Two brothers and a mysterious red bird

Annie Rosen (Brother) and Jordan Rutter (Doodle) in “The Scarlet Ibis.” (Photo by Liz Lauren)

Classical Music Critic

Chicago Opera Theater has launched another Chicago premiere with its production of “The Scarlet Ibis” at the Studebaker Theater. The opera is based on the short story of the same name by James Hurst, with music by Stefan Weisman and libretto by David Cote.

Love is an important thread in a large number of operas, but the main love story in “The Scarlet Ibis” is a brotherly one. The one-act, five-singer piece centers on two brothers. The older, known only as “Brother” is healthy, active, and enjoys the physical aspects of life. His younger brother Doodle is physically challenged and develops a rich mental life of imagination. Brother tries to initiate him in the rough and tumble world of children, but ultimately, pride becomes bigger than love, and this leads to a tragic denouement.

Set in South Carolina about a century ago, the set was a simple pier with dead water plants clinging to the bottom. This wooden structure curved around the back of the stage, slowly getting higher and higher, like a ramp. It was to invoke a swamp which is mentioned throughout, yet as it was often used for other purposes (the highest point served as the father’s workshop as he made a coffin for Doodle, thinking that the child would die shortly after birth), this made the pier more distracting than illuminating.

The costumes ranged from spot-on to stereotyped. Brother, sung by Annie Rosen, was perfectly decked out in denim overalls, genuinely looking like a little boy. Auntie (Sharmay Musacchio), on the other hand, was given a standard drab old lady getup. The bird of the opera’s title was given a costume that looked to have been red rags cobbled together.

Rosen and Countertenor Jordan Rutter were both superb as the brothers. Rosen sang with conviction and was completely believable as a young boy. Rutter has a pleasing voice but sounded tired by the end.

Quinn Middleman as the mother was splendid in her lullaby to little Doodle while Bill McMurray as the father conveyed both strength and sorrow. Musacchio did fine work with a small role that centered on scolding or relaying superstitions.

Dancer Ginny Ngo had glorious movement as the Scarlet Ibis, truly capturing the sense of a bird in all her gestures and movements. But the death of the ibis was unconvincing, even rather dull, and Ngo’s appearance elsewhere in the opera only muddled matters and was visually unappealing. Director Elizabeth Margoulis would have done far better to let Ngo shine in her single important appearance as the title character.

Conductor David Hanlon conducted the nine-piece ensemble with sensitivity and never overpowered the singers.