Opera Omaha was handed a dilemma in its inaugural ONE Festival when it was forced to replace the title role in Fiona Shaw’s version of “Medea,” a co-production with the Wexford Festival Opera, due to illness less than three weeks before the show.
The solution was inelegant but probably the best that could be mustered under the circumstances with an unusual bit of double casting. Soprano Jessica Stavros sang the role from a stationary position while actress Lacey Jo Benter performed it simultaneously.
The result was less than ideal but wasn’t the biggest issue for a performance that had many good moments along with some questionable ones in Luigi Cherubini’s rarely-performed gem.
An Infrequent Opera
Cherubini was well-established in France when he composed “Medea” for its debut in Paris in 1797. The German composer Franz Lachner created a version in his native language in which much of the spoken dialogue was replaced by recitatives. It was then translated into Italian for its premiere at La Scala in 1909 and burst into prominence later in the century when Maria Callas starred in the title role.
Both the French and Italian versions are performed and Shaw loosely used the Italian version based on Lachner with some of the original French ideas woven in. With so many versions in play and a work that is seen so seldom, “Medea” is not an opera that regular viewers have a clear vision for.
Revenge Without Clarity
The simple way to tell the story known from Greek mythology of “Medea” is that the title character seeks revenge on Jason, who was married to her but has left to marry Glauce on his return to Corinth. Medea killed her brother when she was helping Jason obtain the Golden Fleece and they fell in love; this backstory was presented at the start of the opera in the supertitles.
Shaw portrayed Medea in numerous theatrical runs so the actress is certainly well-versed in the character and the material to create a vision for the opera, which she directed at Wexford. In fact, she may have been too smart for her own good since many of the ideas she had were tough to discern, with Andrew Eggert serving as director in Omaha.
A large rock in the middle of the set seems to represent Medea’s psychological demons. A dancer in the name of Sam Shapiro appears as her dead brother writhing about on occasion. Other symbolic touches were present and it made proceedings difficult to interpret.
One Star Shines
Fortunately, proof of Cherubini’s genius was evident with conductor Jane Glover and The Omaha Symphony showcasing his sumptuous music. That was especially the case in parts that included the superb Opera Omaha Chorus.
The best individual performance was by mezzo-soprano Naomi Louisa O’Connell as Neris, the slave of Medea. Most of Act two centered around how she advises Medea to leave the city. When she sang with the dead brother dancing with her or mimicking her movements, Medea’s psychological plight was plainly seen.
Stavros stood in front of the rock behind a music stand and gained in comfort and intensity as the opera progressed. It was an admirable effort given that she had to curtail her instinct to interact on stage with Jason, with Benter performing that task instead.
Tenor Jesus Garcia portrayed Jason, who is caught in an unwinnable situation. The emotion in his voice was chilling in Act three when he laments the losses of Glauce and his two sons in a fiery finale in which the chorus heightened the drama. Soprano Vanessa Becerra was robust as Glauce and baritone Weston Hurt brought dignity to the role of Creonte, her father.
More Than Medea
“Medea” took place in the Orpheum Theater, which is the regular performance space of Opera Omaha. One of the goals of general director and Omaha native Roger Weitz was to utilize other venues in the downtown area and the outcome was an event which offered something for everyone.
Not far away from the Orpheum was the venue for the fully staged premiere of Missy Mazzoli’s “Proving Up” – KANEKO. It’s the studio of famed Japanese artist Jun Kaneko, who has been based in the city for over 30 years and has designed costumes for three operas. An exhibit detailing his career was inside.
Those looking for something different were treated to “The Wreck,” an immersive musical experience based somewhat on Dvorak’s “Rusalka” created in 10 days by director Annie Saunders. Picture a long room with chairs interspersed around a refrigerator, oven and other household staples. Four musicians and two singers, soprano Mary Feminear and mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen looking indistinguishable in makeup, performed along with recorded voices and they had the audience participating!
The festival also featured six sessions of what amounted to a working rehearsal of “Ariodante,” with R.B. Schlatter directing and Geoffrey McDonald conducting. The sessions were free to the public and took place in a room that was part of the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.
Musicians and singers, including Rosen, soprano Chabrelle Williams, and tenor Dominic Armstrong, collaborated on the creative process that included terrific banter from the ever-present Schlatter. The only down side was that their work wouldn’t result in a finished product!
Pairing “Medea” and “Proving Up” as mainstage operas proved to be a strong combination of the old and new. The ancillary events were all within walking distance and all explored different dimensions of opera that show that the art is alive and well. What ideas Opera Omaha comes up with for year two of the ONE Festival should be anticipated based on the success of this one.