Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Zev's Opera Adventure Begins!

So my wonderful roommate Jessie Cluess is an opera fan. Not a fanatic, but she really enjoys opera and attends a few times a year. I've never really enjoyed opera. Part of it is simply that I didn't grow up with it--my parents aren't fans either, so I never heard the music around the house--but my main difficulty is theatrical: in my experience, opera's primary responsibility is to music. What story there is exists as a framework to show off the music and the singers. If the story is gripping, the characters are believable, and the production is involving, so much the better, but even if not, as long as it sounds wonderful, it's okay. I have respect for what opera singers can do--reaching 3,000-plus audience members without amplifications while sounding great is no small feat--and find some of the music quite beautiful, but I never felt a need to really explore the world of opera.

Jessie (who in addition to being my roommate is also a wonderful actor and playwright--theatres, cast her and do her plays!) thought that I really needed to give opera more of a chance before dismissing it entirely, and I figured it was worth a try. She saw that the Lyric Opera was doing the double bill of Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci. (The two one-act operas, written in 1890 and 1892, are almost always performed together.) She figured that since they were each only 75 minutes, they would make an ideal introduction. Since the Lyric has seats in the back of the second balcony for only (!) $32, we decided to go last night, along with my friend Whitney Powell (also highly skilled in design, technical, and production areas--hire her!).

Overall, I was impressed. First off, there is nothing like opera for sheer grandeur--Michael Yeargan's set and costumes are simply gorgeous, particularly for Pagliacci. The orchestra sounded fantastic (Renato Palumbo conducted) and the singing was, to my untrained ears, exceptional, and often genuinely thrilling.

But how did the evening fare as theatre?

First off, while they may be tightly plotted by opera standards, there's still an awful lot of putting the story on hold while people sing--there was at least one too many happy peasant choruses in Cavalleria, and Pagliacci, while it had a more interesting story, could still have used some judicious trimming. Still, each had moments that were thrilling. 

Cavalleria is a story of a love quadrangle, a pregnancy, and a duel in a small Italian town. Its peak comes when Santuzza (Dolora Zajick), pregnant and spurned by her lover Turiddu (Carlo Ventre), tells Alfio (Mark Delavan) that Turiddu has taken up with Alfio's wife, Lola (Katherine Lerner). His rage, her revenge and guilt, combined with Zajick and Delavan's singing--riveting. Didn't quite make up for the dull bits, though.

Pagliacci is the story of a group of clowns, where life imitates art: Nedda (Ana Maria Martinez) is cheating on Canio (Vladimir Galouzine), much as her character, Colombina, is cheating on his character, Pagliacci. The ending is a bit different, though--while they are performing their comedy, he stabs her and her lover. It's a much more interesting opera--the plot is more exciting, and the music is much more complex and vibrant. Martinez is a wonder--she has a gorgeous voice, and effortlessly portrays a young woman in an unhappy marriage, desperate for the escape of real love. Galouzine is more problematic. In the most famous aria, "Vesti la giubba" (you'd recognize it if you heard it) he isn't acting, exactly. He's playing the emotion, not the action: what we got was not so much a man in an untenable emotional situation, but an opera singer showing how sad and enraged he could act while sounding good. The audience loved it, but I found it severely underwhelming.

Overall, I'm glad I went. And the opera adventure won't end here. Daniel Jackman is an extremely tenacious man who works in the marketing department at Chicago Opera Theater--whose mission is to do exciting, theatrically vibrant opera productions. He discovered the blog (people actually read it, apparently) and wants me to come review the productions as a theatre critic. I'm fascinated by the idea, and I think I will continue my adventure into the world of opera. Look for three reviews in the coming months.

And if you want to see their shows, they are having a YouTube contest: make a video to explain why you deserve free seats to all three shows, and you could win! Information on the contest is here and COT's website is here. Check it out, and maybe you'll get to see the shows!

1 comment:

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