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Sunday, November 20, 2005


Two operas in two weeks. Y'all must have been very bad in a previous life.

Last night's offering was Opening Night of Lyric's new production of Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage, which is barely 50 years old. That should be enough blood on the sheets to satisfy the most puritanical.

I don't have a "Post-1902 'Opera' is DEAD TO ME" policy as my pal M does, but I admit that "20th century" tends to notch my expectations down and "in English" gives them a further twist. Those criteria are gradually losing their hold, though.

Since I've had a Lyric subscription, we've seen Sweeney Todd (which doesn't really count), Billy Budd, Susannah, Cunning Little Vixen (which is in Czech), A Wedding, and now this. The only true clunker among those was Susannah.

Originally, the plan for this evening was for M and I to pick up L, drop off M to see the Harry Potter movie (He's totally on his own there. I'm still litigating to get the 3 hours of my life back from the first one.), with an eye to we three meeting again after our opera, which was supposed to be about exactly as long as the movie. Ha! it is to laugh. The program running time was wrong. The ticket running time (which I'd told M) was wronger, and poor M wound up standing in the cold with a cold for 45 minutes.

The first fly in the ointment of this plan was the heart-stopping realization that last night was Chicago's Festival of Lights. This involves importing roughly 7 billion oblivious suburban adults and their 12 billion ill-mannered children into the downtown area. Because they would never dream of gracing the city with their presence under normal circumstances, Michigan Avenue is closed from Water Tower to Congress. That's 2.5 miles of one of the busiest thoroughfares in the city CLOSED not just to cars, but to foot traffic wanting to cross it. Sounds like a fine time for a Turkey Shoot, but no one seems to be on board with that.

M and I inadvertantly wandered into the aftermath of this once, several years ago. The parade and fireworks had been over for at least 2 hours and it was still giant-SUV-stroller chaos. AGGGH. As one of the biggest issues would have been getting from River East to the Opera House, I blithely abandoned my spouse to public transit, and L and I crept up on Lyric via a route that kept us as far away from suburbanites as possible.

Despite ramp FUBARedness, old men with hats in Buicks, and sundry other idiocies, we were in our seats at least half an hour early, with ample time for perusing the program and wondering how empty the house might be, even on an opening night (Lyric patrons, from our experience, will have no truck with this new-fangled stuff). This extra time for reading may have been more curse than blessing, however. As we each tried to digest the synposis without benefit of any kind of chemical alteration, our expectations were audibly ratcheted down a bit more. Um, it's totally baked, but I'm going to give this a shot.

Act I opens with the chorus arriving in a clearing in the woods to exposit. Their cover story is that they are wedding guests who are so devoid of a sense of direction that they've shown up a day and a half early for the wedding of Mark and Jenifer to allow for ample getting-lost time. They recognize the clearing, beacuse Mark told them that they'd find a Pagan temple within it. In this case, the temple is a large teepee (or a garden gnome buried up to its pointy hat [either interpretation is equally valid {see above, re: pharmaceutical help}]) set in the 12 o'clock position, upstage of a circle in the floor.

The chorus is somewhat miffed to find that they are not the first guests to arrive, as the teepee opens and He-Ancient and She-Ancient emerge, along with a troupe of dancers. Among these is a character named Strephon, who seems to be a friend of Mark's. His presence in the temple is never explained, nor do we know whether the dancers are supposed to be hired wedding entertainment or supernatural Solid Gold Dancers. The groom gets into a dust-up with the Crepe Hair Crowd as he demands a new dance for his wedding day (a strange one to complement his strange birth and strange fate with a strange wedding day. Be careful what you wish for. No, seriously, dude. BE CAREFUL) and, oh yeah, why'd you try to break Strephon's leg, and who the hell is Strephon anyway?

The Ancients make disgruntled noises about the dangers of Mark's demand, which prompts him to sing of his love for the great stat of O---Klahoma. Or possibly his great love for Jenifer. The chorus, the Ancients, and the Ambiguous Plane of Existence Dancers gather round, clearly hoping for some naughty details on the relationship. They and Mark are both disappointed when Jenifer shows up just when it looks like he might be getting to the good stuff.

