Classical music fans in Chicago have a little-known resource right downtown at the Chicago Cultural Center, where this week an equally unknown gem of a French opera is receiving its Midwest premiere.
The opera is Djamileh, written in 1875 by Bizet, the composer of Carmen, and it’s easy to see why this particular antique has quietly slipped into obscurity. The story, a faded bit of orientalism, revolves around a jaded potentate and his insatiable thirst for the pleasures of wine, women and gambling. The libretto trots out every cultural and sexual stereotype of its age, and ends with a nasty scene where the prince rejects his lovelorn slave girl only to turn around and tell her he was just testing her. The opera ends with a rapturous duet.
Apart from the story line, however, the opera has plenty to savor. The music has sparkle and gracefulness and the vocal lines offer plenty of opportunities for the three soloists to shine both alone and together in some masterful duets and trios.
This performance offered a pared-down orchestra with the score reduced to chamber-music proportions by the musical director, Francesco Milioto, and the reduction worked beautifully. The musicians were a nicely balanced group and played with verve and style.
The three vocalists had a tougher time of it – the space in Preston Bradley Hall is not kind to voices, and trying to make these cardboard characters believable had to be a major challenge. They did their best, however, and they kept the attention of a capacity audience in spite of all the staginess of the production. Bill McMurray as Splendiana, the prince’s servant, stole every scene he was in, and Katherine Pracht has a lovely mezzo voice that was just right for the exotic slave girl. The trio was completed by Cornelius Johnson as Haroun, and the ensembles, including some excellent choral passages, were satisfying and attractive.
Musically this performance was really superior entertainment. Bizet had a fertile musical imagination and it would have been interesting to know how far and where he might have gone had he lived – in fact he died not long after this opera was penned.
So all praise to the Cultural Center for their industry and resourcefulness in presenting this quite special production. And lovers of classical music: you are hereby put on notice: pay attention to what goes on under the splendiferous Tiffany dome – or you might be missing the next unknown treasure they dig up!