Sunday, May 2, 2010

Mosè in Egitto at Chicago Opera Theater

JT took me to another opera, the April 21st performance of Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto at Chicago Opera Theater.

Altogether, this was quite a different experience from that at Chicago Lyric. Harris Theater is nestled in the bowels of the earth at Millennium Park. Attendees cram onto one relatively small elevator, which fits the parking garage aesthetic of the entry and other public areas. It’s more than just stark and cold, or minimalist. It’s aggressively industrial, the kind of place where you’d expect the scent of leaked oil, disintegrating rubber, and pervasive dampness. Not a place where you’d expect an art like opera to grow and thrive. JT said her husband hates Harris Theater; it’s easy to see why.

Off the elevator and in the theater we descended steep gray steps made of a hard material that suited the garage theme and flanked in spots by flimsy handrails. As the average age here doesn’t seem to be any younger than at Lyric, the purpose of the design seems to be to facilitate vertigo followed by a fall—fortunately, not mine this time. As I looked around, I half expected Blue Man Group to appear.

Baritone-bass Tom Corbeil (Faraone), who is very tall and looked to me to be very young, couldn’t project beyond the first few rows—that’s where we were, and we could hear only just barely. In addition to a weak voice and unvarying volume, Corbeil’s performance suffered from awkward staging exacerbated by his idea that a pharaoh should be stiff, down to his rigid fingers. As his wife Amaltea, mezzo-soprano Kathryn Leemhuis overcame the silliness of the padded gold lamé gown/shroud she’d been stuffed into, to put on a passionate show as the voice of womanly care and reason. Baritone-bass Andrea Concetti (Mosè) and tenor Jorge Prego (Aronne) sang and acted capably, although Prego’s expressions at time reminded me of a young Brent Spiner. To me this seemed a difficult role because it’s superfluous to the plot; he’s overshadowed by the two couples and Mosè. Second banana, fifth wheel—never easy, and the role of Aronne adds little.

The real show stoppers are tenor Taylor Stayton as the Pharoah’s son, Osiride, and soprano (and flaming redhead) Siân Davies as his Israelite lover Elcia. The plot is thin and straightforward, so they end up singing about the same things over and over. Fortunately, both have the vocal power and acting range to stretch the material.

The set, dominated by a slanted glass pyramid sheet, and the costumes lacked flair or imagination, even on a budget, and the staging detracted from the interrelated dramas—Pharoah vs. the God of the Israelites, and the son and his lover vs. his father and her God. Too much was performed straight on or at 180 degrees to the audience (not unlike a first-grade play), random movements were substituted for action, and the ensemble (serving as both Egyptians and Israelites) was too small to project either an Egyptian force or an Israelite throng, making the plot’s very large sticking point (emigration) seem very small. At times, the combined staging and lighting reminded me of Catholic mass—surely not the desired effect. Worse, the staging of the piece’s deaths and the parting of the Red Sea was clumsy, confusing, and on the border of laughable—also surely not the desired effect given the human and personal drama that has gone before.

I couldn’t help noticing one of the ensemble members, partly because he is very tall—as tall as Corbeil—and because, sporting a beard, he’s very handsome. I liked him, too, because he seemed comfortable in his own skin, fluid in his movements, and, despite his height, never calling attention to himself to the detriment of the principals. Through clues in the program and on the Chicago Opera Theater Web site, and my intuition, I figured out he’s baritone-bass Benjamin LeClair. JT looked at his history and declared it impressive for an ensemble member. She speculated that he simply wished to appear in this rare production, even if only as an ensemble member. He also served as cover for Moses. I’d like to hear his voice, especially if he can project better than Corbeil. I’d love to see him again, even if not on stage!

And so, with the deaths duly died and the Israelites on the other side of the Red Sea, we departed, and I was able to get home early enough not to suffer the next day at work—at least I was alert enough to discover the tall and handsome (and too young) Benjamin LeClair.

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