Opera lovers in Chicagoland miss the Northwestern University’s Bienen School’s performances at their peril.
The recent performances of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress that ran from February 28-March 3 were high quality entertainment presented with great enthusiasm by a talented student ensemble. What we saw there was equal to many of the professional productions in this city full of superb theatre. The next opportunity you will have to see the students in action will be over Memorial Day weekend, when they present Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict. It is recommended you attend.
As it is a student performance, we are not reviewing the student singers or the members of the orchestra even though there was so much praiseworthy in both places. We feel strongly that students need the space to persue their art, to take risks, and mature before facing critics. We feel it is fine to speak to the work of the professionals involved, however, so these comments will be confined to them.
This Northwestern University Opera Theater production was directed by Joachim Schamberger and featured the Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dean Williamson, along with the Bienen Contemporary/Early Vocal Ensemble led by chorus master Donald Nally.
As the orchestra gets most of the best bits in this opera and was the most enjoyable part of the evening, Williamson’s nimble conducting showed off the music to its best, but took care not to drown out the singers even in the confined space of Cahn Auditorium. The orchestra really shone in the opening night performance we attended and would have been worth the low price of admission on its own.
The second best thing about this production was the chorus. Not only could you understand every word they uttered all while sounding glorious (good job by Nally, here), but director Schaumberger gave them interesting things to do all the while. Not a human on that stage was wasted. They all had interesting bits and threw themselves into the action while continuing to sound glorious. The same was true of the singers in leading roles as well. Everyone got a chance to shine.
It is really an odd show, though, and the rest of the production didn’t help that at all. To begin with, it’s a modernist opera with jagged vocal lines and ham-handed symbolism based on a series of Hogarth prints from the 18th Century showing the devolution of Tom Rakewell from wealthy heir, to dissipated spendthrift, to madman confined to Bedlam.
While Enlightenment-era Hogarth sensibly showed this to be the fault of vanity and societal dissipation, the opera pins the devolution on Nick Shadow (the Devil himself) and it is just as crude and preachy as any Medieval mystery play showing the same thing. It would be easy enough to just set this in the 18th Century of Hogarth. It was a wonderfully dissipated time. If you wanted to save on costumes, you could set it in any modern era. NOW would work fine.
However, Director Schamberger instead goes neither fish nor fowl, doing something he’s calling “Rococco-Punk”, which he means as an homage to the Enlightenment concept of the Clockwork Universe, but is actually just the same as badly executed Steampunk. You see that a lot from people who don’t understand what Steampunk actually is and who think it means sticking a bunch of useless, random gears on something and calling it a day.
This tiresome and unnecessary gear theme appeared on everything from the backdrop of the stage to Nick Shadow’s painfully obvious cranking of the plot into motion, to the costumes worn by the principals. That’s not how Steampunk works. Steampunk is seamless integration of retro-future technology integral to the plot of a story – think the Nautilus in Twenty-thousand Leagues Under the Sea, featuring a battery powered submarine and written ten years before the first battery powered submarine was invented. This gear technology was grafted on to this production and looked grafted on and actually distracted from everything else.
(Yes, the fake bread-making machine Nick uses to speed Tom’s downfall is a “machine” that aids the plot, but it doesn’t work, and what was on stage was a box with gears crudely stuck on it.)
The costumes also borrowed from the 19th Century era of Steampunk, so you had a weird, muddled mishmash of 18-20th Century costume elements with gears stuck on at random. Many of the projected elements onto the “gear” backdrop (naturally) were the same. One particularly jarring one was of a cobblestone, gaslit street lined with modern office buildings with modern blank, lit windows. The production design just left the whole thing feeling ungrounded and muddled and didn’t serve the story at all.
The part of this production design that completely worked and was awesome, however, was the turntable on the stage. There didn’t need to be an obvious gear in sight to make that work incredibly well to change the scenes with minimal scenery necessary. That was fabulous and gave the entire thing a sense of relentless forward motion to Tom’s inevitable destruction.
You have a short window of time to catch these student performances, so prepare now for Béatrice et Bénédict May 23-26. More information and tickets can be acquired at the Bienen School Opera website.
Photography provided by the production.