COT’s disastrous Regie production burns Verdi and “Joan of Arc”

Sun Sep 22, 2013 at 2:26 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Suzan Hanson in the title role of Chicago Opera Theater's "Giovanna d'Arco" (Joan of Arc).
Suzan Hanson in the title role of Chicago Opera Theater’s “Giovanna d’Arco” (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.

Povero Verdi.

Giovanna D’Arco (Joan of Arc) will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Friday and 3 p.m. September 29.; 312-704-8420

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23 Responses to “COT’s disastrous Regie production burns Verdi and “Joan of Arc””

  1. Posted Sep 23, 2013 at 10:41 am by Lynne Schatz

    Could not possibly agree with you more. Was trying to think how best to write to COT and now think enclosing this review will say it all.

  2. Posted Sep 23, 2013 at 1:59 pm by Gerald Zimmerman

    Sorry to say I will be attending the performance next Sunday. One of the interesting things about this, of course, is that a small number of folks, including the director’s friends, will proclaim him a genius.

  3. Posted Sep 23, 2013 at 4:50 pm by Roland Buck

    I have strongly criticise Mitisek for discontinuing the COT’s production of Baroque operas. But after this, its probably a good thing that he has. I shudder to think what this director would do to a work like Handel’s Rinaldo.

  4. Posted Sep 24, 2013 at 10:18 am by Denise S.

    We were totally offended. In this day and age for the performers to brandish and point weapons at the audience is completely uncalled for. After the Colorado shootings we were looking for a place to hide in case they started shooting. The director and anyone who approved this should be fired.

  5. Posted Sep 24, 2013 at 2:59 pm by Alma Viva

    Bravo to Mr. Johnson for having the courage to call this one for what it is. For too long, Christianity has been the convenient target of the political/artistic lefties..when in fact, the real–and very dangerous– terrorism problem is elsewhere.

    Hopefully, COT will get a grip.

  6. Posted Sep 24, 2013 at 11:22 pm by Dan Shea

    I’m sorry Mr. Johnson saw so little of value in this production, too bad for him. I know this opera from recordings and was eager to see it on stage, even voted/contributed a bit for it, and enjoyed a preliminary discussion and then another the day after the primo.
    What I saw last Saturday struck me as a brave attempt to bring some interesting ideas and contemporary relevance to Solera’s famously naive and confused libretto. The basic ideas of this production seemed interesting and credible enough to keep one’s attention during the less inspired music; and when Verdi is at his 31-year-old best, the singing takes over and there is much to enjoy. Yes, Hanson and Chioldi are impressive but so was tenor Harrison who had ample volume, a beautiful sound, and mezza-voce phrases in his last aria that filled the theater memorably.
    I urge Verdi-lovers not to miss this chance to hear this music, with Director Schweizer’s ideas an engaging plus.

  7. Posted Sep 25, 2013 at 3:41 pm by Louie C.

    I love the production. I like the different concept. That is why I love attending COT performances because it is very different from the typical boring traditional productions. Let Lyric Opera of Chicago do traditional productions. I am going to see it again on Wednesday. Keep up the extraordinary work COT!!! More power to your company!!!

  8. Posted Sep 25, 2013 at 5:25 pm by Frank G.

    Boy, someone sure got up on the wrong side of the bed.

    Well, I liked this production. How else can you explain the fanatical desire of a father to have his daughter burned at the stake? Listening to the recordings I couldn’t muster sympathy for any of the characters, so I loved the fresh perspective brought here, even if it went too far sometimes (I didn’t care for the excessive writhing either). Fanatical devotion is a scary thing, whether Christian or Muslim or Death Eater. Love of power, just like Andreas said in the booklet. I wish people would just chill and mind their own business, but that’s not what this opera is about. Kudos to the production team and please keep challenging us!

  9. Posted Sep 25, 2013 at 9:51 pm by Bobbie R.

    Thanks to Dan, Louie, and Frank for their thoughtful comments. Religious fanaticism appears in many forms in all major world religions. Perhaps those who are “offended” by this production’s allusions to fundamentalist Christianity should consider the heinous acts of abortion clinic bombings, the murder of Dr. George Tiller, and other hate crimes of bigotry and intolerance. I strongly doubt that that Mr. Schweizer believes that “churchgoing American Christians” are the greatest threat to national security and safety. (Gun violence is, actually.)

    The COT creative team deserves a lot of credit, not contempt, for offering an innovative alternative to the traditional opera experience in Chicago. COT has a long tradition of challenging audiences with provocative, contemporary stagings. Arrogance and provincialism do not serve the long-term interests of artistic development in Chicago. Hopefully, audiences and critics will soften their indignant cries of “Regie” and “Eurotrash” when conventional norms and preferences are questioned.