Jenifer, it seems, has packed a case, donned a pillbox hat and gloves, and decided that she's in search of Truth, not Love. Mark is understandably irked by this and dismisses her putative motive for running over, instead insisting that she fears the disapproval of her father, King Fisher. Jenifer is adamant that she's through with men dictating her movements and summons a floor-to-ceiling marital aid from above to prove her point (more on this lone unfortunate staging choice later). None too soon, she climbs inside it and is elevated offstage. Mark, in trying to follow, descends into the Earth. Say hi to Kundry for us while you're down there, Mark.

King Fisher rushes in just in time to insult the chorus for being friends of that bastard Mark. Based on the fact that both are now missing, and in controversion of the accounts of 75 guests, including Ancients and ambiguous dancers, he concludes that Mark has kidnapped Jenifer. His plan of attack is two-pronged: He will throw money at the guests, hoping to enlist their help in recovering Jenifer; meanwhile, he will commence a tremendous banging on the marital aid in an attempt at eliminating the recently insulted middle man. Although the menfolk eagerly chase after the flying cash, the women refuse to be bribed, demoting King Fisher's approach to 1.5 prongs. It's King Fisher's Gal Friday, Bella, to the rescue, though. She enlists the aid of her mechanic boyfriend, Jack, in cracking the marital aid's code.

Just as King Fisher's plan seems to be back up to a healthy two prongs, though, a pesky oracle has to throw her two cents in from the doors to Aisle 4, first balcony, which happens to be right behind our seats. She cannot advise King Fisher's fucking with the marital aid with Jack's metaphorical dick. She makes no comment on whether fucking with the marital aid with J's dick would be advisable.

While these petty arguments are transpiring on the (kind of) mortal plane, Jenifer and Mark, both now clad in pure white, return and have an "I'm-more-magical-and-enlightened-than-thou-BITCH" throwdown, mediated by the Ancients and interpreted in dance by the Planally Ambiguous Dancers (PADs). (Scaling the marital aid and humping it does little to dispel its marital aidness.) The enlightment-off largely serves to illustrate that Jenifer is pretty much a snotty harpie and Mark's too good for her. The Ancients appear not to agree with my assessment, calling it a draw, and the would-be bride and groom swap educational planes, Mark going up this time, and Jenifer livin' it up while she's goin' down.

That pretty much takes us to the end of Act I. My gentle readers might want a snack at this point. Or a beer. Or a bong hit.

In Act II, Strephon's identity and purpose are not made any clearer by his dancing around in boxer shorts. I could not even tell you whether or not he's circumcised. He's driven off the stage by the arrival of Bella and Jack, and we learn that Bella's thoughts have turned to marriage. She informs Jack of her decision, and he seems down with the idea. (And who would blame him? Bella's hot.)

For reasons best understood by Tippett and probably his dealer, Bella and Jack's betrothal provokes the PADs to yet more dance. A handful of what L and I would come to call The Laker Androgynes (they had this bizarre arm-head movement combo that was quite cheerleader-esque, and their costuming defied gender identification) emerged to play the part of the forest, the water, the sky, and what have you, while Strephon (still in his boxers), a female dancer in a nightie, and at least one other beboxered male dancer donned various animal heads to enact three seasonal-elemental interpretations of male-female relationships.

Autumn finds us on Earth with an exceptionally stupid dog (Female. Is one of us supposed to be the dog here, Harry? I'm the dog. I am the dog.) chasing a languid hare. Winter finds us in the Water, where our dancers play Sea Otter and Squirrel and have nothing to do with each other. (Oh, fine, it's otter and fish, with the female as predator. As usual.) In Spring, we take to the air. The male dancer is an innocent widdle songbird, hopping and stumbling about on his first flight, while the female as hawk flies menacingly overhead.

