Two fine singers vie with uninspired score in “When Adonis Calls”

Sun Dec 09, 2018 at 12:39 pm

By Hannah Edgar

Jonathan Wilson and Nathan James Kistler star in “When Adonis Calls” at Thompson Street Opera. Photo: Joshua Louis Smith

When it comes to gay and non-gender-conforming narratives in opera, not every story needs to end as tragically as that of Countess Geschwitz.

Local companies have brought LGBTQ representation to the fore in a host of recent productions: Chicago Fringe Opera’s As One in 2017 (on a transgender protagonist’s life pre- and post-medical transition), Third Eye Theatre’s Patience and Sarah in October (a 19th century lesbian love story), and now, Thompson Street Opera’s When Adonis Calls.

Though a breath of fresh air, these productions speak more positively to the strength of Chicago’s small companies than of the works themselves. So it was with the excellent Thompson Street troupe—the new kids on the block in the storefront opera scene—and the less-than-excellent When Adonis Calls, from composer Clint Borzoni and librettist John de los Santos.

Using the verse of North Carolina-based poet Gavin Geoffrey Dillard as a scaffold, Adonis—which premiered at Asheville Lyric Opera in May—documents the passionate correspondence between an older writer, archly called The Poet (baritone Jonathan Wilson) and a younger man,  The Muse (baritone Nathan James Kistler). The men don’t actually meet for most of the opera, with dancers standing in for their imagined caresses (Jay Españo and choreographer James Mueller). You may not be blamed for thinking the concept sounds a touch familiar; but the scenario is based on Dillard’s actual long-distance communication with a poet in New York, though the medium is changed from Facebook messages to more romantic handwritten letters.

When Adonis Calls is not for the prudish, with a brief flash of nudity in the final scene and an often blush-inducing libretto. Moreover, with lame couplets like “I don’t want to know you / I just want to blow you,” audience members may find themselves more dismayed than embarrassed. The discomfort is according to plan, since it’s never clear whether we’re supposed to feel completely at ease with the relationship of the Poet and the Muse, with the latter often acting as little more than a projection board for the former’s desires.

Ultimately, the Muse becomes a stand-in for a still more pervasive preoccupation in Adonis: youth, and how its having or not-having interlocks with desire. “I drew your body in the shape I wanted, but never knew how to make it move,” laments the aging Poet to the Muse in one of the of the opera’s more poignant moments.

The line is an apt enough description of Borzoni’s score, which too often takes the red-hot passion of the libretto and dunks it in an ice bath. Borzoni’s score for string quartet and percussion is functionally tonal but treadmill-like, chugging along chordally but going nowhere as a dramatic narrative. Some comic moments are effective but when dealing with more serious material, Borzoni seems at sea. Even the opera’s, er, climax somehow feels more riotous than well-earned.

The choreography is an integral feature of When Adonis Calls, and worked effectively here, though some of Mueller’s more superfluous terpsichorean moves could have been toned down. The same goes for the set design—though populated by three desks, only the Poet’s saw much usage.

If there’s a reason to see When Adonis Calls, it’s for the stellar performances by its young two-man cast. Jonathan Wilson, one of the leads in last year’s As One, gives a commanding performance as the older Poet, his voice resounding and luxurious. It’s only a matter of time before he moves on to bigger halls.

With his nuanced acting, the warm-voiced Nathan James Kistler managed to round out the scant role of the Muse. No wispy seducer, his Muse  was an assured, fully formed character.

As she has for all three aforementioned operas, conductor and Thompson Street music director Alexandra Enyart led a remarkably polished ensemble of instrumentalists. She drew locked-in but expressive unison lines between singers and players, and expressive rubato that gave string players room for their intricate lines without bogging down the singers’ melodic arc. 

Amid the local storefront opera scene, it’s rare that the score and libretto prove as inspired as the onstage talent of the casts. But it’s a relief to know that audacious grassroots opera in Chicago is alive and well.

The final performance of When Adonis Calls is 3 p.m. Sunday at the Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway.

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