Chicago Opera Theater’s excellent cast and musical values undermined by post-modern silliness in Cavalli’s “Giasone”

April 26, 2010

Jason (Franco Fagioli) and Medea (Sasha Cooke) in Chicago Opera Theater's "Giasone." Photo: Liz Lauren.

It’s a fair bet that those filing in to the Harris Theater Saturday night for Chicago Opera Theater’s opening performance of Francesco Cavalli’s Giasone had little idea what to expect. While the Venetian composer was the most performed opera composer of the 17th century, Giasone, or Jason, his most popular work, was having its belated Chicago professional premiere.

COT deserves plaudits for reviving such an obscure work by a still largely obscure composer. The hardy company delivered the vocal goods Saturday with a terrific lineup of singers in the large cast.

Yet while Cavalli’s droll refitting of the tale of Jason and the Argonauts contains much attractive music, at nearly three hours with miles and miles of recitative, Saturday’s opening performance had its longeurs. Further, with direction that seemed engaged in too hard a comedic sell with much excess and silliness, Chicago Opera Theater’s production proved a bit of a dud, despite its fine cast, and sleek scenic design.

The centerpiece of Chicago’s first Early Music Festival, Giasone is a light-hearted retooling of the mythic tale of Jason and the Argonauts with its pairs of intermingled lovers—Jason and Medea, and Egeo and Isifile, a raft of comic supporting characters, and a scenario of bewildering plot complications too tortuous to even summarize.

Giasone may have had carnival revelers rolling in the aisles—or the canals—in 1649 Venice but the opera’s humor is largely inscrutable today, limited to a few surprisingly bawdy throwaway lines and the endlessly repeated musical stuttering of the servant, Demo. The opera is a difficult sell to modern audiences, with stately moderate tempos predominating and the characters’ flamboyant declamatory words palling rather quickly.

With its plot reverses and melodramatic absurdities, director Justin Way has opted for updating Jason to a 1960s Bondian milieu, which on paper seemed a reasonable idea and worked visually with striking, fluent scenic design by Anka Lupes and Kimm Kovac’s clever retro-‘60s dresses and tuxes.

Demo (Julius Ahn) and Delfa (Tyler Nelson) in Chicago Opera Theater’s production of "Giasone." Photo by Liz Lauren.

Yet director Way loses his way by misjudging the approach to the comedy with far too much mugging and nudge-nudge-wink-wink excesses by the cast, as with the cross-dressing Delfa. Too often the rather somber music and earnest text stubbornly fail to cohere with the postmodern irony of the would-be-madcap production. And while there were some amusing moments—the “Golden Fleece” as a tacky yellow winter coat—the comedy often proved painfully unfunny, making for a long evening that felt like Parsifal with theorbos.

In the title role, Franco Fagioli showed an easy charming stage manner and displayed an impressive countertenor voice with more heft and full-bodied projection than some high-voiced male singers with much bigger names.

Sasha Cooke was aptly imperious and high-strung as the calculating Medea bringing a light comic touch and flexible mezzo-soprano to her see-saw battles with Jason and his crew.

Even with her late entrance, Medea’s rival Isifile turns out to be one of the major characters and ultimately the core of humanity amid all the absurdity. Grazia Doronzio brought a likable quality and refined soprano to the credulous woman and in the final scene delivered the most expressive singing of the evening in Isifile’s lament.

Alinda (Andriana Chuchman) and Besso (Andrew Funk) in Chicago Opera Theater’s production of "Giasone." Photo by Liz Lauren.

With her agile soprano and killer legs, Andriana Chuchman made a sexy nanny of Alinda, and proved the most at ease in the comedy as well as the vocalism, also doubling as Cupid/Amore in the Prologue.

Tenor Vale Rideout served up some terrific singing as Egeo, the rejected yet persistent suitor of Medea, doubling as Sole/Apollo. Andrew Funk was a rock-solid presence as Jason’s captain, Besso.

Some guffawing audience members clearly enjoyed tenor Tyler Nelson’s gender-bending Divine-like Delfa, while most of the audience Saturday seemed stonily unamused by his La Cage aux Cavalli cavorting. So too, while Julius Ahn’s little dance in Demo’s introductory aria was endearingly goofy, the tenor seemed to be trying a bit too hard to be funny. (The score’s endless iterations of Demo’s stuttering doesn’t help.) Handicapped by the lame American tourist getup, Evan Boyer did what he could with the rather thankless role of Jason’s emissary/spy Orestes.

Early music specialist Christian Curnyn made a more eloquent case for Cavalli’s opera in the pit than the production on stage. The Scottish conductor drew elegant, flexible and well-balanced playing from Baroque Band. You have to love those theorbos, visually as well as musically.

Giasone will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Friday, and 3 p.m. May 2.; 312-704-8414

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