera Theater in the spring), they are both primarily committed to 19th-century opera. Lyric’s own attempts to stage early opera have been handicapped by an over-large orchestra and chorus, by slow tempi, and often by the wobbly vibratos of opera superstars of yesteryear who race through the masters’ arias like bulls through a china shop. Some of the problem is simply the enormous size of the Civic Opera House, but the Lyric has also refused to accept the revolutionary findings of the early-music movement, whose more intimate approach strives to approximate the textures, timbres, and tempi of early opera rather than to perform it in a bombastic 19th-century manner, as it it were Verdi or Puccini.

Faring slightly better, although not much, is Chicago Opera Theater, which presented the first early opera of its 15-year history earlier this season. This surprisingly stodgy performance of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (in an otherwise excellent season) made no attempt whatsoever to incorporate early-music performance practices, tempi, or vocal techniques, despite being presented in a theater intimate enough for such an approach.

Thus the field was wide open for Banks, who conducted her first period-instrument opera earlier this season for Milwaukee’s Skylight Comic Opera company, an acclaimed production of Pietro Antonio Cesti’s Orontea. She brought that production’s director, set designer, costume designer, and lead back to Chicago for her own Idomeneo.

One of the most outstanding elements of this production is Banks herself. If Christopher Hogwood is the Toscanini of the early-music movement–that is, a conductor who emphasizes precision and balance above emotion and expression–then Banks is surely emerging as the movement’s Bernstein–intensely emotional, letting the beauty and lyricism of every phrase literally sweep her away. If precision, balance, and consistent tempi are often sacrificed in the process, it seems a small price to pay. Banks conducts with a vision and zeal rare in “authentic” performances, and it is a refreshing change from many of the dry-as-dust early-music performances so common today.

The singers were also outstanding. Some of the world’s top early-music vocalists made Chicago’s first period-instrument opera all the more impressive. The real standout was soprano Brenda Harris as Ilia, princess of Troy. Although Harris is not yet the early-music “star” that soprano Julianne Baird is at present (Baird, who was unavailable, was Banks’s first choice for the role), it is only a matter of time. She has a rich, full soprano voice with a beautiful timbre, and outstanding projection and vocal technique. Her full timbre seemed unaffected by range, and even the most torturous arias were handled with ease; she showed only the smallest indications of strain as the three-hour opera progressed, No singer in the world could sing this music flawlessly, but this was about as close as it gets.

Mezzo-soprano Karen Nickell, who played Orontea in Milwaukee, sang the role of Idamante, son of Idomeneo and lover of Ilia. This role was originally written by Mozart for castrato Dal Prato, but even the most diehard advocates of authenticity have yet to advocate castration for such roles. Hence Idamante has become a “trouser role” for female soprano, and Nickell sang it admirably. The extraordinary makeup and costume design, by Austrian Bruno Schwengl, enhanced Ms. Nickell’s credibility as a man, making the tender scenes between Ilia and Idamante more convincing than they usually are.

Idomeneo himself–the King of Crete whose vow to Neptune entails that he sacrifice his own son–was powerfully sung by tenor Frederick Urrey in an outstanding performance. Fatigue set in only during his big aria of act two, where the demands of Mozart’s music are at their most difficult.

Elettra–who tries to seduce Idamante from Ilia so that she may someday become Queen of Crete–was sung with appropriate villainy by soprano Alexandra Tsoku, dressed in a beautiful, billowy magenta dress that nicely offset the mostly off-white costumes of the other characters.

Surprisingly, Paul Elliott, probably the greatest early-music tenor singing today, was having some trouble with the role of Arbace, Idomeneo’s counsel. His usually beautiful tenor timbre seemed forced, his usually flawless vocal technique strained considerably during the difficult vocal runs. Perhaps this was simply an off night.

The High Priest of Neptune was sung by tenor Jeffrey Dowd; an offstage Neptune was performed by baritone Wilbur Pauley. These were two fine performances, even though their voices are of a more 19th-century style.

There were some minor flaws in this production. The chorus sounded harsh, and they wore black choral robes of varying lengths (revealing many 20th-century blue jeans, stockings, and Reeboks) and white paper fish masks (perhaps like mollusks?) with obvious staples and black lines drawn on them. Another peculiarity was that there were no sets (save the aquarium lobby itself, including a clock center stage and obtrusive exit signs stage right and left). In addition the “stage,” a series of black planks surrounding the orchestra, was so steep in places and narrow that several singers seemed in danger of tripping over the bright white floor lights toward the front of the stage when their costumes caught on them, which they did continually. (This could also be a fire hazard.) At one point Idamante actually did trip; luckily he did not seem seriously hurt. The lighting, too, was difficult to understand–a series of awkwardly placed blue, pink, and white spotlights that turned on and off at strange times and shone as much in the eyes of the audience as in the singers’.

These minor problems were undoubtedly the result of budget limitations. Banks is to be congratulated for ushering in a new, exciting era in Chicago opera, and let us hope to see the City Musick expand its operatic activities in the near future. Early-music opera is largely untapped, and how fortunate Chicago is to be so much on the forefront of the movement.

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