After placidly watching these dramas unfold for a good 30 minutes, Bella suddenly freaks out about the fact that the Hawk dancer clearly meant to kill the songbird. Well, duh, Gal Friday. Jack, having gotten first glimpse of the road of whacky unfolding before him, still comforts her. She recovers quickly and is on to freaking out that her hair and face are a mess. Jack holds her compact mirror for her as she lays out the tools of the trade and deploys them, explaining to Jack exactly how a woman goes about ensnaring a man. Naturally, she then has to kill him so the state secrets don't go any farther. Ok, I made that up. During this Act, Jack seems to have forgotten that they both work for King Fisher, and he's wigged out when Bella suggests that she's now in shape to return to the Boss Man.

And that, my friends, is Act II. How're we doin'? Any casualties? Moving on to meth at this point? Carry on.

While Bella and Jack were being oblivious to the grim depictions of their future, the chorus continued to party hard. They pour on to the stage, expressing their contentment with the day. King Fisher berates them for their uselessness and reminds the men that they're still on the payroll. He instructs them to go and fetch Sosostris, an oracle he keeps on retainer for just these kinds of emergencies. While the men are off, King Fisher has Bella push the uniboob on the teepee (Remember the teepee? It's been there the whole time.) to summon the Ancients. King Fisher talks a bit of trash to them, insisting that his oracles are bigger than theirs.

The guys head back in bearing a litter that contains Swamp Thing holding up what appears to be a giant gong. (Gong. Not Bong. Go figure.) Everybody has a larff, because of course it's Jack of All Trades, the technician, not the magician. The merriment is cut short by Sosostris, who emerges from beneath the stage, just upstage of the former location of the marital aid and just downstage of the teepee.

King Fisher asks her to look into the glass and help him find Jenifer. After a long lecture on oracular procedure, she asks for a peek at Jack's gong and describes a scene from Harlequin Romances on acid: Jenifer is being ravaged by a lion with a human face and human arms (apparently in addition to the four lion limbs, because she initially mistakes the arms for wings), and seems to be quite pleased about it.

King Fisher pages Doctor Freud and flies into a rage at Sosostris. He hands Jack a gun and tells him to go to work. Jack throws the gun at him, presumably severing their employment contract. King Fisher begins ripping apart Sosostris's garment (which she repeatedly reminds us has never been lifted by mortals), which has the effect of a Whack-A-Mole hammer on her. The Laker Androgynes make another appearance, encircling her as she descends back into the stage and Mark and Jenifer (Remember them? We haven't seen them in an Act and a half.) emerge atop a simplified version of the marital aid, "entwined like the Hindu deities Shiva and Parvati," according to the offishial synopsis. Not so much with the entwining, sez your humble personalized synopsist.

King Fisher has an Electra-induced (no, not the Jennifer Garner Elektra, although I agree that that would kill anyone, or at least sap their will to live) hear attack and dies. This kicks off the REAL party. They carry the dead guy around for a while, shrouding him with the remains of Sosostris's garment. Strephon appears and conjures not only a flaming spear, but a pretty healthy bonfire atop the mini-marital aid (which Mark and Jenifer have vacated, but have not, in my opinion, achieved minimum safe distance, given that this is a REAL FIRE and they are wearing flowy robes). The plighted disappear behind the teepee, then reemerge in their wedding clothes. A choral number comprises the ceremony, they pause for a kiss inside the Star Trek sheeshing doors to the teepee and then saunter inside (again, far to fucking slowly for my tastes, as Jenifer has a 90-foot train that came within a hair's breadth of being stuck in the doors as they closed).

And that's it, boys and girls. We all lived through it. But other than that, Mr. Colerdige, how did you enjoy the opera?

Actually, I really loved it. Musically, this is my favorite of 20th century stuff we've seen. Production-wise, it probably doesn't quite edge out Cunning Little Vixen, but it's close. The first thing that really made this production work was the fact that they made all the events into the result of Mark's premarital dream.

They brought the curtain up long before the musicians were ready or the action started, revealing a brass bed in the center of the circle representing the clearing. The temple sat upstage of the bed, and there were two sections of rods representing the forest. The back section was set in a semicircle and remained static for the whole show. The other section was set inside the smaller circle, and these were hauled up during Act I and didn't return until the very end of the opera.

