The death creed of Elizabeth Cree

Christopher Burchett as John Cree in “Elizabeth Cree” at Chicago Opera Theater, ADDRESS. – Evan Hanover

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

What: “Elizabeth Cree”
Where: The Studebaker Theater
When: Through Feb. 18
Tickets: 312-704-8414

It was an unusual local premiere when Chicago Opera Theater presented only the second-ever mounting of the new opera “Elizabeth Cree” at the Studebaker Theater in the Fine Arts Building on Saturday night.

With music by the celebrated Kevin Puts and libretto by Mark Campbell (who won the Pulitzer Prize for their opera “Silent Night”), this new opera is based on “The Trial of Elizabeth Cree,” a novel by Peter Ackroyd. What makes the piece uncommon is that it is essentially a horror story, with elements of courtroom drama and music hall pastiche. It is full of murder and mayhem, unexpected and feebly explained deaths, unsettling characters of a theatrical group, and a sinister, dysfunctional marriage.

It is late Victorian London and Elizabeth has led a darker-than-Dickens life, all of which changes (or does it?) when she joins a music hall troupe run by comedian-singer-dancer Dan Leno. She begins as a prompter, but swiftly moves up the ranks and becomes a performer. She meets John Cree, playwright and critic, who offers her a financially stable and comfortable life. It turns into loveless marriage, with both husband and wife harboring dark secrets. A gruesome serial murderer is on the loose in the Limehouse district of London with an incompetent but promotion-obsessed detective put in charge of the case.

John Cree dies by poison and Elizabeth Cree is put on trial for his murder. And the Limehouse murders suddenly stop. So who did what? This short chamber opera tells the twisting story in about 100 minutes and is performed without an intermission

In the opening prologue, which begins without orchestral prelude, Elizabeth, having been found guilty of the murder of her husband, is hanged. There follows 29 short scenes that jump back and forth in time and place. The action occurs in a wide variety of locations, from courtroom to music hall to the Cree parlor room and even to the storied Reading Room of the British Museum, where Karl Marx famously wrote his most influential work, “Das Kapital.” In fact, one of the Limehouse murder victims had worked as a sweeper in the Reading Room, so the inspector questions many of its denizens, including Marx and novelist George Gissing.

In spite of what might seem a dizzying movement back and forth through time and place, the story is not only clear, but compelling. It is also dismaying and dismal. There is no likable major character. Even Dan Leno (a real person, whose work paved the way for such stars as Charlie Chaplin), is terribly vulgar and creepy, even though he never does anything wrong.

The music is evocative and varied, and moves and changes with the rapid pace of the narrative. The vocal line is heavy on recitative, which at its best is truly effective and at its worst only a bit dull. Puts has also inserted a few moving arias in the work. His real vocal strength in “Elizabeth Cree” is in his vocal ensemble numbers, where tight harmonies are gripping and the complex layers complement the storytelling. The courtroom scene where the prosecuting and defending barristers offer their closing arguments is a stunning duet where the two lawyers sing their arguments simultaneously. This is realized with great flair by Bill McMurray and Vince Wallace, bewigged and convincing as men who have done their duty, whether or not truth has actually emerged.

The casting is remarkably strong. Baritone Christopher Burchett is marvelous as John Cree. His bumbling practice in proposing to Elizabeth is beautifully done (with equally beautiful music) and is all the more powerful when juxtaposed with scenes at his desk, where Cree sits down to record in his diary how he committed the grisly Limehouse murders, which are reproduced in silhouette at the back of the stage. The black and white shadows are enhanced with the terrifying red of blood. But are we being misled?

Tenor Richard Troxell is terrific as Dan Leno and he chews up the scenery every time he appears on stage. (The original title of the source novel was “Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem” but it was changed for American publication.) Troxell is splendid with his music hall shtick, making it both incredibly funny and darkly disturbing.

Mezzo-soprano Katherine Pracht is earnest in the title role and shows intense conviction at every turn. Yet she consistently sings with a hard and sometimes bitter edge in her voice and has a distracting and overly prominent vibrato. Her acting lacks spontaneity: her physical movements always seem calculated and sometimes come off as truly awkward.

Baritone Levi Hernandez as Inspector Kildare expertly gives us a copper more concerned with his career than the effect the crimes he is investigating have on a terrified community.

The smaller roles are stuffed with talent. Bass-baritone David Govertsen has a star turn with his alternatingly silly and sinister portrayal of Uncle, one of the music hall performers. Similarly outstanding is soprano Stacey Tappan as Aveline Mortimer, a music hall singer, sometime street-walker, and the woman Elizabeth brings into her home as a servant, hoping that she will sate her husband’s sexual desires so that Elizabeth doesn’t have to.

Director David Schweizer, who directed COT’s high concept joke of a production of Verdi’s “Joan of Arc” in 2013, can do no wrong in this co-production with Philadelphia Opera, which produced the world premiere last September. The pacing is splendid, the visuals are apt and enticing, and the story comes through loud and clear. David Zinn’s contributions as scenic and costume designer are spot on. Conductor Geoffrey McDonald leads a 16-piece ensemble in a performance that admirably supports and cushions the singers and draws out the drama.

The new leaders of COT, general director Douglas R. Clayton and music director Lidiya Yankovskaya, are off to a wonderful start.