“Death of Ivan Ilych” receives stirring premiere from Thompson Street Opera

Sat Sep 11, 2021 at 1:41 pm

By Katherine Buzard

Peter Wesoloski and Mary Lutz Govertsen star in “The Death of Ivan Ilych” at Thompson Street Opera Company. Photo: Claire DiVizio

Thompson Street Opera Company, a small storefront company that presents works exclusively by living composers, opened its tenth season with a stirring operatic adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilych. Postponed from last season, this opera is a revised “co-premiere” with Opera Orlando, where it was performed in February.

In addition to its commitment to presenting works by living composers, Thompson Street Opera Company aims to mount operas that touch on socially relevant topics. With the pandemic forcing many of us to reassess our priorities and suddenly confront our own mortality, this opera has become more relevant than the creators could have imagined. 

The topic was even more significant for the composer, John Young. Young was making his living as a singer in New York in the early 2000s when he discovered a tumor in his nasal cavity. The cancer devastated his singing career, and he fell into a deep depression. He turned to composition to help him work through the loss of his livelihood and his treatment and eventual recovery. He approached librettist Alan Olejniczak about writing an opera, who, upon hearing some of Young’s work, suggested The Death of Ivan Ilych. The opera was completed in 2018, and the now cancer-free composer was in attendance at this weekend’s Chicago performances. 

The opera begins at Ivan Ilych’s wake. Ivan’s work colleague, Pyotr, comes to pay his respects to Ivan’s widow, Praskovya, who is preoccupied with how much pension she will receive, while the doctor laments that he was unable to diagnose or cure Ivan’s illness. The scene then flashes back to when Ivan’s illness first presented itself. The opera follows Ivan’s psychological journey as he confronts the inevitability of death and the superficiality of his life. Eventually Ilych makes peace with death, atones for his sins, and welcomes death with joy.

While the novella is rather bleak and the characters largely self-absorbed and unlikeable, Young and Olejniczak work to soften and humanize these characters by adding moments of levity and tenderness. Particularly, there is more warmth between Ivan and his wife, and Ivan is allowed more of an explicit reconciliation with her before the end. 

Young’s opera, scored for string quintet, oboe, and piano, is rich in counterpoint and dramatic effects such as sudden dissonant chords to depict Ivan’s pangs and angelic tremolos as he lay dying. A particularly effective moment comes near the end when Praskovya sings a haunting, wordless lullaby to her son. She then recites the Hail Mary over sustained chords in the strings in a lovely and touching dramatic moment. Ensemble moments provide variety, including a tender duet between Ivan and his butler, feisty interchanges between the protagonist and his wife, and a rousing close-harmony quartet at the denouement.

Praskovya, sung here by the rich-voiced soprano Mary Lutz Govertsen, is made much more sympathetic and multidimensional through these moments of warmth and because we do not view her solely through Ivan’s frustrated eyes as in the novella. Govertsen sang and acted the role well, effectively balancing Praskovya’s characteristic nagging with moments of affecting tenderness.

The dramatically and musically challenging role of Ivan Ilych was sung with emotional depth and variety of vocal color by Peter Wesoloski. Because so much of the story centers on Ivan’s inner monologue, having someone who could bring dimension to the role was vital. Wesoloski sang with a clear-ringing baritone, which shone particularly in his main aria in the middle of the opera. Especially effective was his use of falsetto at the crucial moment in which Ivan realizes he faces certain death.

Brian Pember sang the role of the butler, Gerasim, with touching earnestness, and Dorian McCall owned the stage with his portrayal of the smarmy doctor. Rounding out the cast were Ross Kyo Matsuda as Pyotr and the Priest, and first-grader Benjamin Govertsen—the soprano’s son—who made an adorable Vladimir in his stage debut.

Conductor Gregory Tufts led the seven-piece ensemble with sensitivity and precision. Despite the logistical challenge of having the orchestra behind a curtain upstage, the playing was consistently well balanced and unified with the singers. Young’s lush score had a few stand-out moments of aching lyricism for the oboe, capably played here by Laura Perkett. Stage director Grant Preisser made efficient use of the small black box space, taking advantage of the multiple entry points to keep the staging dynamic. 

Although there were some awkward moments during the course of the 90-minute opera due to the nature of the plot and a few musical elements that need further work, overall this was an impressive operatic debut by Young and Olejniczak, given worthy advocacy by Thompson Street Opera.

Company news: Music director Alexandra Enyart has departed Thompson Street Opera. The company will book guest conductors for all future productions.

Death of Ivan Ilych will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Athenaeum Theatre’s Studio Three. thompsonstreetopera.org

Katherine Buzard is a freelance writer, editor, and singer who has recently moved to Chicago from Champaign-Urbana. She is a graduate of Princeton University, where she majored in music and earned a certificate in vocal performance. She received her master’s degree in vocal performance from the Royal College of Music in London. In addition to her solo work, she is a staff singer in the St. James Cathedral Choir.

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