Although Mark begins the opera in the bed, he soon emerges in his pajamas and interacts directly with the chorus. Through some clever sleight-of-down that neither L nor I caught, there was also a "Mark double" who remained in the bed. He remains present throughout all three acts, sometimes standing on top of the bed to see over the heads of the chorus (which moves the bed off to the side or back to the center when necessary), sometimes lurking down on the apron.

The dreamlike quality was so ably helped along by other elements of the production that I'm not sure the double's highly visible presence at all times was necessary. I would strenuously argue that having the Mark double leap out of bed and begin getting dressed during the last swells of music was a big mistake, as one is left with the visual impression that Mark gets a dramatic chord for every button he correctly buttons, culminating in a giant cymbal crash when he successfully zips up his pants with no injury to Little Mark. That aside, though, making it explicit that the action is a dream made pharmaceutical assistance somewhat less necessary, at least to this nightly filmgoer, and L seemed to agree.

The staging and blocking were one element that went a long way toward maintaining the dreamstate. The very back of the set consisted of flaps of scrim hung behind the fixed semicircle of "forest." The arrival of the chorus was always announced by the appearance of their softly lit shadows on the drapes, which fluttered prettily as they made their way onstage. Scrim is a bitch and a half to hang, let alone to hang so seamlessly when you're moving a huge number of people through it on a regular basis, so kudos to whoever pulled that off.

The lighting design also deserves a giant shout out. The lighting at the top of the opera was big on nature as seen in primary colors by a 5-year-old. The rich blues and greens evoked light pouring into a church through stained glass. Later, it was the work of a second to transform the entire stage into muddy greens and browns so realistic, you could almost smell the earth. And the sprinkles on top of the lighting design was the judicious, restrained use of strobe lights (I know what those words mean individually, but in the context of every stage design ever, they make no sense) to create the sense of wind moving through the trees.

As much fun as I poked at the Teepee Temple in the synopsis, it was actually just fine. It served its purpose well as a means of entry for the supernatural beings into the dream, and it was absolutely necessary for a number of quick changes, exits, and entrances. Although it was not immediately apparent, it was painted so neutrally that the lighting design was able to blend it into every mood and setting necessary.

Before Act III opened, L pointed out the illustration of Sosostris that acted as the banner for the opening page of the "opera content" of the program. It did not inspire confidence coming from those who brought you The Marital Aid (see below), but I have to say this was pulled off with substantially greater success than I'd hoped.

At its full emergence, the figure was probably 15-20 feet tall, with at least 6 feet of that being a grotesque head (the beturbaned head of the singer for the role appeared within the cavernous mouth) that looked as if it were made of papier mache. This reminded me of some of the better work of The Redmoon Puppet Theatre. The PADs scurried out ahead of her to unfurl the streamers that made up her garment and to deploy her skeletal, batwing-like arms when appropriate. Act III was too long by half, at least, but the staging of Sosostris wasn't the issue.

This brings me to the lone Big Mistake in the design. The Marital Aid. Yes, Jenifer needs to climb a mysterious staircase for her first mystical experience. Yes, Mark needs to descend into the Earth for his. No, you do not need to put something smack dab in the middle of the stage that, at best, looks like the Jupiter 2's interdeck elevator (I'm counting on at least S and M taking that visual mental journey with me), or, at worst, looks like a floor-to-ceiling, ribbed-for-her-pleasure, futuristic dildo. Thankfully, it only appears in Act I, but that's a loooong time to be staring at it, particularly when the PADs incorporate into their mystical exposition dances.

With a few exceptions, the costuming was a success. The chorus were decked out in their best 40s/50s goin' to a weddin' attire, with fedoras and crinolines aplenty. The PADs were more of a mixed bag. In Act I, the male dancers are in white suits with no shirts, presumably as a nod to Mark's pajamas. However, the female dancers' gowns are pretty straightforward tea-length, drapeneck bridesmaids dresses with not enough jammy to them to match.

