13 November 2016

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Henry Purcell — THE FAIRY QUEEN, Z.629 (M. Molomot, K. E. Jones, C. Berry, A. Martinez-Turano, S. Brunscheen, D. Taylor, R. Belongie, R. Gomez; Chicago Opera Theater, 11 November 2016)

IN REVIEW: Tenor MARC MOLOMOT as Puck in Chicago Opera Theater's production of Henry Purcell's FAIRY QUEEN, 11 November 2016 [Photo by Liz Lauren / Handout]HENRY PURCELL (1659 – 1695): The Fairy Queen, Z.629Marc Molomot (Puck), Kimberly Eileen Jones (Tanya), Cedric Berry (Ron), Alexandra Martinez-Turano (Helena, Dancer), Scott J. Brunscheen (Demetrius), Darryl Taylor (Herman), Ryan Belongie (Lysander), Roberto Gomez (Shakes); Haymarket Opera Orchestra; Jory Vinikour, harpsichord and conductor [Andreas Mitisek, Production Design and Director; Dan Weingarten, Lighting Designs; David Lee Bradke, Lighting Director; Chicago Opera Theater, The Studebaker Theater, Fine Arts Building, Chicago, Illinois, USA; Friday, 11 November 2016]

Oscar Wilde wrote that ‘man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.’ Though the contexts and the meanings of the related words are very different, it can be asserted with ample justification that giving Henry Purcell an opportunity to compose a masque inspired him to express human truths through music. Born in London’s Royal Borough of Westminster in 1659, Purcell is, despite his extraordinary significance to English music, a figure about whose biography there is at least as much conjecture as there is consensus. The composer Daniel Purcell, commonly identified as Henry’s younger brother, may have actually been his cousin or a lesser relation, for example, and constructing a chronology of the elder Purcell’s career with any pretension of accuracy is virtually impossible. Painstaking scholarship has yielded relative certainty about the likelihood that Purcell’s largest-scaled work for the stage, the masque The Fairy Queen, was composed in 1692 and premièred at the Queen’s Theatre in the same year in celebration of the wedding anniversary of Britain’s dual monarchs, William III and Mary II. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren, the Queen’s Theatre was a marvel of form and function, the feats of stagecraft made possible by the fruits of Wren’s genius manifested in the music written for the venue. It was as an entertainment to be presented among the five acts of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream that The Fairy Queen was conceived, but the masque’s words, authorship of which remains unidentified, are only tangentially related to Shakespeare’s play. Given this masque within the structure of one of Western literature’s greatest works for the stage in which to perform his musical magic, Purcell tells the truth with stunning wit and wisdom. Perhaps, as Emily Dickinson put it, he sometimes tells it ‘slant,’ but the truth in The Fairy Queen is unfailingly tuneful.

The first fully-staged show to be presented in the newly-rejuvenated Studebaker Theater in the historic Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue, Chicago Opera Theater’s production of The Fairy Queen, designed and directed by COT General Director Andreas Mitisek and utilizing a very free adaptation of Purcell’s semi-opera [numbers were cut and reordered, vocal parts were changed, and music from other scores by Purcell, mainly King Arthur, was interpolated] by the trio of inventive minds—Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas, and Herbert Siguenza—united in Culture Clash, fused Purcell’s musical ‘Restoration spectacular’ with elements of the plot of its intended Shakespearean setting. Transplanting the action from Shakespeare’s distant antiquity to a vague present, the mysterious sylvan world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was traded for a seedy Las Vegas establishment that recalled the continental haunts of Christopher Isherwood and his circle of moral miscreants. Though intermittently effective in the most basic ways, especially in exploring how decent people can unintentionally but devastatingly hurt one another, the production left few tired, dramatically pointless clichés of sexual depravity untouched. Here a nightclub owner who was equal parts Joel Grey’s Emcee in Cabaret, Jonathan Pryce’s Engineer in Miss Saigon, and a parody of every roué in opera, COT’s Puck was deprived of the mercurial charisma that renders Shakespeare’s incarnation of the character memorable. No new ground was excavated by the production’s race, gender, and sexual preference stereotypes, and the innuendo and pantomime depravity, typified by the heroine of sorts suggestively unzipping Puck’s trousers, were uncomfortable for the cast and, most critically, for Purcell. Dan Weingarten’s lighting designs and David Lee Bradke’s implementation of them brought the production vividly to life, though the strobe lights in Part Two emphasized the garishness of the pseudo-erotic cavorting at the expense of the unfolding emotional drama. There were many affecting moments in the performance, but they mostly occurred in spite of rather than because of the production. Modernizing Baroque scores when bringing them to the stage has become common practice, sometimes with fantastic results, but the problem with reimagining The Fairy Queen as Lulu is that Purcell’s risqué but sublime, sensitive work is at odds with a nonsensical story about repulsive people. Purcell demands poetry, not pornography, and this production failed its participants and its patrons by using the artists on stage as objects in a sexual farce rather than vessels for the unadulterated outpouring of Purcell’s music.