  10. Posted Sep 25, 2013 at 10:50 pm by Nick Tramdack

    I wasn’t exactly offended by the production, but I did find it pretty lame. The mimed epileptic fits, which the performers used as shorthand for religious ecstasy, seemed even stupider than the final, gun-brandishing tableau. Why bother reviving an unperformed Verdi if the director’s whole game is to undercut the libretto by way of a flat, tasteless, “edgy” staging?

  11. Posted Sep 26, 2013 at 11:41 am by ESL

    Absolutely the most spot on review I have read of an opera in Chicago – ever – with one exception. Susan Hanson was just this side of awful on Wednesday night.

    I trust the reviewer will also take a sharp knife to the team on Wacker Drive where standing ovations for drab lifeless performances are a norm.

  12. Posted Sep 26, 2013 at 2:06 pm by James

    I thought the greatest lapse of taste was “gunning down” the audience a mere few days after 13 Chicagoans attending a baseball game were gunned down in exactly the same manner. What were they thinking?

    The production team will claim their intent was to get people talking, but they do so at serious risk of the topic of conversation being subscription non-renewal. Perhaps the machine gun stunt was Mr. Mitisek acting out a bit of resentment of COT audiences for saddling him with such an unwieldy opera to stage.

  13. Posted Sep 26, 2013 at 8:13 pm by Martin Jones

    Obviously, Mr. Johnson and others were offended by the barbs leveled at Christian fundamentalism. Though I, too, don’t necessarily side with artsy attacks against orthodox religion for its own sake, I do, however, think critics failed to appreciate many of the brilliant qualities of this production.

    For one thing, the libretto is totally off the historical mark, which gives the producer enough leeway in interpretation and one to which modern audiences can ponder. As there is no such thing as a single, definitive performance that can possibly express all the meanings inherent in a play, it is up to the director and the actors to make interpretive choices that hopefully, will serve it and its audience, even if it means provoking and disturbing them.

    I appreciate the opening scenes from the Victor Fleming film as well as the poignant exchange of swords for automatic weapons pointed at the audience during the final scene. It is painfully true that religious figures have been used throughout history both as martyrs as well as champions for further wars. I also believe that this production pits religious intolerance against a call for moderation in reasonable contrast without being brazenly offensive.

    As for the singing, other than Michael Chioldi’s brilliant and confident performance, the rest of the lead cast was unsteady, at times even painful to listen to. Orchestra and chorus were superb and kept the dramatic flow moving throughout.

    All in all, I salute COT for this production and for having the courage to stage a rarely performed Verdi opera in a unique and different way that few other companies would have the guts to even consider. The fact that so many attendees have responded to the opera at this forum alone gives proof of its challenging interpretive merits.

  14. Posted Sep 26, 2013 at 10:46 pm by G.R.D.

    I can claim to be the first person to walk out on opening night—-right as the red plastic “bloody battle field” & black chair weapons began. In the middle of opera, not at an intermission which I’ve only done once (at a “King Roger” performance decades ago).

    I love Verdi & was so looking forward to this, as in flew into Chicago for it. I want a refund!!

  15. Posted Sep 27, 2013 at 11:31 pm by K.M.

    Just came back from the performance. It was quite enjoyable, actually, regardless of the unnecessary frame (play within the play), the absurd last scene, and many other too clever by half improvements on the original opera. The review sounds prejudiced while, at the same time, it seems to be accusing of prejudice. Involving the name of Muti was as unnecessary as the frame with the fundamentalist Christian sect. Bad taste!

  16. Posted Sep 28, 2013 at 10:39 am by Edward

    Love your review! Refreshing to hear an opinion no matter how harsh and biting. Saw Joan last night and liked it though. The story is absurd like most operas, whats the deal with the mean Fathers? The orchestra was fantastic, the gyrating male chorus less so.

  17. Posted Sep 28, 2013 at 1:07 pm by Pete K.

    I couldn’t disagree more. I thought the concept was spot-on and the performance was enjoyable and intellectually challenging.

    Let’s dispose of one thing right now: the target of the play-within-a-play staging is not just “Christian fundamentalism.” It is a particular kind of fundamentalism with arms in hand that says that God is stepping in to bring victory to one side in a war and death to the other side. “Let none of the enemies of God see their homes again” – that’s the libretto, not the director’s notion.

    When a reviewer tells us that the staging is offensive because it seems to be going after Christians rather than after Muslims who, it seems, would be fair targets – I just have to gasp. Are we not used to the idea that art can present general ideas not attached to the accidents of nation and confession? Can you really not see that this staging is equally critical of all armed fanatics? Must we really never look too closely at the idea that The Lord God sent a divinely sponsored leader to bring defeat to the English in the Hundred Years’ War, and that the followers of England were accursed of God?

