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Chicago Opera Theater presents truly inventive ‘Medea’

Chicago Opera Theater: ‘medea’


◆ Through Sunday

◆ Harris Theater,
205 E. Randolph

◆ $30-$110



Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

The words “Baroque opera” elicit happy nods and smiles from lovers of 17th and early 18th century Italian and English music. Thanks to the tireless work of intrepid musicologists and performers, the works of Monteverdi, Handel and others have not only been revived but have taken their place in today’s international opera repertoire.

The French stream in the churning river of the Baroque has had a harder time getting its due. A combination of fewer scholars interested in performance and fewer performers focused on the unique language skills, instrumental style and vocal requirements of the genre has meant that the works of Lully, Rameau and Marc-Antoine Charpentier have lagged behind their national rivals in public presentation.

Largely through the work of William Christie, an American expat in Paris, and his ensemble Les Arts Florissants, named for a 1685 Charpentier work, a flurry of interest in this era began in the 1980s. Though not the first to rediscover Charpentier’s major opera, the 1693 “Medee” (“Medea”), Christie did perform and record it at about the same time in the early ‘80s. He began giving full productions and made a classic second recording of the five-act, three-hour-plus “tragedie lyrique” in the 1990s, a major landmark, too, in the careers of mezzo Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and “haut-contre” (high tenor) Mark Padmore.

It’s no surprise that Brian Dickie should be the one to give Charpentier’s “Medea” its first local professional production with his Chicago Opera Theater. No one else has both his sense of adventure and commitment to expanding the standard repertoire even in the face of limited financial resources. COT’s “Medea” is the middle part of a three-year chronological trilogy of works based on the ancient Greek story of Medea. Last year brought a huge success with Cavallli’s 1649 “Giasone,” and next year COT wraps up the survey with yet another rarity, Handel’s 1713 “Teseo.”

“Medea” is surely the greatest artistic challenge of the series; the least known of the works, it is sprawling for today’s audiences in its original expansive concept and it also requires the most special skills. Paring the work by an hour (basically by cutting the prologue required of operas by French king Louis XIV and the lighter “divertissements” and related ballet sequences), British conductor Christian Curnyn and director James Darrah focus on the dramatic story of the vengeful sorceress whose feckless hero-husband abandons her, despite his need for her skills and ruthlessness.

Fast-climbing Curnyn is leading all three Medea operas here from the harpsichord. With Chicago’s Baroque Band augmented to 24 musicians (including guest concertmaster Catherine Martin, theorbo specialist Michael Leopold, second harpsichord and coach Andrew Griffiths and recorder players Lisette Kielson and Laura Osterland), he is a major star of this production, letting the music breathe and introducing Chicago audiences to much of Charpentier’s harmonically inventive and frequently changing style.

Some of the young vocal soloists still have a way to go in this difficult repertoire, but British mezzo Anna Stephany is superb in the title role. As singer and actress, she manages to capture her character’s external anger and inner hurt. We believe both that she loves her children and would kill them to destroy her husband Jason. Canadian tenor Colin Ainsworth has an attractive voice, though it did not vary greatly throughout the emotional roller-coaster ride his character takes. Of the other singers, only bass Evan Boyer, of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Center, as Creon has a strong handle on the technical demands and a fully inviting sound. The impressive 16-member chorus, essential to this work musically and dramatically and made up here mostly of COT’s Young Artists Program members, were superbly prepared by Errol Girdlestone. The constant flow of well-sung and enunciated French, unusual in the opera house, was like a warm and perfumed bath.

Darrah, not yet 30, and his design colleagues Francois-Pierre Couture (sets) and Julian Pike (lights) wisely aim for simplicity: no dragons, no chariots, no extra visual story lines, a largely abstract invocation of the demons of hell. They keep the story one of humans at whatever extremes of emotion and action they might inhabit. This first Chicago offering of “Medea” is an excellent introduction to a neglected musical world.

Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).

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