IN REVIEW: Harpsichordist and conductor JORY VINIKOUR, conductor of Chicago Opera Theater's production of Henry Purcell's FAIRY QUEEN, 11 November 2016 [Photo by Nuccio di Nuzzo]Man with a plan: Harpsichordist and conductor Jory Vinikour, conductor of Chicago Opera Theater’s production of Henry Purcell’s Fairy Queen, 11 November 2016
[Photo by Nuccio di Nuzzo]

Purcell’s champion and savior in this production was internationally-acclaimed harpsichordist and conductor Jory Vinikour. Leading the period-instrument orchestra of Chicago’s Haymarket Opera, with which company he will perform Alessandro Scarlatti’s oratorio San Giovanni Battista at Malta’s Valletta Baroque Festival in January 2017, Vinikour labored mightily to enthrone this Fairy Queen in a musical realm that Purcell would recognize and endorse. The Haymarket musicians—first violinists Jeri-Lou Zike, Ann Duggan, and Wendy Benner; second violinists Martin Davids, Emi Tanabe, and Lori Ashikawa; violists Liz Hagen and Dave Moss; cellists Craig Trompeter and Lucien Werner; violone player Jerry Fuller; Dave Walker on theorbo; Kathryn Montoya and Sung Lee doubling on oboe and recorder; Kris Kwapis and Tom Pfotenhauer on natural trumpet; and Brandon Podjasek on kettle drums and tambourine—collaborated with Vinikour in the creation of a sound world in which one could take refuge from the tomfoolery littering the stage. Even from the perspective of the Twenty-First Century, in which perceptions of orchestral grandeur are shaped in the opera house by Wagner and Richard Strauss and in the concert hall by Mahler, it is remarkable to experience how much sheer sound an ensemble of eighteen musicians can generate. That sound was sporadically compromised by faltering intonation and a handful of flaws from the notoriously unmanageable valveless trumpets, but, on the whole, the period instruments and their handlers made wonderfully diverting noises. Guiding the performance as though extemporaneously composing the score himself, Vinikour provided continuo playing that was inventive but restrained, and his colleagues in the pit shared his gifts for crisp rhythms, pinpoint articulations of harmonic progressions, and purposeful ornaments. The pruning and restructuring to which the score was subjected limited cohesion among scenes, but Vinikour achieved marvels in sustaining momentum and facilitating musical characterization by both singers and instrumentalists. Long in demand as a vocal coach and respected recital partner for some of the world’s best singers, Vinikour débuted as a conductor of opera as recently as August 2016, when he paced West Edge Opera’s performances of Händel’s Agrippina in Oakland, California, but a novice’s nerves were not apparent in this Fairy Queen. He and the orchestra supplied the foundation of professionalism that the production sorely needed, and his spot-on tempi and grounding musicality counterbalanced the unnecessary scenic stupidity.

Also covering the lead rôles, the seven choristers—tenor Jonathan Weyant, soprano Lari Stait, basses Zacharias Niedzwiecki and Samuel Weiser, mezzo-sopranos Kira Dills-DeSurra and Quinn Middleman, and tenor Patrick Dean Shelton—sang strongly and often very beautifully. In an ensemble of this size, the quality of each individual voice was apparent, and the young singers revealed themselves to be first-rate artists in the making. Temporarily abandoning his Club FQ bartending duties to writhe acrobatically as the dominatrix Miss Trixie’s scantily-clad ‘pussy cat’ in the production’s second half, Niedzwiecki literally revealed more than his colleagues, but his singing was as impressive as his physique. Any one of these talented youngsters might have stepped into a leading rôle with assurance. As an ensemble, their work was marvelous: lulling the anguished Tanya to sleep, their singing of ‘Hush, no more, be silent all’ was the musical zenith of the performance.

