Chicago Fringe Opera gives the problematic “Great God Pan” a worthy world premiere

Tue Mar 13, 2018 at 4:27 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Tobias Wright (left) and Aaron Wardell in Ross Crean's "The Great God Pan" at Chicago Fringe Opera. Photo: Victor LeJeune
Tobias Wright (left) and Aaron Wardell in Ross Crean’s “The Great God Pan” at Chicago Fringe Opera. Photo: Victor LeJeune

For the second time in the past month, Chicago has seen a creepy contemporary opera set in England at the end of the 19th century centered on a murder mystery with occult overtones.

Ross Crean’s The Great God Pan, presented by Chicago Fringe Opera Monday night at the Chopin Theatre, trods some of the same unsettling terrain as Chicago Opera Theater’s production of Kevin Puts’s Elizabeth Cree last month. Yet while Fringe Opera provided their customary savvy and a strong cast, The Great God Pan is not nearly as convincing a work as Elizabeth Cree.

Crean’s opera was recorded and released last year on the Navona label. The current Fringe Opera production marks the work’s staged world premiere with some of the singers from the recording repeating their roles.

The scenario is a complex supernatural tale. The quasi-mad scientist Dr. Raymond conducts an operation on his young ward Mary that will enable her “to see the Great God Pan” to the horror of his friend Clarke. The operation goes awry, leaving Mary brain-damaged. The action then jumps ahead 20 years where the (unaged) Clarke is compiling a memoir that will “prove the existence of the devil.” Key to that is his research into Helen, a mysterious young woman who seems to be the cause of a variety of disappearances, tragedies and suicides.

The main problem with The Great God Pan is the Chicago-based composer’s own libretto, inspired by the 1890 novella by Welsh mystic Arthur Machen. Perhaps the opera accurately reflects Machen’s story but, as dramatized, it is a bewildering mess. Characters appear, disappear and reappear with little explanation and motivations are left largely unexplained by the brief summary in the handout program.  Crean’s verbose libretto for the 85-minute opera centers on acres of exposition, which, paradoxically, still leave one baffled as to what exactly is going on.

What The Great God Pan does have is consistently intriguing music. Crean writes in a tonal, quasi-minimalist idiom; his vocal lines are graceful and natural yet often expand into soaring solo arias of impressive beauty. Even with the confusing scenario and the music played here from just two pianos, Crean’s music makes a consistently strong impression. (The second piano is a prepared instrument and offers an apt array of eerie and ominous sounds.)

The Great God Pan is a problematic work, but Chicago Fringe Opera provided its usual game, well-rehearsed advocacy with a typically excellent cast of young singers.

Christina Pecce as Helen in "The Great God Pan." Photo: Victor LeJeune
Christina Pecce as Helen in “The Great God Pan.” Photo: Victor LeJeune

As the mysterious, possessed Helen Vaughan, Christina Pecce displayed a clear, flexible soprano. Clad in Pan-like getup, Pecce was most impressive in her final aria, faultless in intonation even in the exposed close quarters.

Aaron Wardell brought obsessive gravitas and a rich, easily produced baritone as Dr, Raymond. Tobias Wright was a handsome protagonist as Clarke, his tenor handling the fitfully high tessitura with aplomb.

Vince Wallace showed a strong baritone as Villiers. Following his impressive singing for Haymarket Opera last week, Mark Haddad’s cavernous bass brought sonorous impact to Mr. Herbert.

Bridget Skaggs was convincing as the gender-bending Austin. Maureen Smith (Mary), Marysa Abbas (Trevor), Quinn Middleman (Rachel) and Thomas Bailey (Meyrick) capably filled out the rest of the cast. Young actress Meredith White showed poise in her brief wordless turn as the Young Helen.

The production is being staged in the Chopin Theatre’s intimate black box basement space. Performed in the round with the first row of chairs inches from the action lent striking immediacy to the action.

Fringe director George Cederquist once again made much out of little with a few small props and graceful scene changes done by the cast. When a glass bottle was accidentally knocked to the floor and shattered into several pieces, the cast seamlessly cleaned it up on the next scene change without missing a beat.

Fringe conductor Catherine O’Shaughnessy provided her usual superb musical direction, with pianists Casey Baker and Tyler Kivel making an eloquent case for Crean’s score.

Fringe Opera has dedicated this production to the memory of Jessica Hiltabidle. The young soprano, who was to be in the show, died just before rehearsals due to complications from  the flu.

The Great God Pan runs through March 18.

Posted in Performances

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