In Act II, the Laker Androgyne costumes consisted of near-flourescent green skullcaps and multilayered (outermost layer a neutral gray, the underlayers varying from bright green to blue to brown) ankle-length skirts for all. The overall effect of these was somewhat uneven. They blended beautifully when they represented a briskly flowing river, but when they were standing around representing trees, not so much.

Jack's yokely overalls and very minty green shirt were a bit much. The actor was perfectly capable of playing up the contrast to Bella's brassy working gal persona without making him cousin to Cletus. I did, however, love the Swamp Thing cloak, even though I'm not sure that I loved it for the reasons the costume designer might've been hoping. On a similarly not-terrible-but-not-successful-either note, the Ancients' costumes were a touch too recycled-from-the-traumatic-production-of-Parsifal for my tastes.

Performance-wise, this production was solid with one exception. Janice Watson's doppler-exploiting performance made me grateful that Jenifer's role is actually quite small, despite the fact that she is supposedly one of the main characters. It's possible that she wouldn't have bothered me nearly so much if I hadn't just heard Karita Mattila last week, but I did. Mattila breezes through some really hairy-sounding passages with incredible ease. Watson noodles around the note softly for a bit, then blares it out when she maybe kind of has it. Not only is her technique sloppy, her tone sucks. Feh. We are not a fan.

Stacey Tappan, however, makes everything better as the very easy to love Bella. We've seen her in numerous smallish roles at Lyric before, but have never really had the opportunity to hear her strut her vocal stuff at length. Bella is just about the perfect role for her. She's curvy without being anywhere near the traditional size of the opera diva, so the close-fitting 40s style blouse and skirt set off her figure to great advantage. She and Kurt Streit (Jack) had lovely chemistry and great comic timing with one another.

In terms of other roles, Joseph Kaiser did a vocally more-than-respectable job as Mark, though the role is a strange one to act. Peter Rose had both the acting and vocal chops for King Fisher. I was sorry to see him ultimately keel over.

The He- and She-Ancients had their work cut out for them, as the brunt of the Wagnerian elements fell on them. Kevin Langan and Merideth Arwady did their best to emote through the crepe hair and atonality, but I'll remember them more fondly as the Pirate King and Tisbe, respectively.

The only other singer whom I could have taken or left was Catherine Wyn-Rogers as Sosostris. In fairness to her, she did first appear about 7 feet behind me and to my right, which allowed me to hear more of her flaws than I normally would have. Sadly, this made me more attuned to them when she appeared onstage in Act III. This did little to remedy the fact that her role in that Act really drags things out unnecessarily.

The chorus deserves special mention. The music for them is gorgeous and emotionally moving. In addition, it is not easy to move in a body with that many people. They made the blocking look easy and it was clear that each person had decided on a character and never broke it for a moment, despite one hell of a lot of time on stage with very little to do.

Obviously, this gets two enthusiastic thumbs up from Og and L, but how did the rest of the audience receive it? Well, the guy immediately next to L slept through a great deal of Act I and was nowhere to be seen by Act III. Actually, for a good long while, I thought the HIGHLY AUDIBLE BREATHING was my stalwart companion and I wondered how I had attended 4 seasons of opera with him without realizing that he breathed so loud. Although most of the audience came back for Act II, the copious ballet seemed to be more than a portion of the audience could bear. One couple, in particular, seemed to want to be sure that SOMEONE noted that they were leaving and waited until the lights dimmed for Act III before skulking out.

However, at least as far as we saw, there was no ostentatious walking out in the first minute and a half as we witnessed for Vixen (apparently Czech is much more objectionable than English). Furthermore, even the first balcony remained at least 85% full at curtain call. The audience almost seemed to be overcompensating on the ovation for the dancers---at least I got a "well, that could've been worse" vibe off it. The receptions for Mark, Bella, and King Fisher were notably enthusiastic, and the applause for Sir Andrew Davis and the orchestra was riotous. Sir Andrew was having one helluva time conducting throughout. I don't think I've ever seen him so animated, and I don't blame him. In almost every respect, this was a very pleasant surprise.

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