Shakes—an apt name for a perennially-inebriated barstool bard who merrily trades couplets for Courvoisier—was portrayed with absolute conviction by baritone Roberto Gomez, a lauded Figaro in Il barbiere di Siviglia whose familiarity with Rossinian fiorature paid rich dividends in his singing of Purcell’s music. Among the cast, Gomez seemed most at ease with the bawdy comedy (but was also spared the most provocative of it, it must be admitted), delivering lines with near-perfect timing, reacting organically to the other players, and taking bits like Shakes’s concerted flirtation with Puck—falling victim to his own aphrodisiacal concoction—in stride. Though the tessitura of his music sometimes seemed marginally too low for him, the baritone sonorously entreated his friends at Club FQ to ‘Fill up the bowl,’ and he was a champion stutterer in Purcell’s parody music. Gomez was an amiable Drunken Poet, a good-natured if excessively-boozed Christopher Sly who sang with a good grasp of Purcell’s idiom. Can one really imagine Sly propositioning a tavern keeper, though?

IN REVIEW: Countertenors RYAN BELONGIE as Lysander (left) and DARRYL TAYLOR as Herman (right) in Chicago Opera Theater's production of Henry Purcell's FAIRY QUEEN, 11 November 2016 [Photo by Liz Lauren / Handout]Boys on the town: Countertenors Ryan Belongie as Lysander (left) and Darryl Taylor as Herman (right) in Chicago Opera Theater’s production of Henry Purcell’s Fairy Queen, 11 November 2016
[Photo by Liz Lauren / Handout]

The production made it difficult to empathize with any of the characters, especially the party-seeking newlyweds Lysander and Herman, but the interpreters of these rôles worked diligently to connect with their audience. Countertenor Ryan Belongie was a suavely handsome Lysander who coped manfully with being asked to romp embarrassingly—and shirtlessly—with Helena. Vocally, his was a mellifluous performance, and the quality of his acting largely matched the caliber of his singing. Arriving at Club FQ, Belongie’s Lysander duetted erotically with Herman, but his potion-induced transition to heterosexuality was equally adroit. His delivery of the line ‘I even find her breasts enticing’ when ogling Helena was hilarious. His lean, sinewy voice flowed through Purcell’s melodic lines like pure honey, and he negotiated divisions with surety. He radiated boyish sex appeal but was also the most maturely expressive of the principals: gaining cognizance of his brief liaison with Helena, his face conveyed heartbreak and regret as earnestly as his singing.

Fellow countertenor Darryl Taylor was a supernova of virility as Herman, flexing his muscles like a prizefighter and donning South Beach-esque attire with aplomb. Like Belongie, he found in Purcell’s music ample opportunities for honeyed vocalism, and his agility was admirable. The melting lyricism of his singing in ensembles was delightful. The imagery of ‘See my many coloured fields’ was manifested in his light-emitting shoes, but it was the voice that shone most brightly. The staging required Taylor to camp it up shamelessly, but the integrity of his artistry could not be obscured.

In this production, Demetrius and Helena were not yet married but already pursuing counseling in an effort to heal and preserve their foundering relationship. One wondered whether its survival was really wanted by the henpecked Demetrius of tenor Scott Brunscheen. Tall, feigning awkwardness, and clearly unnerved by his bossy bride-to-be, he could not be faulted for his reluctance to make a lifelong commitment to Helena. Vocally, there was nothing hesitant in Brunscheen’s performance. His lithe, attractive lyric tenor was firm and focused throughout the performance, and the liquid ease of his singing was enchanting. Dramatically, Brunscheen was the crestfallen fiancé to the life, unsure of himself and awaiting instructions from Helena on what to think and feel. The singer’s voice soared with the freedom and confidence that the character’s spirit lacked, and his admission to Helena that, whilst under the influence of Puck’s elixir, he had done quite a bit more than staring into another man’s eyes was bizarrely touching.

