an opera by Andy Vores
based on the play by Jean-Paul Sartre
presented by Chicago Opera Vanguard
At Center on Halsted 3656 N Halsted St
October 16 & 17 at 8pm
October 18 at 3pm
Hella Good Time
Jean-Paul Sartre’s play “No Exit” points out that all of our visions of hell may be wrong but the concept is still worth preserving. He re-imagines hell from a contemporary perspective: instead of physical torture, the suffering is psychological, brought about through social interaction. Chicago Opera Vanguard’s current production is an operafication of Sartre’s classic with music by Boston composer Andy Vores.
This new production manages to depict a hell that actually manages to stir fear in the modern mind. So many of our concepts of hell are outdated and cliché and have lost their visceral power. Sartre’s play plumbs the depths of three individuals’ personal hell, which proves to be much more effective to a modern audience.
As an opera, the drama is all the more real. Oddly enough, awkward silence can sound all the more awkward with nervous, repetitive music.
COV’s production puts the three characters in a waiting room, replete with empty water cooler and tacky furniture. Each character proves to be inherently antagonistic to the others, as if it were somehow planned that way. The three singers were evenly matched in their vocal output and stage intensity and never faltered throughout the entire 80 minutes of the opera: the plot mixed with the intimate theater gave them nowhere to hide, but they maintained their focus throughout.
The music was ostensibly difficult but seemed mostly natural in the voices of the singers. The minion of hell seemed sardonically off-key, but it seemed to suit his character. The majority of the music was a thinly layered texture of subtly dissonant melodic fragments. Its contemporary sound betrayed the composer’s academic pedigree; indeed, Mr. Vores is the Chair of Composition at The Boston Conservatory. The music is not lyrical or particularly memorable, but it suits the plot perfectly. The bland colors of the set are matched by the monochromatic sonic palette, with which Mr. Vores paints a picture of intellectual hell to match Sartre’s vision.
Chicago Opera Vanguard has become known for densely ingenious productions. “No Exit” called for a more sparse aesthetic, so it was interesting to see what COV could do with a more minimalist stage. They still included video screens on the sides of the audience that depicted hazy visions that the characters had of earthly goings-on. The videos did not intrude upon the action and were mostly unnecessary; the actors succeeded on their own in making the audience see what they saw in these visions.
So, once again, I was impressed and enthralled by a COV production. This one has the same quality of cast and production that we have come to expect, but the music is slightly more challenging. In trying to tell the story of personal hell, it should succeed in some part in taking the audience there—but hopefully not too much.