I-House and Harris Theater host unusual performances

A scene from Chicago Opera Theater’s “Gianni Schicchi.” Michael Brosilow
A scene from Chicago Opera Theater’s “Gianni Schicchi.”

Michael Brosilow

What: “La Voix Humaine” and “Gianni Schicchi”
Where: Harris Theater (205 E. Randolph St.)
When: Through Feb. 14
Tickets: cot.org

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

The opening night for the first of two performances of a double bill proved to be a winner for Chicago Opera Theater on Saturday. General director Andreas Mitisek has paired Poulenc’s tragic portrait of a jilted lover having her last conversation with the man she still loves with Puccini’s laugh-filled romp about a family scheming to steal the estate of a relative who has just died and had intended to leave his fortune to the church.

“La Voix Humaine” and “Gianni Schicchi” are an unlikely pair of one-act operas to appear together, but they worked well in tandem, creating an evening of enjoyable of musical theater.

Poulenc’s “La Voix Humaine” (“The Human Voice”) is a spare piece with only one singer. The soprano is not even given a name and is known to us only as “Elle” (French for “her”). She mopes around her apartment, carrying her telephone with her, as she conducts a last, at times desperate, conversation with the man who has left her for another woman. The story, based on the 1930 play of the same name by Jean Cocteau, spins out slowly with Hitchcock-like suspense. We learn that Elle will see that her erstwhile lover gets what he wants from her: not another joy-filled evening but rather the love letters he has written to her. We discover her desperation, his deceit, and her terrible reaction to his rejection.

Soprano Patricia Racette offers a moving portrait of Elle, expertly navigating the waxing and waning moods of a woman motivated by love and loss. She sings with both simplicity and conviction, breathing life into Poulenc’s subtle score, which itself explores the human voice in music. She is in turns tender, teasing, optimistic, forlorn, and resigned. When she finally places the telephone receiver back in its cradle, you cry for her.

Racette is supported beautifully from the pit by the work on conductor Ari Pelto who ensures that the orchestra creates music that swishes around the soprano but never drowns her in either volume or an excess of sentimentality.

Mitisek does double duty in the double bill, serving as both director and production designer. Elle’s apartment is a study in grey, from the bed, the comfy chair, and the dressing table, to the huge window showing a cityscape with a large full moon that slowly makes its way across the sky as the opera unfolds. Elle provides the only splash of color, dressed in a ruby red ensemble of nightgown and silky robe.

After the intermission, it’s fun and laughs with Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi.” The relatives of Buoso Donati are in grief after his death. Not because they cared about him, but because they learn he’s left his great fortune to a monastery. Unwilling to accept his last will and testament, they summon the clever fixer Schicchi, who devises a scheme that leaves the monks with a pittance and redistributes the wealth back to the family — but at a cost: Schicchi takes the lion’s share for himself. Unable to fight this unforeseen turn of events without exposing their own greed, all must accept the new will.

COT has assembled an engaging cast for this rousing ensemble piece. Leading the way in the title role is baritone Michael Chioldi, who has singing strength and comic wit. His bluster is engaging as he happily embodies the idea of cunning chicanery.

Soprano Emily Birsan lights up the stage as the sweet Lauretta, and offers a winning and memorable rendition of the opera’s signature piece, “O mio babbino caro.”

Tenor Christopher Tiesi as lovelorn Rinuccio is not as successful, singing with a voice that is often thin and with a vibrato that has the sound of a bleating sheep.

The rest of the cast camps it up in good style, looking comfortable in their swinging sixties costumes and cavorting in front of a scrim with amusing psychedelic projections designed by Sean Cawelti.

Pelto paces the proceedings well, the stage movement is amusing, and while the opera is unexpectedly sung in English, this comes off very well. The only true misstep is at the end when the scrim is removed revealing lights at the back of the stage. Most are red and innocuous, but one very bright white light penetrates into the audience with laser-like annoyance.
The second and final performance is Feb. 14 at 3 p.m.

* * *

University of Chicago Presents hosted the Chicago-based ensemble Third Coast Percussion at International House on Friday night and the evening was one of pounding intensity.

The highlight of the evening was Steve Reich’s Sextet. Third Coast members Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin and David Skidmore were joined by special guests David Friend and Oliver Hagen for a performance of this roughly half-hour piece that pulsated with exciting energy. This year marks the 80th birthday of Reich, and to celebrate this milestone, Third Coast Percussion and their two guests have recorded Sextet on a CD devoted to Reich’s music to be issued later this month by Cedille Records. (Those in attendance Friday night were able to make a special early purchase of the recording.)

Also on the program was a new work by Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy. His “Surface Tension” was premiered by Third Coast Percussion last month at Notre Dame University with the I-House performance being the second time the work was played before a live audience.

It was because of “Surface Tension” that UC Presents used the Assembly Hall at I-House, as the usual venues would not easily permit placement of the musicians in four separate locations throughout the room. The audience was surrounded by percussion and listened in near darkness. The effect was dramatic and for 25 minutes listeners might have felt they were actually inside a drum — perhaps even trapped there. There were shocking and jarring moments of intensely loud sound while the work ended surprisingly with soft sound.

The concert opened with the brief “Table Music” by Thierry De May. Three of the ensemble members sat at a table, each with their own small table (rather like ouija boards) before them. They used their hands to tap, slap and slide across these tables, each with a microphone embedded in them, and the effect was not only sonic but visual, as the hand movements were almost dance-like in their precision and prettiness.