IN REVIEW: Soprano ALEXANDRA MARTINEZ-TURANO as Helena (left) and countertenor RYAN BELONGIE as Lysander (right) in Chicago Opera Theater's production of Henry Purcell's FAIRY QUEEN, 11 November 2016 [Photo by Liz Lauren / Handout]What fools these mortals be: Soprano Alexandra Martinez-Turano as Helena (left) and countertenor Ryan Belongie as Lysander (right) in Chicago Opera Theater’s production of Henry Purcell’s Fairy Queen, 11 November 2016
[Photo by Liz Lauren / Handout]

Singing as gracefully as she moved as an exotic dancer in Club FQ, soprano Alexandra Martinez-Turano was a fanciful, flexible Helena who seemed besotted with the notion of being married but not so much with its practical implications, especially those implications that she could not micromanage. It was unfortunate that this production perpetuated the slander that folks who enjoy a bit of fun are essentially sex-addicted sluts. Shakespeare’s Helena, though unquestionably highly-strung, is no Athenian Jezebel, but COT’s Helena was undeniably an historically-informed girl gone wild. Martinez-Turano therefore earned special praise for making the character interesting. Her vocalism was unimpeachable. Her performance lent the expected metamorphosis from uptight prude to sexually-liberated ‘true self’ emotional sincerity. Recasting the languidly sensual ‘If Love’s a sweet passion’ as a quartet for Helena, Demetrius, Herman, and Lysander was among the production’s foremost successes, and the singers traded lines beguilingly. Here and in every passage that she sang, Martinez-Turano’s crystalline tones were a great asset to this Fairy Queen.

Standing in for Shakespeare’s Oberon and Titania, COT’s Ron and Tanya were sung by a pair of expert singing actors whose well-matched musical and dramatic qualities enabled them to loft their characterizations above the production’s obsession with flesh and carnal gratification. Bass-baritone Cedric Berry projected machismo and a voice of fabulous mettle to the theater’s last row. A man with natural weaknesses rather than a licentious philanderer, the Ron created by Berry was a hard-surfaced but tender-hearted husband whose love for Tanya seemed to ooze from his pores. Distracted by Martinez-Turano’s feisty señorita, he voiced ‘See, I obey’ commandingly, and he joined Martinez-Turano in a steamy rendition of ‘Come, come, come, come, let us leave the town.’ Parted from Tanya by the fallout from his straying eyes and hands, Ron’s life was stopped in its tracks. Berry expressed the character’s guilt and loss in his heartfelt, compellingly-sung ‘Next, winter comes slowly.’ Turning on Puck in frantic anger after the well-intentioned cocktail misdirected Tanya’s affections, Berry raged rousingly in ‘Arise, ye subterranean winds,’ tossing off the difficult passagework and deploying dazzling thunderbolts of sound at the top of the range. In the production’s penultimate scene, Ron’s reconciliation with Tanya was nobly done: in addition to earning Tanya’s forgiveness, the sighs of surrender and warm applause made it clear that Berry’s debonair wooing won over hearts in the audience. His was the best singing of the evening, an unforgettable performance by a star on the rise.

IN REVIEW: Soprano KIMBERLY EILEEN JONES as Tanya (left) and bass-baritone CEDRIC BERRY as Ron (right) in Chicago Opera Theater's production of Henry Purcell's FAIRY QUEEN, 11 November 2016 [Photo by Liz Lauren / Handout]The course of true love never did run smooth: Soprano Kimberly Eileen Jones as Tanya (left) and bass-baritone Cedric Berry as Ron (right) in Chicago Opera Theater’s production of Henry Purcell’s Fairy Queen, 11 November 2016
[Photo by Liz Lauren / Handout]

