Chamber Opera Chicago

at the Ruth Page Auditorium

September 8, 9, 15, 16, and 17

Some years ago, when Leonard Bernstein was still discussing such things, I asked if he considered his West Side Story to be an opera. “No,” he said. “And for one very simple reason: the most dramatic moment in the show–where Maria delivers her indictments to all involved in the tragedy–is spoken, not sung.” If we accept Bernstein’s definition of opera as drama that is completely sung, then works such as Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera are operas, not musicals.

With that in mind, how do we label the works of Gian Carlo Menotti? Using Bernstein’s definition, Menotti’s works are clearly operas. Supporting that claim are two facts: they are scored for trained voices, and in terms of vocal line they owe much to the Italian verismo tradition. Beyond that, there is not much that is operatic about the works of Menotti. They emphasize recitatives rather than arias, and their subject matter and libretti–always the composer’s own–are usually contemporary and given journalistic rather than poetic treatment.

Menotti himself prefers the term “lyric theater” for his works, the best-known of which have been presented by theater producers rather than opera companies. The principal advantage of Broadway over the Met is obvious: A successful Broadway run can last almost indefinitely. The Met schedules a few performances of a new work, and then–regardless of how well the work fares–it’s back to the 19th century, where opera lovers feel most comfortable. Menotti’s most enduring works–The Medium and The Consul–began as successful Broadway plays. His ever-popular Christmas fantasy, Amahl and the Night Visitors, began as a holiday television special. But The Hero, which began as an operatic commission for the Philadelphia bicentennial celebration, is virtually unknown.

It is to Chamber Opera Chicago’s credit that it took the time and effort to exhume The Hero. The unusual plot concerns a man who has been asleep for more than ten years and who is about to set the world record for uninterrupted sleep. The significance of this has not been lost on his wife, who has turned their bedroom into a patriotic museum and offers guided tours. Just as she is about to cash in on the phenomenon, her husband suddenly wakes up.

This humorous work is Menotti’s own personal commentary on American complacency told in the form of a social allegory. The sleeping man becomes “the ‘yes’ man, achieving stature by agreeing with everybody’s views, and by turning a blind eye to corruption.” His cousin Barbara, who lovingly watches over his long slumber, represents those strong individualists who dare to question such corruption. The wife, doctor, and mayor are the piece’s villains, symbols of corrupt leadership–though Menotti reminds us that they deserve our sympathy as well, “because, after all, they are part of our own weakness.”

The Chicago Chamber Opera production, luckily, features a fine assemblage of local talent. Baritone Jan Jarvis played the befuddled sleeping man with great style, always looking as if he just got up and doesn’t know what’s going on. He sang well and was always clearly understandable. Soprano Carol Loverde, as his cousin, had her usual bright, attractive voice and a stage presence to match. Unfortunately, her beautiful singing often got in the way of her being understood. Likewise, the performance of mezzo-soprano Susan Hofflander was splendid, but she was difficult to understand. Buffo tenor William Watson as Dr. Brainkoff and baritone John Payonk as the mayor were both in good voice. Payonk stole the show with his feeble attempts to entertain the townspeople with his corny one-liners.

Chamber Opera Chicago music director and conductor-pianist Lawrence Rapchak kept the music moving briskly, and his tempi were quite convincing. His understanding of Menotti’s timing and phrasing were impressive, and he evoked many dynamic nuances from the score. The playing from the five-piece string orchestra was superb and of a much higher caliber than that of last spring’s productions, but at times it drowned out the singers. The one consistent problem of the evening was balance, particularly in the ensemble sections of the work.

Director Carl Ratner was involved in the 1980 Juilliard revival of The Hero, which was supervised by Menotti. He kept the action crisp and fast-moving–even delightfully riotous at times, as in a food-throwing mob scene. The sets and costumes were impressive and colorful down to the smallest detail.

What makes The Hero so enjoyable is not only that it is a funny look at our own values and weaknesses but that it contains charming music that is never heavy and always entertaining. Perhaps Menotti’s greatest gift is his sense of vocal line; but no less impressive is his unique ability to relate what is happening musically to what is going on dramatically–all of which is magnificently brought out in this production.