“Greek” is no classic, yet young company gives Turnage opera an energetic local premiere

Wed Jun 03, 2009 at 3:31 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

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Rosenkavalier, this ain’t. 
 
Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Greek had its belated Midwest premiere Tuesday night, courtesy of Chicago Opera Vanguard, the city’s young, envelope-pushing new company.

 Artistic director Eric Reda says he would like Opera Vanguard to carve out a niche as an edgy, off-Loop street theater ensemble that just happens to perform opera. 

 Turnage’s 1988 opus would seem to fit the bill. Adapted from Steven Berkoff’s play, Greek updates the Oedipus myth to Thatcher-era London, where pissed-off working-class Eddy, sick of the local pub and his vulgar parents, takes to the road in a  series of misadventures. He is beaten by police, murders a café owner, gets married and discovers his wife is really his mother before coming to the conclusion that, pace John Lennon, love is the answer.

 The promotion has played up the “bad language” and Reda said that the material and profanity cost the show significant funding. But you would have to be a pretty timorous soul to be offended by the libretto’s fleeting F-bombs, particularly in a city that heard more intense and creative vulgarity in any five minutes of David Mamet thirty years ago.

 The problem at Tuesday’s preview at the St. Paul Cultural Center wasn’t audible swearing but indecipherable words. The 1890 walk-up church in Wicker Park made an atmospheric venue with its decayed grandeur, enhanced by set designer John Sundling’s assorted garbage, broken furniture and junk. But with the audience placed between the singers and the 19 musicians in the choir loft, the voices were too often buried by the orchestra, and when they weren’t, the idiomatic Cockney accents and baffling slang made large parts of the text as inscrutable as The Dunciad.

 The program notes valiantly attempt to make a case for contemporary relevance, but the kindest way to view Greek is as a quaint period piece, a snapshot of 1980s London, or, at least, the politics and mindset of contemporary young writers and composers.

 One can hear the 25-year-old Turnage shaking off the atonal Stockhausen influences, while throwing in a bit of Birtwistle on the road to finding his own voice. It’s there in embryonic form in the whipcrack scoring, easy assimilation of jazz and blues elements, and lyric fragments that manage to sound both natural and unexpected. The more individual, confident Turnage to come is palpable in the raucous brass and wind writing and sledgehammer chords, put across with great force and strident impact by the players under conductor Christopher Ramaekers.

 Dramatically, Turnage’s angry-young-composer opera is a mess—less a linear narrative than a series of evocative blackout sketches, an uneasy mix of Clockwork Orange, music-hall bawdery, and Monty Python comic absurdity.

 Some audience members were critical of the production values at intermission, but in a kitchen-sink work like this, the rough edges and tacky visual tropes—-flashlight lighting, period video projections and shadow puppetry—-become assets.

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Under Reda’s direction, the young cast largely acquitted themselves well, making up in energy and dedication what they sometimes lacked in vocal polish and seasoning. (Some discreet amplification, however, would help to better balance the voices in future performances.)

 With his orange punk hair, 23-year-old baritone Justin Neal Adair made an age-appropriate Eddy, bringing coiled intensity and sensitivity to his Act 2 solo. Mezzo Caitlin McKechney was sexy and versatile as Eddy’s wife/mother—even with the Day-Glo wigs—and other roles. As Eddy’s parents, Brad Jungwirth and Ashlee Hardgrave sang well and etched the right note of self-satisfied lower-class stagnation, both also tackling a variety of other parts.

 Greek is no undiscovered masterpiece, but Chicago Opera Vanguard deserves credit for presenting this belated Chicago premiere and for bringing a new, energetic and imaginative presence to the local music scene.

 Chicago Opera Vanguard presents Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Greek June 4, 6, 10, 12, and 13 at St. Paul’s Cultural Center, 2215 W. North Ave. www.chicagovanguard.org

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