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May 2011
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Andrew Patner on Arts and Culture

The View from Here: Chicago Opera Theater’s “He/She”: Schumann and Janáček cycles add up musically, if not visually

Here is my Monday May 9 and Chicago Sun-Times review of the Saturday May 7, 2011 opening of Chicago Opera Theater‘s new double-bill He/She, comprising song cycles of Schumann and Janáček.

Mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano sang with power and maturity on Robert Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben.

Mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano sang with power and maturity on Robert Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben.

2 recitals add up to a fine program

Chicago Opera Theater pairs song cycles to make an effective musical, but mixed visual, experience


Chicago Opera Theater wrapped up one of its most varied seasons in years with a pairing of two song cycles dealing with stories of the heart. After a multimedia new American “robot opera” (Tod Machover’s Death and the Powers) and the Chicago première of a 300-year-old French Baroque masterwork (Charpentier’s Medée), a project initiated in part as a cost-cutting move developed into an immensely rewarding musical evening.

Under the rubric He/She, COT general director Brian Dickie and Chicago Symphony Orchestra artistic programming advisor Gerard McBurney, on loan here as “creative advisor,” paired Robert Schumann’s 1840 Frauenliebe und -leben (A Woman’s Love and Life), Op. 42, and Leoš Janáček’s 1917-20 The Diary of One Who Disappeared and recruited two strong young singers, female and male, for what became de facto Chicago recital debuts.

Opening Saturday evening (and repeated only on Sunday afternoon) the concept and its realization was musically very strong, even moving. The Schumann work was a part of the outpouring of music and emotional involvement of the composer’s “Year of Song” that also held the start of his marriage to composer-pianist Clara Wieck. It offers an insightful and, with the right performers, disturbing woman’s-eye view of mid-19th century romance.

Mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano, a member of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program from St. Louis, was coming off of a rave New York Times review of her first Manhattan recital last week, and she delivered here as one might have expected of a much older artist. Her well-rounded voice easily filled the Harris Theater, and with onstage pianist Craig Terry of Lyric Opera of Chicago she showed deep understanding of how the 25-minute cycle tells a story of love, resentment, fulfillment, and grief.

After intermission, Chicago favorite Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser offered Janáček’s story of a Slavic farm boy who leaves his family for, we kid you not, a gypsy’s love (and happily, too). Kaiser took a hold of the work with both hands and rode it as if it were a three-year-old colt in the Kentucky Derby. Singing in Czech and with Terry equally committed to the composer’s dotted rhythms and boiling passions, Kaiser showed the vocal and dramatic intelligence that COT and Lyric audiences have come to know over the years. (An unfortunate crack at the 40-minute work’s final climax kept questions about the ardent singer’s technical issues alive, alas.)

Janáček, whose career became increasingly focused on opera in his late years, calls for a mezzo to come onstage as the gypsy, Zefka, and COT Young Artist Brandy Lynn Hawkins sang with a seductive inner flame. Her fellow training program members, sopranos Leila Bowie, Hannah Dixon, and Megan Rose Williams, were the siren-like off-stage voices.

If this were all there was to the program, it might have been a full success. But McBurney, who created and leads the CSO’s popular Beyond the Score series, and Dickie decided to use visual and video projections throughout both works, and these made for decidedly mixed results. Although many of the images culled from period photographs by McBurney’s wife, Alison, were striking, the lack of full supertitles and having Johnson Cano appear in a modern blue recital gown made the visual and aural conjunctions incoherent.

Projection designer Hillary Leben, also a Beyond the Score vet, did a better job in the second half with the Janáček, but this is an inherently and intentionally theatrical work. Julian Pike’s lighting essentially made for recitals in the dark. Intriguing ideas all told, though either not fully thought out or developed in an unbalanced way. But musically ravishing. More recitals, please. And turn up the lights next time.