By Patrick O’Brien
In spite of rapturous critical praise, the new opera Elizabeth Cree may yet prove divisive. Any opera with a pre-show stage image of a woman freshly judicially hanged certainly sets a macabre tone, but at the performance reviewed, at least one person bolted for the door at the first mention of loving disembowelment.
Let’s back up.
Elizabeth Cree is the latest from the dynamic duo Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell, adapted from Peter Ackroyd’s eponymous novel set in 1880s London, a time and place of lofty intellects and tawdry, nigh-demented thrills. This divide is personified in the Jack the Ripper-like John Cree (Christopher Burchett), a.k.a. “The Limehouse Golem:” sharp as a surgeon’s knife, as twisted as a human intestine, and gleefully, piously, committed to slaughtering the underclass of the East End, what he believes is “saving them from this horrid world.” Elizabeth (Katherine Pracht), his former music-hall starlet-now-respectable wife, has just been executed for steadily poisoning him — entirely unrelated to the serial killings — and, across varying degrees of reality, she’ll tell us about How We All Got Here. Was her act an unintentional public service? Or is there something else afoot?
The most obvious model for Cree is SWEENEY TODD; it’s just as grimly glib, but somehow nihilistic where the latter was at most merely cynical. It’s a must for anyone who likes their opera unforgiving.
It’s all the layers at play that make for something chilly: there’s Elizabeth speaking knowingly from the beyond; there’s her trial at which everything after the fact is dissected; there’s the ghastly gaslit music-hall world in which she thrived, which was never above making a song-and-dance out of the very real horrors outside; there’s the killer’s pursuit by the boobish Inspector Kildare (Levi Hernandez), who, by crime-fiction convention, is less-than-hot on the case, and frequently caught up in conjecture on the futility of seeking truth. (When there’s no such thing as truth, as suspected real-life luminaries like Karl Marx and George Gissing opine, how can one seek it? One can’t accuse opera of being less than timely.)
And then there’s the big twist at the end, revealed during Elizabeth’s last rites. It’ll either shock and surprise audiences (bonus points for checking out entirely in retrospect), or it’ll prompt debate as to whether it’s just a part of the show she’s putting on.
And then, her life is immortalized as a cheap music-hall playlet. At least until the next treacherous wife or Limehouse Golem hits the papers.
And then, and then, and then…It’s a fiendish deathtrap, and firm evidence of Campbell’s rightful place as a leading librettist of contemporary opera, having himself reasserted the importance of the text ever since his debut. Puts’s music is an ideal match: churning, hellish, hair-raising, occasionally tuneful, ever-so-slightly off-beat; and marvelously, sometimes unconventionally orchestrated for a small pit. (Geoffrey McDonald conducts.) A highly ideal piece for a steely and confident heavy-lifting mezzo like Pracht, or a baritone like Burchett, equal parts romantic and sinister.
And, ultimately, quite the night out. Not so much “enjoyable” as “enlightening.” Catch it when it comes up again, and it will. Just know what you’re in for. It’s one act, no intermission. Strap in and face the plunge into the abyss that is this horrid world.
Elizabeth Cree closed at the Studebaker Theater on Sunday, February 18. For information on upcoming events with Chicago Opera Theater, please visit chicagooperatheater.org or call (312) 704-8414.