Regina, Lyric Opera of Chicago. Marc Blitzstein’s 1949 opera version of The Little Foxes–Lillian Hellman’s 1939 drama about a scheming nouveau-riche southern family–is a neglected masterpiece of American music theater, and this engrossing production does it justice. The title role is a natural for Lyric favorite Catherine Malfitano. Her dramatic stage presence and skill at conveying complex psychology are perfect for this neurotic, imperious, charismatic character, who strives to keep anxiety and self-hatred at bay through unabashed greed.
Charles Newell’s vivid staging costars Dale Travis and Timothy Nolen as Regina’s swindler siblings, Ben and Oscar; Sheryl Woods, heartbreaking as Oscar’s dithery, tippling wife, Birdie, a woman wrapped in reveries of a genteel past; Sari Gruber as Regina’s daughter, Alexandra, whose kindness Regina mistakes for weakness; Kevin Langan as Regina’s heartsick husband, Horace; and Marietta Simpson as Addie, the black maid and family conscience. The centerpiece of John Culbert’s set, a sweeping scarlet staircase, is a perfect metaphor for the antiheroine’s social climbing.
Blitzstein’s richly lyrical, darkly humorous score, as lovingly rendered by conductor John Mauceri, fuses music and text in a way that’s more theatrical than traditionally operatic (no surprise considering Blitzstein’s leftist musical The Cradle Will Rock and his witty adaptation of Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera). The music heightens the drama’s emotional stakes while preserving its caustic commentary on cancerous capitalism–commentary that recent financial scandals reveal to be as timely as ever.