Here is the full version of my Monday April 26 Chicago Sun-Times and suntimes.com review of Chicago Opera Theater's opening performance of Cavalli's Giasone (Jason) Saturday night April 24, 2010, at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park. COT box office: 312.204.8414.
COT makes the most of gorgeous music, goofy gags
BY ANDREW PATNER
Three performances remaining through May 2 only.
Brian Dickie is a believer in the important and also in the equally serious idea of fun. These are two of the traits (among the others, astonishing tenacity and a great eye and ear for young talent) that have made him one of the world's most inventive opera producers for more than 40 years.
He's launched his second decade as general director of the indispensable Chicago Opera Theater with not one but two of the most important events in the long history of opera in Chicago: the first performances here since 1863 of Rossini's 1818-19 Moses in Egypt and the first local professional performance of any opera by another Italian, the 17th century's Francesco Cavalli.
Cavalli's 1648-49 Giasone (Jason) is also absolutely hilarious as well as deeply moving and musically luscious. Here is another inexplicably missing operatic link more satisfying than many a work in the standard repertoire.
Giasone is a comic retelling of, of all things, that most unfunny encounter in Greek mythology between Jason (Argonauts, Golden Fleece) and Medea, sorceress and infamous murderer of her and Jason's own children -- though not in this version. Created for Venice at a time when opera ceased being the preserve of private courts and became a fantastic blend of serious and bawdy public -- and commercial -- entertainment, it puts known figures from story into very contemporary -- to 17th century audiences and to us as well -- situations, many of them sexual.
Dickie has assembled one of his dream teams for this revival. Yale University's Ellen Rosand, the leading authority on Cavalli, has been advisor and score editor. London-based conductor Christian Curnyn, 39, launches a three-year COT project of early opera takes on Medea using Chicago's own Baroque Band in all its period splendor. A four-string orchestra and a continuo of gamba, bass violone, two lute-like theorbos, two harpsichords and organ are all the instruments you'll hear, and yet they fill the Harris Theater space and grow increasingly beguiling as the two-hour, 45-minute piece (one intermission) plays out.
The cast is strong across the board, and each singing player seems to get the contradictions of his or her character. Argentinean counter-tenor Franco Fagioli -- another COT coup: it's his North American debut -- knows that Jason is a lout, but boy can he sing! American mezzo Sasha Cooke (Medea) and Italian soprano Grazia Doronzio (Jason's first wife, here called Isifile) are already establishing careers and grab their major scenes and our full attention. Korean-born tenor Julius Ahn and Utah tenor Tyler Nelson are natural comedians and manage, respectively, a hunchbacked, short-legged, stuttering servant and a cross-dressing, Eddie Izzard-looking confidante with both humor and, truly, dignity. Two basses, Chicago stalwart Andrew Funk and incoming Lyric Opera Ryan Center member Evan Boyer, give excellent turns as conflicted agents of conflicted masters. Ryan Center alum soprano Andriana Chuchman (Alinda) and Colorado-born tenor Vale Rideout (Egeo) round out the plot’s necessary couplings.
Young Australian director Justin Way sets things in sort of early '60s swinging London style with a touch of 007, and that mood and sense of harmless artifice actually meets Cavalli in a good place. Putting Medea in a bathtub is some sort of genius. Kimm Kovac’s Day-Glo costumes and the simple yet highly effective sets of Anka Lupes make a coherent whole.
But the main thing here -- as with the Rossini just ended -- is the richness of this gorgeous music, particularly in the work's last half-hour of reconciliations, the inventiveness and evolutionary contributions of a too-neglected composer, all brought so lovingly and thrillingly to life. It's important that you see Giasone. You'll have serious fun, too.