Partnering Berry as the temperamental Tanya, soprano Kimberly Eileen Jones looked like a svelte Jennifer Hudson and sounded like a young Camilla Williams. Discovering her husband prostrate beneath an undulating dancer, Jones’s eruption of ire was ferocious: most of the men in the theatre likely wanted to cower beneath their seats merely for having looked at the shimmying Delilah. The production’s single greatest misstep was staging a comedic routine for Puck during Tanya’s singing of the score’s most famous number and one of the pinnacles of Seventeenth-Century music, the passacaglia-form Plaint ‘O let me weep.’ Jones phrased the air magisterially, her command of the requisite style more certain here than in any other number. She sometimes sacrificed diction to the use of distorted vowels more conducive to vocal production, especially as her lines ascended, but the rounded tones that she produced rarely failed to compensate for the lack of verbal clarity. The bravura demands of ‘Hark! how all things in one sound rejoice’ and ‘Hark! the echoing air’ were sparklingly met. Nevertheless, Jones was happiest when her melodies were unencumbered by fiorature, but she wielded a good trill. Like Berry’s, her performance satisfied and promised still finer things to come. Though the production’s depiction of African American culture was dispiritingly unoriginal and even insulting, placing a couple of color at its center was a commendable and irrefutable validation that all singers as gifted as Berry and Jones belong on all of the world’s important stages.

IN REVIEW: Tenor MARC MOLOMOT as Puck (left) and soprano KIMBERLY EILEEN JONES as Tanya (right) in Chicago Opera Theater's production of Henry Purcell's FAIRY QUEEN, 11 November 2016 [Photo by Liz Lauren / Handout]The elixir of lust: Tenor Marc Molomot as Puck (left) and soprano Kimberly Eileen Jones as Tanya (right) in Chicago Opera Theater’s production of Henry Purcell’s Fairy Queen, 11 November 2016
[Photo by Liz Lauren / Handout]

The nucleus around which the supercharged particles of this Fairy Queen whirred was the Puck of tenor Marc Molomot. A celebrated exponent of French repertory ranging from Lully to Poulenc, Molomot’s haute-contre voice was a good fit for Purcell’s music, which was likely composed for voices in the English tradition of singers like John Dowland, their natural ranges poised between the modern distinctions of tenor and countertenor. Some of the music assigned to Molomot was slightly too low for his vocal center of gravity, but he conquered every challenge, singing attractively even when burdened with ridiculous stage business. Only with the advent of the Hanoverian dynasty that was established in England after the death of the childless last scion of the House of Stuart, Queen Anne, was the full force of the Italian Baroque felt by English musicians. Thus, French influences are prevalent in Purcell’s music, and Molomot thrived on the elegance of the composer’s vocal writing. Not every note that he sang was perfectly-pitched or of surpassing beauty, but he inhabited the rôle and his music from the heels of his cordovan loafers to his neon-pink hair. The tenor’s voicings of ‘Come, all ye songsters of the sky’ and the epithalamium ‘Thrice happy lovers’ were the performance’s finest instances of Purcellian vocal authenticity. Singing, dancing, joking, hectoring, reduced to his undershirt and jockey shorts, Molomot never succumbed to superfluity. In a production with much to offend, his multifaceted Puck indelibly made amends.

Preparing The Fairy Queen for performance is not unlike trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing. Modern attention spans make staging the work in its original guise as a companion to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream unpalatable, and without that context the score has no dramatic foundation. In order to stage Fairy Queen in operatic form, a plot must therefore be devised, and in the fulfillment of that necessity Chicago Opera Theater’s production was not without merit. With an intelligent, uniformly capable cast on stage and an ensemble of virtuosi in the pit, all marshaled by an acknowledged master of Baroque repertory, the Shakespeare-derived story of lovers and their foibles would have sufficed. Leaving well enough alone is rarely a principle that wins arguments in opera, however, and the impulse to shock here outweighed the responsibility to serve the composer. Performed stylishly and sometimes exquisitely, COT’s production was not truly The Fairy Queen, Purcell, or Shakespeare, but it was great fun.

IN REVIEW: the harpsichord played by harpsichordist and conductor JORY VINIKOUR in Chicago Opera Theater's production of Henry Purcell's FAIRY QUEEN, 11 November 2016 [Photo by the author]Scene of the crime: the harpsichord played by harpsichordist and conductor Jory Vinikour in Chicago Opera Theater’s production of Henry Purcell’s Fairy Queen
[Photo by the author]