    As for displaying guns soon after the south side mass shooting, I suppose the commenters are organizing a Chicago boycott of the “Breaking Bad” finale?

  18. Posted Sep 28, 2013 at 1:16 pm by Sonia Cssaszar

    I attended the symposium at The University of Chicago, last Sunday, where I realized I wouldn’t like this production. Mr. Johnson’s review is no surprise to me at all.

    But what none of the followers got, was the point director David Schweizer made last Sunday: that “there is a group of people that has suffered a lot due to religious fundamentalism.” I interpreted that as recurrent social homophobia; therefore, Joan’s father had to be part of this group of zealots who see any expression of carnal love as “sinful” or “bad.”

    So, was he preaching to the chorus? Isn’t that why COT did Britten’s Death in Venice some years ago? I’m quite sympathetic to that cause, but I left the Britten’s opera at intermission because it was simply BORING.

    I think COT underestimates the open-mindedness of its audience. It’s time for COT to really give us back the joy and magic visual staging can produce. That’s why I go to the opera. On the other hand, I am a responsible and open-minded citizen. I vote and I believe love and family life should be enjoyed by two people no matter their gender.

  19. Posted Sep 30, 2013 at 11:17 am by WHB

    I can only speak to the first half (my wife and I left at intermission), but what did the goings-on on stage have to do with Verdi’s opera?

    In the 1970’s, I saw the Jean-Pierre Ponelle production of The Flying Dutchman at the Metropolitan Opera. It has long stood, for me, as as the worst opera production of all time. Now there’s a new #1.

    We will not be renewing our COT subscription.

  20. Posted Sep 30, 2013 at 11:44 am by Tom

    Thank you, Lawrence, for speaking out against such portrayals of “radical, fundamentalist Christians” by such selfish, self-conscious hipsters like Schweizer who, it turns out, are just as radical and fundamentalist in their viewpoints about groups with which they are obviously so intimately unfamiliar.

  21. Posted Sep 30, 2013 at 3:20 pm by Barrett

    Saviour of France or whore of the Armagnacs, St. Joan continues to bring out our strongest reactions.

    Having studied since grammar school the curious phenomenon that was the Maid of Orleans with trips to both the place of her triumph and execution, I was really looking forward to seeing this production. Perhaps there were other “progressive” themes like cross dressing, women’s equality, or abolishing the death penalty that might have been explored if the director thought there wasn’t enough there, there in Verdi’s libretto.

    Joan was not condemned by a fundamentalist religious sect, but by the Roman Catholic Church which 500 years later effectively said “our bad” Joan, you were actually Saint. Kookiness aside, I enjoyed the work because I love opera, and the incredible story of Joan of Arc. Imagine if you will a 17 year old girl taking over the coaching job of the Chicago Cubs and leading veteran players to a World Series victory after a hundred years of failure, and you will only slightly gasp the unlikelyness of St. Joan doing what she accomplished.

    Perhaps looking down from heaven, Joan got a chuckle out of the performance, and the strong reaction to it as well, for as she said “I am not afraid, I was born to do this.”

    Peter Barrett-Chicago

  22. Posted Oct 02, 2013 at 3:02 am by Eddie Pensier

    We continually hear about symbols of Christianity making people of other faiths “uncomfortable” in public—so our cherished Christmas manger scenes, the Ten Commandments, Christmas trees, carol singing, Easter symbols (in schools), etc–all of it GONE, due to the complaints of a tiny minority of malcontents and the touchy-feely-squealy bull-dung of the leftist thought police.

    How about the Christians in COT’s production?
    How about their feelings? How many Christians in the chorus, for example, had to put up with this assault on their faith in order to earn a paycheck? Does COT give a damn about their feelings— insisting that they stand on stage in public and participate in this insult to their own religious beliefs?

    Doubtful that such a thing would even occur to the local “cutting edge” opera group. Or do they simply expect Christians to continue to turn the other cheek for another whack?

    Just another example of the “tolerant”, “inclusive” left-wing’s use of ART to package and deliver their unique brand of hatred.

  23. Posted Oct 08, 2013 at 11:38 am by KP

    Bravo for boldly speaking out against this strong strain of Christian-bashing that has been plaguing our country. In the age of political correctness, such a production should not exist, but, since it’s acceptable to blame and bash Christians in today’s society, forms of art doing so are lauded. I especially love your bluntness on the issue, and as both a devout Catholic and trained soprano, I literally thank God that I did not go see this production. Without a doubt, it would have offended me and my Catholic friends — all of us St. Joan fans — that I planned on going with. In the world of concert reviewing, reviewers often choose to declare the Emperor has clothes on out of fear of either offending the producers or seeming culturally ignorant. I am highly impressed that you did not “follow the crowd” and logically tackled the issues posed by the production. Keep up the good work, and may God bless you! :)

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