By Patrick O’Brien
As theaters begin opening their doors again, the invitations have been coming in thick and fast. So, in a bit of a fluke, I ended up with a weekend chock full o’ opera. Here’s a rundown on the offering: the old, the new, the old made new, etc. ***
Shakespeare’s Macbeth, either taken straight or by way of Verdi, seems like one of those pieces where, if you just plug the right people into the right parts and let them do their thing, everything clicks. At the very least, it’s difficult to make a mess of blood and thunder, and David McVicar’s brand-spanking-new production at the Lyric Opera serves up both quite neatly — in no small part thanks to Enrique Mazzola’s live-and-in-person debut on the rostrum as Lyric's music director — and the whole package should prove popular. Placing the action within the confines of a ruined Presbyterian church, something wicked becomes holy, or vice versa. Churches are where people can supplicate or defy the unknowable at will, no small thing in a battle with Fate like Macbeth. Also, churches have central aisles, which more or less act as runways for performers to plant it downstage center. Craig Colcough and Sondra Radvanovsky are a solid pair of moody Thanes, the latter especially in her debut turn as Lady Macbeth. As he loses his conscience to madness, hers throbs anew, much to her peril. Christian van Horn is such a sturdy Banquo, his eventual assassination is that much more upsetting. The heartiest applause of the evening, however, belonged to Joshua Guerrero’s Macduff and his Act Four lament for his now-dead family and eventual rallying of a resistance. Not only was it exceptionally well-sung, Guerrero plays the only bona fide hero in an evening dedicated to malice aforethought and a country being worn down by a “den of thieves.” Even an abandoned church on the gloomy Scottish moors can offer a ray of hope, it seems. Macbeth plays through October 9th at the Civic Opera House, 20 North Wacker Drive. All ticket holders will be required to show a valid photo ID and proof of full vaccination against the COVID-19 virus. Facial masks, worn properly over the nose and mouth, will be required for all patrons for the duration of their time in the theater. For tickets and more information, please call (312) 332-2244 or visit lyricopera.org. ***
A handy thing to remember, according to Chicago Opera Theater’s maestra Lidiya Yankovskaya: Roles in the operatic canon were shaped to accommodate their original performers, but they’re not necessarily set in stone. So, if, say, mezzo Stephanie Blythe just happens to have tenor chops, what’s stopping her from singing, say, Carmen’s Don José? Besides, Bizet’s masterpiece is all about flipping the bird at convention — which is partially why it was so très scandaleux upon its premiere — so would the gender-bend really stand out all that much? Based on the available evidence, nothing will stop Blythe (or, more accurately, her tenor alter ego Blythely Oratonio) from tussling with Don José in the bullring; and, no, the sheer splendor of a full-throated Carmen wins out over any such piffling consideration. A semi-staged concert (directed by Joachim Schaumberger), there’s no panoramic set of Seville, and That Red Dress, pointedly, hangs off to the side, never worn. Who needs ‘em with this power couple? Jamie Barton’s hard-to-get Carmen is an equal match for Oratonio as the guy who’s hard to shake, though Michael Sumuel as the flashy Escamillo gives José a run for his money, as Escamillos must. There were cameras running at the performance, and Yankovskaya has hinted elsewhere that something of this outing might become available in the future. As well it should be. If opera is to live, let this expansion and experimentation of roles blossom into a fuller reality. Carmen closed September 18th. For more information on Chicago Opera Theater’s upcoming season, please call (312) 704-8414 or visit chicagooperatheater.org. ***
Finally, in this marathon, a two-fer: Third Eye presents a double bill of operas, both focusing on women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, as a refresher), and both with alternating casts. First is a newly commissioned mini-opera, Elizabeth Rudolph’s Petticoats and Sliderules, about Lois Graham, the first woman to earn a doctorate in mechanical engineering in the States, and Elisabeth Woodbridge, women's rights activist and one of the first women to earn a doctorate from Yale. Rudolph has A-one collaborators in Graham and Woodbridge, as she sets to music assorted speeches and texts of theirs. This is helpful. The best research involves direct sources, and who better to speak to busting through all the patriarchal “can’ts,” “don’ts,” and “shouldn’ts” that Graham and Woodbridge busted than themselves? This is also somewhat hindering, and speaks to the hazy dividing line between a text set to music and a libretto, or drama. Rudolph’s score is attractively minimalist and, when sung, never unclear, but one wishes for a little turbulence as these two women, each in their own time, take a crack at that glass ceiling. What is drawn upon, however, is well-chosen, especially as “expectation,” that is, the chafing past, gives way to “expectancy,” that is, looking forward.
The latter piece, Kamala Sankaram’s The Infinite Energy of Ada Lovelace, is certainly turbulent, and speaks further to the composer’s talents following the Chicago debut of her Taking Up Serpents (our review of which can be found here). The title character, mathematician and daughter of Lord Byron (and, as sung by Molly Burke, forthrightness personified), feels trapped by her husband’s insistence that she lay low and tend house so her father’s endless parade of scandals won’t scathe her. That is, until Charles Babbage courts her to help program what is considered the first computer, his mechanical “difference engine.” (He also nearly straight-up courts her, as much as decorum allows.) With librettist Rob Handel, Sankaram indeed makes fine drama out of this scenario, and, much like her Serpents, casually bends the small orchestra to surprising and often-dazzling effect. (Intriguingly, for a women-in-STEM opera, the best aria may belong to a man, the “hummingbird aria,” as Ada’s husband, sung by Max Hosmer, reflects on his own impotence compared to either Babbage’s or his wife’s uncontainable brilliance.) And, tapping into both the mind and the heart, it was as fine a capper as any to a weekend of (re-)connection to live opera. Petticoats and Sliderules and The Infinite Energy of Ada Lovelace play through October 3rd at the Edge Theater, 5451 North Broadway. All ticket holders will be required to show a valid photo ID and proof of full vaccination against the COVID-19 virus. Facial masks, worn properly over the nose and mouth, will be required for all patrons for the duration of their time in the theater. For tickets and more information, please visit thirdeyete.com.