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2 recitals add up to a fine program for Chicago Opera Theater

Mezzo Jennifer JohnsCano sang with power maturity Robert Schu­mann’s “Frauenliebe und -leben.”

Mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano sang with power and maturity on Robert Schu­mann’s “Frauenliebe und -leben.”

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Updated: June 10, 2011 12:27AM

Chicago Opera Theater wrapped up one of its most varied seasons in years with a pairing of two song cycles dealing with stories of the heart. After a multimedia new American “robot opera” (Tod Machover’s “Death and the Powers”) and the Chicago premiere of a 300-year-old French Baroque masterwork (Charpentier’s “Medea”), a project initiated in part as a cost-cutting move developed into an immensely rewarding musical evening.

Under the rubric “He/She,” COT general director Brian Dickie and Chicago Symphony Orchestra artistic programming advisor Gerard McBurney, on loan here as “creative advisor,” paired Robert Schumann’s 1840 “Frauenliebe und -leben” (“A Woman’s Love and Life”), Op. 42, and Leos Janacek’s 1917-20 “The Diary of One Who Disappeared” and recruited two strong young singers, female and male, for what became de facto Chicago recital debuts.

Opening Saturday evening (and repeated only on Sunday afternoon) the concept and its realization was musically very strong, even moving. The Schumann work was a part of the outpouring of music and emotional involvement of the composer’s “Year of Song” that also held the start of his marriage to composer-pianist Clara Wieck. It offers an insightful and, with the right performers, disturbing woman’s-eye view of mid-19th century romance. Mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano, a member of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program from St. Louis, was coming off of a rave New York Times review of her first Manhattan recital last week, and she delivered here as one might have expected of a much older artist. Her well-rounded voice easily filled the Harris Theater, and with onstage pianist Craig Terry of Lyric Opera of Chicago she showed deep understanding of how the cycle tells a story of love, resentment, fulfillment and grief.

After intermission, Chicago favorite Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser offered Janacek’s story of a Slavic farm boy who leaves his family for, we kid you not, a gypsy’s love (and happily, too). Kaiser took ahold of the work with both hands and rode it as if it were a three-year-old colt in the Kentucky Derby. Singing in Czech and with Terry equally committed to the composer’s dotted rhythms and boiling passions, Kaiser showed the vocal and dramatic intelligence that COT and Lyric audiences have come to know over the years. (An unfortunate crack at the 40-minute work’s final climax kept questions about the ardent singer’s technical issues alive, alas.) Janacek, whose career became increasingly focused on opera on his late years, calls for a mezzo to come onstage as the gypsy, Zefka, and COT Young Artist Brandy Lynn Hawkins sang with a seductive inner flame. Her fellow training program members, sopranos Leila Bowie, Hannah Dixon and Megan Rose Williams, were the siren-like off-stage voices.

If this were all there was to the program, it might have been a full success. But McBurney, who created and leads the CSO’s popular “Beyond the Score” series, and Dickie decided to use visual and video projections throughout both works, and these made for decidedly mixed results. Although many of the images culled from period photographs by McBurney’s wife, Alison, were striking, the lack of full supertitles and having Johnson Cano appear in a modern blue recital gown made the visual and aural conjunctions incoherent. Projection designer Hillary Leben, also a “Beyond the Score” vet, did a better job in the second half with the Janacek, but this is an inherently and intentionally theatrical work. Julian Pike’s lighting essentially made for recitals in the dark. Intriguing ideas all told, though either not fully thought out or developed in an unbalanced way. But musically ravishing. More recitals, please. And turn up the lights next time.

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

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