Chicago Opera Vanguard
by Mark-Anthony Turnage
at the St. Paul’s Cultural Center
June 10, 12, 13
Somewhere in between high and low art, between well-done and raw, between boho and pomo there is “Greek,” a rough-and-tumble operatic romp through Classical Antiquity by Chicago Opera Vanguard. COV is a fledgling opera company in the midst of their first season—Season 0. “Greek” is a relatively new opera written in the 1980s by Mark-Anthony Turnage—the current composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony. The opera is based on the Oedipus myth but transports the action to Thatcher-era England. Oedipus, now called Eddy, and his cohorts are lower-class punks and shop-keepers but maintain the same arrogance as in the original. It is an interesting redramatization of the original, but ultimately the success lies in the performers and music more so than the plot.
The cast and musicians of “Greek” prove that Chicago has both breadth and depth of talent. The lead, Justin Neal Addir, magnetically brings your attention with him wherever he goes. His voice sounds clear and honest without a hint of pretension, which helps him sell his rough, English punk character. The other standout is Ashlee Hardgrave, who has performed regularly in Chicago since finishing her Masters at Roosevelt University. Her voice easily filled the spacious old church no matter what the dynamic. While the voices rang true, the syllables and consonants were sometimes swallowed by the lofted orchestra, especially during the more dramatic moments. Luckily, the plot is deeply embedded in our collective subconscious, but I felt like I was missing certain subtle reinterpretations of plot that would help firmly locate the action in England and not mythical Greece.
The composer, now composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony, is Mark-Anthony Turnage. Growing up in England during the 1970s, he sets the story during this time and blames the economic problems on Eddy’s moral abomination. Though known for his explicit and competent use of Jazz, this music is a panoply of every style but. Everything from ambient dissonance to schmaltzy musical theater, the style shifts the mood from tragic to comic and everything in between. On the whole, though, the music is not something you would tap your foot to or go away humming; it’s function is to serve the drama not to steal the show. The orchestra parts often blend into one organic soundscape with solo instruments coming out to counterpoint the voices. In general, the vocal writing is acrobatic and somewhat dissonant but still grounded in the tonality of the orchestra. At times, though, I felt like the stuffy, abstract melodies would better suit dialogue between desiccated aristocrats who have all of the pretensions of formal speech but nothing to say. That is, very little in the music resembled the punk aesthetic, which only existed in the libretto and attitudes on stage.
Ironically, Chicago Opera Vanguard is the star of its own show. Like the character of Eddy, COV has been dealt a series of blows from which it has persisted and bounced back. First, they had to deal with the closing of the AV-aerie, the site of their first opera of Season 0—Orpheus and Euridice. Then, in the week leading up to the show, word got out that a very large donor pulled their funding because of foul language. There are quite a few “f-bombs” dropped, but it never feels gratuitous; every foul word serves the drama or the punk setting. [In fact, the thought occurred to me that Turnage may have decided on the Oedipus myth by musing on the origins of the mother of all f-words.]
Overall, the opera seemed like it was written by a gifted composer who had not yet solved all the dramatic problems set up by the unholy marriage of punk England to ancient Greek drama. And while COV’s production creatively reflected both the contemporary and ancient themes, it was a Sisyphean task which would have required many more dollars to be a glowing success. As it is, COV is building a reputation for engaging, professional productions in spite of their small budget. It will be exciting to see how they continue this in their next season as they attempt to fuse old and new and, through alchemy, produce something new that very nearly resembles gold