Chicago Opera Theater opens the curtains
a little wider with its alternative brand of show
At Chicago Opera Theater, opera is never stuffy or dull. Last season, Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream featured a video-projection dream sequence showing a grinning soprano lying seductively in a forest, water running all over her body. The bit was labeled by some critics (off the record) as quasipornographic, though it was reportedly tamer than what director Andrei Serban wanted.
The company is keeping with its daring reputation for drama, minus the trashiness, with a double-bill presentation of Charles Dibdin’s unknown The Padlock paired with Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Instead of staging these two unrelated works separately, as would be the normal approach, COT has tied them together by presenting Dido as if it were the after-dinner entertainment of the party that takes place in The Padlock.
Mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer—a veteran of the world’s finest opera houses, but who hasn’t performed in an opera in her hometown of Chicago for ten years—sings the lead role in Dido. But she also, unusually, has a role in the forerunner The Padlock. “I’m the hostess, but it’s not a singing role,” she says. “One of the guys at the party [in The Padlock] is someone I’m interested in, and he ends up playing the role of Aeneas in the second part.” By linking up singers in one opera and putting them in the other, COT creates a connection where none existed before.
That concept, courtesy of director Lillian Groag, keeps Dido’s eventual grief and rage in the realm of the believable, too. She kills herself after Aeneas leaves her, something most of us deal with a little better in this day and age. “[Dido] has such high standards that she refuses to compromise. I don’t know if that exists today,” Mentzer says. “If my beloved left, I would’ve been crawling down the hall after him. ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I’ll do whatever you need!’ It’s pathetic, but it’s true.”
Dido doesn’t crawl for anyone, but by making her anguish part of a play-within-a-play, COT has brought her pain down to our level. That’s an approach that’s anything but routine.—Marc Geelhoed
The double bill plays at the Harris Theater Friday 17, Sunday 19 and February 23.