Singers provide fleeting pleasures in COT’s revisionist “Lucio”

Thu Sep 24, 2015 at 12:17 pm

By John Y. Lawrence

Valerie VInzant, Ryan MacPherson and Maeve Höglund in Chicago Opera Theater's production of Mozart's "Lucio Silla." Photo: Liz Lauren
Valerie Vinzant, Ryan MacPherson and Maeve Höglund in Chicago Opera Theater’s production of Mozart’s “Lucio Silla.” Photo: Liz Lauren

It’s often difficult to separate productions that refreshen and rejuvenate operas from those that freely revise for change’s sake. It is particularly difficult with a work like Lucio Silla—a rarely performed opera seria composed by the 16-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which opened Chicago Opera Theater’s season in a press preview Wednesday night at the Harris Theater.

In its original form, the opera runs about three hours and—like most opera seria—is dramatically static. It thus may need a certain amount of trimming in order to remain engrossing for a contemporary audience. This production is indeed generously cut, and the character of Silla’s advisor Aufidio excised entirely. The opera’s original three acts are condensed into two, by jettisoning about a half hour’s worth of music.

As is also common at COT, the setting of the opera has been updated to the 20th century. The men wear blazers and military fatigues. The set is studded with rivets and displays the words “Sic Semper Tyrannis” in large letters throughout the opera. The metal boxes out of which it is constructed clank obtrusively when the cast members walk on them.

But there is a spirit of heavy-handed revisionism in this production that goes beyond mere updating. Several scenes are chopped up and reordered, and even those that remain intact have had their meanings greatly altered. These alterations do not seek to make the opera’s ideas more impactful. Unfortunately, they change what the opera’s components—its story, its characters, its ideas—are fundamentally about. (Also see COT’s much-reviled 2013  production of Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco for a similarly interventionist Regie staging.)

Company artistic director Andreas Mitisek characteristically takes every opportunity in his staging to inject sex, violence, and cynicism into the proceedings. The characters spend a great deal of time in horizontal positions: in agonized writhing about their fates, in anticipation of amorous acts to be undertaken, and in the actual undertaking of such acts with other characters.

Consider the opera’s ending: It is a feature of Mozart’s opera seria that tyrants see the error of their ways and extend forgiveness towards their enemies. Silla is no exception. But in this production, Silla (played by Ryan MacPherson) performs his acts of clemency under duress, reading it off of a sheet forced upon him by Cinna (played by Ava Pine), who is hinted to become his successor as dictator. The opera’s fundamental optimism towards the possibility of reform is thus transformed into a bitter affirmation of power’s inherent corruption.

Some of the reinterpretations are dramatically effective. Reversing the order of Scenes 1 and 2 of the opera allows it to begin on a more emotional note—Cecilio (played by Christine Arand) pining for his wife—than the dry plot exposition of the original opening recitative.

The chorus “Fuor di queste urne dolenti” is meant to be sung by attendants to Giunia (played by Maeve Höglund) as she visits the statues of the dead. In Mitisek’s staging, the chorus is sung by the statues themselves, who have come alive as ghosts, terrifying Giunia, who beats against the walls. This is more exciting stuff than the original, although it strays into horror-film territory a world removed from the opera’s Classical milieu.

But many of the changes to the opera are purely gratuitous. Silla’s supposed passion for Giunia—the major motivation for the opera’s plot—is undercut by his more than brotherly caresses with sister Celia (played by Valerie Vinzant), as they guzzle booze. A character who is supposed to survive the opera unscathed is brutally murdered onstage at the end of this production, adding nothing to the story. (This death is meant to shock, so I will not reveal which character this is.)

Cinna’s aria “De’ superbi il core” is staged in a series of increasingly sexual positions with Celia, culminating in him straddling her. Because most of their prior scenes together have been cut, this comes out of nowhere. Moreover, this staging just makes no sense given the text of the aria, which is about the gods’ judgment of Silla’s fate. But the supertitles obliges in hiding this fact by failing to translate most of the words.

At the preview performance, the projectionist for the supertitles was having a very off night. The supertitles sometimes raced ahead of the singers, and other times dragged behind and then blurred through several lines in order to catch up. This was so clumsy that there was audible laughter from some members of the audience as these mistakes continued well into the second act.

The opera is performed bilingually—the arias in the original Italian and the recitatives in English. The supertitle problem was not helped by the fact that the cast occasionally translated their lines differently from what the supertitles suggested.

These shortcomings were almost overcome by the high quality of much of the music-making. The overall pacing of the opera flowed naturally due to the consistently intelligent leadership of conductor Francesco Milioto, directing the Chicago Philharmonic. MacPherson sang Silla with suave tone, navigating from tenderness to tantrum-throwing with ease and solid technique.

Höglund’s Giunia was a marvel, the other highlight of the evening besides MacPherson. In this production, the virtuous Giunia is transformed into a hothead who almost stabs Silla with scissors during her rage-filled first aria “Dalla sponda tenebrosa.” Höglund adjusted the color of her voice to her character’s many moods. She pulled off the requisite vocal pyrotechnics with aplomb, but was equally moving in the simple recitative “Se l’empio Silla.”

Christine Arand’s Cecilio was not quite on their level. She was effective in lyrical moments—such as her aria “Pupille amate”—but her coloratura was a little uncontrolled and her lower range did not project well.

Ava Pine sang Cinna with bell-like clarity and cheeky characterization. Much of Celia’s best music was cut, but Valerie Vinzant did what she could with what was left of the role, even if most of this had to be expressed physically rather than vocally.

Lucio Silla runs through October 4th.; 312-704-8414.  

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