Two terrific singers keep COT’s song cycles focused on the music

Sun May 08, 2011 at 10:33 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Jennifer Johnson Cano performed Schumann’s “Frauenliebe und Leben,” presented by Chicago Opera Theater Saturday night at the Harris Theater. Photo: Liz Lauren

It was a cost-cutting move that motivated Chicago Opera Theater to postpone its production of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Moscow, Chernyomushki until 2012.

In the place of Shostakovich’s musical, COT is offering “He/She”–  staged performances devised by creative advisor Gerard McBurney of two infrequently heard song cycles by Schumann and Janacek for its final show of the 2011 season. (The originally scheduled run of four performances has been reduced to just a pair of weekend dates in yet another economically dictated move.)

Robert Schumann’s Frauenliebe und leben and Leos Janacek’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared make such a smart and  complementary program that it’s surprising the two song cycles are not paired together more frequently. Both have to do with overwhelming romantic love: Schumann’s cycle for mezzo-soprano explores the emotional and tender side of a woman’s all-consuming devotion to her beloved, while Janacek’s songs depict the male protagonist’s more carnal and physical obsession.

The eight Adelbert von Chamisso poems set in A Woman’s Life and Love are rather sentimental and can seem overwrought to modern auditors. Yet Schumann’s musical response — written in a crucial period in his courtship of Clara — is consistently inspired and subtly crafted.

Jennifer Johnson Cano brought a sincerity and emotional depth to these beautiful songs that made the texts’ occasional excesses seem completely irrelevant. With a rich voice, ease of technique and expressive delicacy, Cano conveyed the varied elements of Schumann’s cycle from the rapt wonder of Du Ring an meinem Finger to the excited joy of her impending marriage (Helft mir, Ihr Schwestern) and the rush of maternal joy in An meinem Herzen, an meiner Brust.

Cano rose to the tragic final setting in supreme style, starkly conveying the woman’s numbed, withdrawn devastation with the sudden death of her beloved. The singer’s extraordinary performance was matched at every turn by the  iridescent, acutely sensitive keyboard playing of pianist Craig Terry.

One expected the worst from Hillary Leben’s accompanying video projections by a program note in which the production designer stated that she found it difficult to believe that the intense love of the protagonist was really sincere. (Why are 19th-century male poets’ extravagant romantic declarations simply accepted as part of the period’s literary style yet a woman’s similarly intense expressions of love for a man are somehow suspect and viewed as a forced historical eccentricity that needs to be corrected?)

In fact, Leben’s projections mercifully avoided any quasi-feminist visual revisionism.  Aided by Alison McBurney, the underexposed 19th-century photographs of faces, a ring, a crib, etc., were simple and evocative, rendered with skill and finesse.

Still, as these video-musical hybrids tend to do, the huge projections served to visually upstage the soloist. The fact is that we process visual and aural stimuli differently and this kind of video-accompanied event invariably creates a kind of cognitive dissonance in which the performers suffer.

Tenor Joseph Kaiser was the soloist in Janacek’s “The Diary of One Who Disappeared.” Photo: Liz Lauren

If Cano conveyed the more inward and wistful expression of Schumann’s cycle, Joseph Kaiser proved even more in synch with the earthier motivations of Janacek’s wayward protagonist in The Diary of One Who Disappeared.

The Czech composer’s cycle tell of a young Valassko farmer’s son who has fallen in love with a gypsy girl, Zedka. The young man abandons his farm, family and village to follow the mysterious dark-skinned girl, and, though wracked with guilt and complex feelings, ultimately decides to stay with her and all the pleasures prove.

Kaiser wholly embodied the fiery impetuosity and unbridled passion of the young protagonist in an almost operatic performance. Even in its revised form, Janacek’s vocal line is punishing yet the young tenor handled the stratospheric tessitura with complete assurance. The sequence of 21 brief songs (and central piano solo) unfolded as a seamless dramatic arc and Kaiser’s vividly characterized performance conveyed the melancholy as well as the ardent youthful passion.

In her supporting role as the object of the singer’s infatuation, mezzo Brandy Lynn Hawkins sang with polish and full tone but proved a bit stiff expressively, not really conveying Zedka’s sensual allure. Leila Bowie, Hannah Dixon and Megan Rose Williams provided the atmospheric trio of offstage voices.

Janacek’s piano writing is as virtuosic as that for voices and Terry — an assistant conductor at the Lyric Opera — once again provided bravura and expressive keyboard playing.

I found Leben’s projections for the Janacek much more distracting, particularly the massive garish-lettered translations of isolated lines. Both Kaiser’s and Cano’s performances would have been just as well served –if not more so — by a straight recital format without the visual “enhancement.”

Neither soloist received much courtesy from the audience Saturday night with several bronchial explosions crashing into some of the quietest and most intimate moments of their performances.

The video accompaniment apart, the Harris Theater offers a superb venue for vocal recitals with fine acoustical bloom for soloists and great sight lines. Perhaps some benevolent lieder aficionado and/or corporation could sponsor a small-scale vocal series at the Harris, aiding a genre that is currently almost nonexistent on Chicago’s main stages.

“He/She” will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday at the Harris Theater. chicagoperatheater.org;  312-704-8414.

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