By Quinn Rigg
The frailty of life is a grim, looming fact of the human experience.
The spectre of mortality creeps ever closer with each passing second: we are powerless to stop tragedy, we are incapable of delaying the entropic march of the abyss; however, we do have the power to overcome tragedy. We have the ability to transcend the mortal coil through laughter, through song and dance, through the sheer miracle of artistic expression. Ideas live beyond the minds that dreamt them, and memories last longer than the lives that shaped them. As librettist David Cote puts it: “Life is so big, yet the world is so small.”
Composed by Stefan Weisman, with a libretto by David Cote, The Scarlet Ibis is an operatic adaptation of James Hurst’s short story of the same name. A touching and harrowing tale of othering, brotherhood, and loss, this work makes its Chicago debut with Chicago Opera Theater after its New York premiere in 2015. Unchanged from the source material, a synopsis of the plot may be found here.
Throughout this tragedy, lofty melodies and virtuosic vocal prowess elicit symphonic decadence befitting of heaven; explorations of the sublime dive deeply into the nature of cut through to the very core of the human condition. Weisman and Cote delve into the meaning of brotherhood and redefine the fallacy of “normalcy.” Symbolic themes are consistent and evocative throughout the piece: the significance of blood, the sinister yet wonderful mysteries of nature, and other images all coalesce into a focused and thematically intricate work of art. Each phrase of music and every line of dialogue is imbued with meaning and significance in all thirteen scenes of this one-act opera.
Conductor David Hanlon leads his orchestra with profound feeling and captivating dynamism. From the dissonant din of foreboding tragedy, to the sweeping ecstacy of joy, Hanlon helps captivate the magic of human feeling through nuanced direction and sharp intuition. Able to draw a tear from any eye, this orchestra is without flaw
Director Elizabeth Margolius paints organic and powerful stage pictures; her ability to set tone and explore characters through spatial relationship is moving and inspired. Margolius employs levels to great dramatic effect as bodies rise and fall while climbing the expansive set; moreover, her interesting use of body shape throughout the opera creates clear intent and verbose emotionality.
Scenic design by Jack Magaw is simple yet wildly effective. A platform skirted by a spiraling wooden ramp creates a striking silhouette. The set’s rustic majesty provides an interesting play space for movement; director Margolius finds delightful discovery and surprise in the barren largeness of Magaw’s set.
The grand size of the set in relationship to the small cast (made even smaller in scenes focused on Doodle and Brother) indicates a tiny insignificance: these people are isolated and alone in an unfeeling and hostile world. Frail and bound to where they stand, they are imprisoned by their circumstances. On the other hand, the space of the set fuels the fires of wonder and mystery in the large expanse of the unknown: these small people bound into a large world and discover new, life-changing truths. They are able to soar higher and fall further than ever before when given the space to run, climb and fight.
Jordan Rutter shines as the young, gifted, and crippled Doodle. Rutter accepts the challenge of such a complex role with grace and virtuosic vocal facility; he is the lifeblood of the opera with his soaring tonal purity and evocative stage presence. Shifting between vocal registers with the ease of a flying bird, there are few who could match Rutter’s skill as a countertenor, and fewer who could match the lovable heart he bears without restriction.
Annie Rosen beautifully and boisterously tackles the role of the irrepressible Brother. Through relaxed physicality and energetic readiness, Rosen embodies the young boy with honesty and facility. Rosen deftly navigates the lower register of the role without sacrificing tonal clarity. The power of Rosen’s voice is matched by her ability to make effective and truthful choices as an actor. Rosen aptly elicits the complicated anger, despair, hope and satisfaction of Brother’s relationship with Doodle.
Together, Rutter and Rosen have sparkling chemistry that crackles and pops like lightning in the sky. Their energy, whether in contentious fighting or heartwarming tenderness, elevates the opera into something truly magnificent.
The pair is supported by a cast of masterful vocalists: Quinn Middleman, Bill McMurray, and Sharmay Musacchio create a rich and deeply connected family unit as Mother, Father, and Auntie respectively. The maturity and sheer power of their vocal talents is nothing short of a modern marvel.
Though we are all-too-often reminded of our cosmic insignificance, disenfranchisement may make us feel small, and loss may make us feel weak, wonder in the mysteries of life can give us hope. Dreaming in the face the sleepless unknown is the most powerful choice we have the power to make. The Scarlet Ibis demonstrates the clear and desperate need for inspiration and steadfast empathy in times of unthinkable tragedy.
Chicago Opera Theater presents “The Scarlet Ibis” at the Studebaker Theater, 410 S. Michigan Ave. through February 24. More information and tickets may be found here.