COT’s disastrous Regie production burns Verdi and “Joan of Arc”
For Verdi aficionados, it was the best of weeks and the worst of weeks.
On one hand, we had Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra marking the composer’s 200th birthday with season-opening concerts of gloriously performed Verdi appetizers for the Macbeth performances next week.
A few blocks north and east one had an altogether different Verdi experience. Chicago Opera Theater’s revisionist production of the composer’s Giovanna d’Arco, which opened Saturday night, could charitably be called disastrous. Crass, offensive, and embarrassing, COT’s Joan of Arc is the biggest nuclear bomb to drop on a Chicago opera stage in several seasons.
The momentum that new COT general director Andreas Mitisek had built up after positively received productions of Glass’s Fall of the House of Usher and Piazzolla’s Maria de Buenos Aires comes to a screeching halt with this debacle. One wished that Riccardo Muti was in attendance Saturday so he could grab director David Schweizer by the scruff of the neck and bitch-slap him with an open palm.
While not among Verdi’s finest operas, Giovanna is a better work than it has historically received credit for, containing much worthy music but hobbled by an awkward and undramatic libretto. The conflicted Joan is torn between fighting for France and her sort-of romantic attraction to Carlo, the king. Giacomo, her unhinged father, suspects Joan of being both a heretic and sinner. Instead of being burned at the stake, Joan is mortally wounded in battle offstage and carried on to sing, die, and be forgiven by all.
The opera’s original scenario is perplexing enough, but director Schweizer has made things a thousand times worse by his “concept.” (Whenever a director has to append a program note to explain the staging, you’re in trouble.)
In Schweizer’s production, the war between England and France is simply thrown out. Instead, the Harris Theater is “taken over” by a contemporary “radical fundamentalist Christian SECT” (his caps) whose members then proceed to enact Verdi’s opera. Less you miss the point, women chorus members—oddly, dressed in Amish-style clothing—distribute a note to patrons explaining what roles their “church” leaders will take. It reads “We intend to explore JOAN’S temptation by the forces of the devil and the consequences of such unholy temptation on the world around her. May the lord guide our way as we perform for you. Praise him almighty GOD.”
Clearly these Christian believers, also referred to as “religious obsessives” and “religious fanatics” in the director’s note, are the greatest danger in the world for Schweizer and company. When any moments of religious feeling occur in the opera, Schweizer has the suited chorus/church members fall to the ground and start twitching violently in a Shaker-like frenzy of religious paroxysms. In his final coup’d’ theatre, as Joan dies and is transfigured, the leader and church members brandish automatic weapons and point them at the audience—because don’t we all know that conservative Christians just want to cling to their guns and religion, so they can kill people?
Christian believers have long been the reflexive bogeyman for the artsy left, which is nothing new. Going to that well once again is as artistically lazy as it is intellectually disingenuous.
But at a time when thousands of people around the globe have been killed by Muslim extremists—60 more in Kenya on the day of this performance—it really does take a willful moral blindness to believe that the greatest international threat from religious zealots is that of church-going American Christians. Would Schweizer and COT dare to stage this show and have their evil sect be portrayed as Muslim “fanatics”? Of course not. First, it wouldn’t fit the stage director’s own clear religious prejudices and, second, he’s likely afraid he’d get blown up.
In addition to the anti-church cliches, the production was just cheesy. There are no sets, just the bare Harris stage, chairs, lighting, staircases and a few props. Almost as off-putting as the Regie conceits is the casual attitude toward Verdi’s score. At just two hours, Giovanna is a tight work but Schweizer and company have lopped off about 20 minutes of music, in addition to freely rewriting the surtitles to fit their social ax-grinding.
This brand of hoary Eurotrash may pass for edgy and audacious in Long Beach but in Chicago we’re used to opera with a bit more musical integrity. It’s alarming that Schweizer is a regular director for Mitisek’s West Coast company. If shows like this are what we can expect from the new COT regime, we’ve got a problem, Houston.
What scant musical positives there were in this sorry show came from two of the singers and the pit.
As Giacomo, Giovanna’s father who thinks her benighted daughter is in league with the devil, Michael Chioldi was called upon to enact much of the production’s interventionist idiocy, doubling as the religious “Leader” who stage manages the action. The veteran baritone sang with ample, rounded tone and a nice sense of Verdi style, bringing a humanity to Giacomo that–briefly–transcended the cartoonish caricature.
Suzan Hanson, heard in the company’s Fall of the House of Usher proved a variable heroine. Dramatically she was handicapped by Schweizer’s heavy-handed revisionism, and not aided by her unflattering initial costuming in cargo pants and black t-shirt. Vocally she showed more volume than expressive nuance, passing on some of the role’s high-flying roulades, though she managed to bring greater delicacy to O fatidica foresta and achieve something like the Saint’s ennobled stature in the final tableau high atop a stage staircase.
As the king Carlo, Steven Harrison looked like Richard Nixon, and, unfortunately, sang like him as well. Throaty and raw of tone with a threadbare top register, the tenor sounded like he was barely going to make it through the evening. Somehow he did and sang with somewhat more security in the final act.
Likewise, after a messy start, the chorus sang with strength and polish under Stephen Hargeaves’ direction, despite having to perform the nonsensical actions foisted upon them by the giftless Schweizer.
Along with Chioldi’s singing, the one bright spot of the tortuous evening was the company debut of Francesco Milioto and his New Millennium Orchestra. Despite the grievous cuts, Chicago’s most underrated conductor led his players in a vital and idiomatic account of what was left of the score.
Giovanna D’Arco (Joan of Arc) will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Friday and 3 p.m. September 29. chicagooperatheater.org; 312-704-8420
Posted in Performances