Whither taste? (A Review Pondering the General Idea Motivating the Continued Existence of the Lyric Opera of Chicago)

I have to say that I never in my life have been to the Lyric Opera of Chicago and left thinking, I should do that again. And yet, I continue to go periodically, when I've forgotten how much my butt hurt last time, and how I could've done a load of laundry instead. Folks, it's that good.

[Yes, it's another angry review from Majel. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.]

When I assistant dramaturged at the Lyric back when they did the operatic version of poor (now dead) Robert Altman's *A Wedding* (which then became *The Wedding* for no discernible reason), I became familiar with the uselessness of dramaturgy to the whole Lyric enterprise, and the effectiveness of bad jokes and slapstick on the house's forever aging subscriber base. It may sound strange, but this is an audience that loves it some har-har humor--in fact, the more it seems the opera was engineered by Ellen Degeneres, the more they howl.

When I saw Aida at the Lyric a few seasons ago, I thought I was done forever. Not only did the captured Ethiopians look like a starved pack of mongrel humanoids, they were wearing BLACKFACE. Now, I've seen some effective use of what is currently considered a rather embarrassing component to the past history of black minstrelsy, but it needs to be carefully deployed--Spike Lee's Bamboozled, say, which really did a number on the meaning of careful, would be on the list. Not on the A-list? Blackface in the Lyric's Aida, which was simply not thought out. Worse, no one in the audience seemed to notice.

Now, Philip Morehead, who is about the nicest guy I've met in the last month, offered me a ticket to the Giulio Cesare this past week, and I'll be damned if I'm going to pass over a completely free ticket to anything, especially more butter or brownies. But I gotta say, Lyric Opera of Chicago, you surprised me this time. Now look, I get that opera, historically, that entertainment, period, historically, has often been about slapstick, about gags, and laughs and that dressing opera up as a completely serious venture might be our misguided 21st century version of how we want opera to be. So maybe in some universe out there it would be okay to put Cleopatra in a flapper wig and have her show up in Africa to do a striptease for a group of soldiers in some colonial environment. (I'm afraid I was never quite clear on McVicar's costume choices. Pompey's wife Cornelia seems to be in some Southern mourning get-up viz. the Civil War era, but my guess is the dramaturg for the production didn't get as far as defining an actual location for the opera beyond the suggestion that wherever they are it's perhaps a bit hot out??) But then one would need to make a firm argument for the whole of the opera as an embedded burlesque (in which case the strangely Renaissance line dance at the end of the 1st Act would be decidedly the wrong genre). The slow-mo entrance of the diminutive dancers who act as palace minions at the outset of the opera seemed initially to be a stroke of genius. The dancers, combined with the slowly rolling water-like backdrop suggest a moment where--perhaps just at the moment of Pompey's death--the clocks have all stopped, time is at a standstill. Or better yet, perhaps slow-moving dance is the dance of Opera itself, stopped in time: a living, yet dead, art form. But with Daniels' confused entrance (why he needed to stagger in at this point is beyond me), the dancerly pace disappears, only to reemerge later in Act I for no apparent reason at all. (Why are they moving slowly again? What does it mean?)

I've said nothing at all about the singing, partly because it's upsetting to me that every time I've ever gone to hear David Daniels sing, he's marked. But mostly, I found the rest of the first act, which is as far as I made it, utterly BAD. I couldn't listen to the music.

Lyric, thumbs down.


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