Chamber Opera Chicago

at the Ruth Page Auditorium

Although Chamber Opera Chicago is now seven years old, I’ve just had my first taste of the company, having attended its recent alternating productions of Haydn’s The World of the Moon and Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, both sung in English. If it had not been for the Haydn, a seldom-done 18th-century comedy that has never been performed here before, I probably wouldn’t have gone at all. My sister is a singer, and by the time I was ten I had seen Cio-Cio-San slowly singing her way through suicide as many times as most kids my age had seen The Wizard of Oz. Pleasant childhood memories aside, Madame Butterfly is not an opera that I generally go out of my way to see. But I enjoyed The World of the Moon so much that I decided to check out what the company would do with Puccini’s war-horse.

My first experience of Haydn’s The World of the Moon was a bizarre old recording of the work that was severely cut, heavily arranged, and sung in German. On the basis of that recording, one could easily assume–as I did–that the work was as trivial and meaningless as opera history books were apt to make it. Haydn himself had a poor opinion of it (when have composers ever been correct about the worth of their work?), as he did of all of his operas, which he felt were inferior to Mozart’s (whose aren’t?).

The opera was written in 1777 for the Esterhazy family, who had an extraordinarily well-equipped theater and delighted in elaborate stage works set in imaginary and far-off places, an 18th-century fashion. What Haydn and librettist Carlo Goldoni gave them was a scathing burlesque of the 18th-century merchant class, which put much importance on money and station in life. A greedy merchant who is overprotective of his two daughters is the victim of an elaborate scheme on the part of their two unsuccessful suitors to convince him that he has been transported to the moon.

What was interesting about the COC production was that every word could be clearly understood and, although there was no singer in this production who had a strong 18th-century technique, all of them managed to sing all of the notes of the runs and even some of the trills (the vocal lines were not stylistically decorated, as would have been the case in Haydn’s day) convincingly. The result was that a very clever comedy was revealed, with wonderful elements of intrigue and fantasy. The first act took a while to get going, but the second (on “moonland”) and third moved briskly action-wise, even if not always tempo-wise. The cast included Norman Engstrom as the bogus astronomer who perpetrates the swindle, Bruce Cain as his partner and friend; the daughters were sung by Connie Dykstra and Ana Rojas, and the merchant by Thomas Haddow. The merchant’s housekeeper and mistress was Michelle Sarkesian. They worked well together–the ensemble numbers were well-balanced and understandable, the acting always convincing.

Special mention must be made of the sets, costumes, and “special effects,” obviously designed on a shoestring budget, but enormously colorful, clever, and original. The kids’ moon ballet and musical trees of act two were also entertaining and cleverly done.

The music is enchanting, although conductor-pianist Lawrence Rapchak had his hands full playing continuo on the piano (instead of on harpsichord or fortepiano, presumably out of budget), accompanying the recitative sections, playing synthesized effects, and conducting the tiny string quintet that made up the “orchestra.” The biggest problem was a grossly out-of-tune piano and the pitch problems that therefore resulted in the strings. Rapchak’s own accompaniments were always interesting, although many stylistic peculiarities and improvisations were introduced that were inappropriate for a Haydn work. The tempi were on the slow side, presumably to keep the singers from getting into trouble and to make sure they could be clearly understood. Even so, Rapchak kept the music from dragging.

In Madame Butterfly the singing was a bit more uneven. Both Lauren Miller’s Cio-Cio-San and Darrell Rowader’s Pinkerton were vocally very disappointing, although both were splendid actors. Miller’s pitch was imprecise; if the work were not so familiar, one would wonder at times what she was trying to sing. Her vibrato wavered at various seasick speeds, the loops becoming less defined the more she would try to project. By and large she was much more effective in quieter passages. Rowader also tended to go flat, and had a very unfocused sound to his voice. When he tried to project, he tended to sound like Bert Lahr. Still, I very much admired the way both singers interacted dramatically and how much they both looked their parts.

The rest of the singing was fairly good, and in some cases–David Huneryager’s Sharpless for instance–it was very good. The choral entrance of Cio-Cio-San’s relatives was quite moving, and the Bonze’s (Lawson Skala) entrance was dramatic and impressive. Overall, although this was not a very musically satisfying Butterfly, dramatically it was quite satisfying. The sets and costumes were colorful and impressive, and the story came through loud and clear in a way it seldom does in a larger opera house.

Rapchak was at the piano again, providing continuo and filling in the brass and woodwind parts. The string quintet was augmented with harp and percussion (including the obligatory gong), thus giving Puccini’s beautiful music a sketch-score treatment, which was unfortunately inadequate to evoke the sense of the original. Although this was an impressive Butterfly on a shoestring, for it to work musically, a larger orchestra capable of subtleties and dynamic variety is needed to convey the work’s passion.

For my ears, Chamber Opera Chicago is charting a much more interesting course in rescuing the likes of The World of the Moon, forgotten works that would otherwise go largely unheard here, than in trying to tackle often-heard works such as Butterfly that require the resources of a larger company.