First Impression: He/She at COT

Chicago Opera Theater closes its season this weekend with 2 song cycles: Schumann's Frauenlibe und Leben and Janacek's The Diary of One Who Disappeared. Not opera, per se, each work contained drama, brought to the fore by a series of projections - almost cinematic - that provided much needed translations and helped set the mood.

Strong voices, delicate piano accompaniment, and rich background visuals (that rarely competed with the music) transformed these two song cycles into something larger, almost operatic, without sacrificing the intimacy of the medium.

To open the evening, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano explored the naive joy of a woman in love in Schumann's 8-song cycle. Her ample voice easily filled the hall with its body and luster. Rich enough to make every note a gem, subtle enough to keep drawing the listener in, it never overstayed its welcome.

Schumann's cycle contained the requisite 2 moods for an opera: love and love's loss. But the songs failed to build or release tensions, merely embodying one mood or the other. Thus it remained a cycle of songs, a series of (mostly joyous) emotional tableaux.

Janacek's work contained much more drama and subtlety, exploring the psychological trauma of a farm boy exploring his carnality with a woodsy gypsy girl. Joseph Kaiser sang the role with commitment, hitting the emotional highs and lows with his voice while gesticulating, pacing, and rolling around on the floor. Like Cano's voice - but unlike most tenors - his kept the listener wanting more.

Neither singer was in danger of being overpowered by the piano. The accompanist, Craig Terry, kept the piano in the piano range (quiet) but still managed to keep each note audible. I could have used a little more. The size of the hall swallowed up the piano while reinforcing the singers' voices.

While musically very solid, the production was brought to life by the projections. During the Schumann, snippets of translation emerged on the screen in a woman's delicate handwriting. Blurred images of antiquated people helped set a mid-19th century mood.

The projection for the Janacek was a bit more involved, including still images, video, and a man's' handwriting. The writing, in this case, was attempting to be a rural man's block-letter chicken scratch but verged on feeling like a horror movie, serial kidnapper ransom note.

In a few parts of the Janacek, the video overpowered the music with swirling visuals in vivid color, contributing to a feeling of physical vertigo, which, in turn, represents the psychology of the disappearing man in the story.

In both works, the projections, designed by Hillary Leben, simply helped to suggest a mood, complementing the music without dictating. Very High Quality.

The only flaw to the evening was the audience, a large, predominantly geriatric crowd with a chronic bronchial infection. If only the Harris had free cough drops like Symphony Center.

He/She runs through today, 3 hours from when I write. Recommended.

Filed under: COT

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