High concept production fails to catch on fire

Where: Harris Theater in Millenium Park
When: through Sept. 29
Phone: 312-704-8414

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Opera’s bread and butter has always been the historical drama. Giuseppe Verdi, whose 200th birthday is now being celebrated throughout Chicago, certainly had an output that contains some notable historical operas — “Don Carlos” and “Attila” coming immediately to mind. But the censors of his time were forever putting a stop to him expressing some of his history-based stories, the crazy re-positioning of “Un ballo in maschera” being a case in point.

Yet Verdi’s strange take on “Joan of Arc” (“Giovanna d’Arco”) can place no blame on outside forces. Verdi’s Maid of Orléans (as realized by librettist Temistocle Solera) fends off the sexual advances of a king and dies not in flames at the stake, but rather in victory on the battlefield. It is this kind of ridiculousness that contributes to opera’s reputation for brazenly slapping truth in the face as well as its fascination as art untrammeled by petty details.

Joan is one of Verdi’s early operas, now rarely performed. Completed in 1845, it didn’t have its American debut until more than a century later. Chicago Opera Theater (COT), whose current production of this seventh opera by Verdi opened Saturday, is pitched at an audience which in large measure knows nothing about it.

Yet COT cannot be content with a staging even remotely commensurate with the composer’s intentions, as fresh and unpredictable as that would be to folks who’ve never seen it. Instead, they offer a high concept joke. Whether the joke’s on you or on them is what you will spend most of the evening puzzling over.

Long before you get near your seat, you are handed a modest bit of paper proclaiming that nuns and priests are the evening’s cast. Anyone not privy to the press release announcing that the conceit of the production is that it is really a play within a play, and that the performance incorporates the idea that the Harris Theater has been taken over by fundamentalists who embrace and put on Joan’s story as their own, will scratch their heads and wonder about the quality of the singing coming out of seminaries these days. (And they would be wise to do so. More on this later.)

So begins this sorry enterprise of spending gobs of time and effort not putting on an opera. The stage is open and cluttered with all the accoutrements tidy opera producers manage to hide from the eye: lights and scaffolds and retina-piercing floor tape. There’s no curtain, no backdrop and nearly the only props are metal folding chairs. Thank goodness for those chairs, because they add a comic relief that keeps snoring at bay.

As the overture begins, our strange band of fundamentalists gather to watch a screening of Victor Fleming’s 1948 film “Joan of Arc” starring Ingrid Bergman. (Presumably the creative team knew that this movie was based on a play depicting how Joan’s story affects a troupe of actors, even though this element is wholly lacking in the film.) The score by Hugo Friedhofer, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his efforts, is silenced in order that we see Ingrid’s heroics over the sound of Verdi’s overture. This has a promising start, but when the heroine is lashed to the stake and facing a fiery death the overture fell entirely out of mood with the movie as Verdi’s flutes went frolicking through flowers.

Throughout the production, Joan’s father ostentatiously points to the supertitle screen that announces the new site of the action. This feeble running joke has the merit of giving nervous audience members a polite opportunity to release their pent-up laughter at regular intervals. This scene announcing is vital, because the staging only changes in minor yet bizarre ways. A bathtub sliced in half shielding a statue of the Madonna is a shrine in the forest; an icky, crinkled, red tarp is unfolded centerstage to depict a killing field, and so on.

The folding chairs are jumbled on top of each other to serve as the faggots meant to burn our heretic heroine, and are also used as guns in a fighting scene, although we’re never quite sure who they are pointed at, a chair not having any barrel.

Joan survives the attempt at religious murder and instead dies on the battlefield. She ascends a staircase to mark her entrance into heaven, as tired an opera cliché as any.

This approach to Joan has the advantage that Verdi’s music, hardly his best, shines as the star of the show. Baritone Michael Chioldi offers a winning vocal performance as Giacomo, Joan’s father. Tenor Steven Harrison lets the drab and uncertain character of Carlo VII infuse his pale singing. Soprano Suzan Hanson seemingly gives the title role her best shot, but her mile-wide vibrato is anything but pretty and her Joan is touched by god in an entirely shrieky way.

The chorus, the largest COT has sported in some time, has a pleasing sound and Francesco Milioto ably conducts the New Millennium Orchestra.

The opera ends with all the fundamentalists on stage arming themselves with guns (not furniture this time) pointed out at the audience. I think we are meant to conclude that religious fanaticism can lead from playing with chairs to playing with firepower.

Why all this nonsense? If the folks at COT started with the question of who would be nutty enough to stage a Joan of Arc story where she didn’t die at the stake, then the answer to their own question seems clearly to imply that even they don’t take the opera seriously.