Lyric Unlimited scores with premiere of klezmer-flavored “Property”

Thu Feb 26, 2015 at 3:58 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

James Maddalena, Jill Grove and Anne Slovin in the world premiere of "The Property" Wednesday night at the Logan Center for the Arts. Photo: Robert Kusel

James Maddalena, Jill Grove and Anne Slovin in the world premiere of “The Property” Wednesday night at the Logan Center for the Arts. Photo: Robert Kusel

Among the many ancillary events planned by Lyric Opera around the company’s premiere of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s The Passenger, none was more ambitious than the presentation of a new klezmer opera.

Composed by Wlad Marhulets, The Property was commissioned by Lyric Unlimited, the company’s community outreach arm, and the work received an impressive world premiere at the Logan Center for the Arts Wednesday night in Hyde Park.

Weinberg was active in klezmer music throughout his lifetime, which provided the impetus for this commission. Stephanie Fleischmann’s libretto is adapted from a graphic novel by Israeli writer Rutu Modan. The tale tells of Regina Segal and her granddaughter Mica. Following the death of Mica’s father, the two women travel from Chicago to Warsaw to try to regain family property that Regina believed was lost during the war. Mica meets a young Polish travel guide while Regina must come to terms with secrets of her romantic past regarding the property and its connection to her former lover, Roman Gorski.

The libretto is slight yet affecting and mostly avoids sentimentality.  Unlike Lyric’s ventures into “mariachi operas” (which were really mariachi musicals) Marhulets’ score is much more varied and sophisticated. As in a musical, there is significant spoken dialogue, but the music here is substantial and very impressive indeed. The score is imbued with the febrile, mournful flavor of klezmer music yet also so well crafted it rises above any inherent limitations of the genre, inhabiting a space between operetta and opera that feels just right.

Lyric Unlimited has corralled an impressive cast for this world premiere. Jill Grove was vocally imposing and dramatically believable (if too young) as Regina. Alive to the comic moments as well as touching in her reunion with her old flame, the gifted mezzo-soprano showed once again what a terrific actress she is.

Anne Slovin brought an appealing youthful vivacity and bright soprano voice to Mica. James Maddalena lent a dignified presenec and rounded baritone to Roman, and, as Tomascz, Nathaniel Olson made an equally likable love interest for Mica. Sam Handley and Julianne Park filled out the cast admirably.

The malleable bilevel unit set by William Boles–who also designed the terrific staging of Dead Man Walking currently playing at Northwestern—was functional, aided by Hillary Leben’s evocative projections. Eric Einhorn’s fluent stage direction moved the action smoothly, the cast and extras rearranging a few blocks and furniture into different configurations.

The only questionable production decision was the aggressive amplification throughout that was often harsh and glassy. One would think that most of the voices–not least Groves’ huge instrument—could carry well enough in a space like Logan. The ear adjusts but high notes were still piercing and musical climaxes made words almost indecipherable.

Also, while The Property was musically and dramatically effective on its intimate terms, the confrontations and revelations began to pale after a time, and, at an unbroken 90 minutes, the work would likely benefit from some slight, judicious trimming.

Conducted with vigor by Michael Lewanski, the six-member klezmer ensemble—stationed on the right side of the stage—provided lively and idiomatic advocacy for Marhulets’ score. Clarinetist Don Jacobs and violinist Alex Koffman, in particular, were in tune with the essential strain of Eastern European nostalgia.

After an extended period of creative stagnation, it’s heartening to once again see Lyric Opera stretching its artistic ambitions under Anthony Freud’s leadership by commissioning The Property and bringing Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s The Passenger to Chicago audiences on back-to-back evenings.

Now that Lyric has branched out to perform works in smaller off-site venues, perhaps this initiative might continue by presenting some of the many existing contemporary and/or American operas that have yet to be heard at the Civic Opera House. Hope springs eternal.

The Property will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Thursday and 1 p.m. Friday at the Logan Center and 7:30 p.m. March 4 and 5 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie., 312-827-5600;, 847-673-6300.

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