Chicago Opera Theater – The Fairy Queen


The good news about Chicago Opera Theater’s production of Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen at the Studebaker Theater, November 5, 11, and 13, 2016, is that the company continues to employ talented youngish singers not generally yet well recognized in a series of operatic works not often encountered in the standard operatic repertory, like Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, 1688, Handel’s  Semele, 1743, Verdi’s Joan of Arc, 1845, Shostakovich’s Moscow, Cheryomushki,  1958-9, and Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice, 1973. This is an admirable achievement. Purcell’s The Fairy Queen belongs in that very interesting list of less well-known operas.

The current production is in fact a double adaptation, since the show first appeared in 1692 at the Queen’s Theatre in London as a spectacular reworking of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, presented as a masque with music by Purcell composed to honor the fifteenth wedding anniversary of King William and Queen Mary and presided over at its conclusion by Hymen, the God of Marriage. Its cast contained a stuttering, drunken poet, along with allegorical figures like Night, Mystery, Secrecy and Sleep. Its many songs and choruses celebrated the Four Seasons, complaints of disappointed love, marital bliss, and the delights of the countryside. The current adaptation by Chicago Opera Theater brings the work up to date by setting it in “Club FQ” in Las Vegas, complete with pole girls, a well-equipped bar, sofas for comfortable love-making, and a dance floor.

The soloists and chorus sing admirably in this current production.  The music itself is glorious. The Haymarket Orchestra, under the direction of Jory Vinikour and with Jeri-Lou Zike as concertmaster and Craig Trumpener as principal cellist, plays impeccably, as it always does, and remains generally faithful to Purcell’s score. The supertitles are clear and helpful, even if occasionally miscued and out of synch.  My wife Peggy and I were glad to be there to help congratulate the Studebaker Theater  in the Fine Arts Building on its tasteful restoration.

The not-so-good news is that the staging, as adapted by Culture Clash and Andreas Mitisek, is woefully unresponsive to Purcell’s musical score and to Shakespeare’s play. The adapters claim that the 1692  staging was intentionally vulgar and that their current production continues this irreverent line. The 1692 adaptation, I would insist, was daring and sensual, but it was not vulgar. This one today is. It turns erotic lyricism into pornography. When Puck (Marc  Molomot), the sleazy pimp of this Los Vegas nightclub, pronounces its name presiding over the show in purplish neon lights as “Club FQ,” it sounds like “Club F**k You.” The stage action incessantly simulates heterosexual and homosexual coupling, fellatio, cunnilingus, buggery, sado-masochism, anal penetration, and whatever else you care to imagine. This is supposed to be funny, and I did hear some giggling, but I also saw quite a few empty seats for the second act after the intermission.  Shakes, The Poet (Roberto Gomez), shows up a loudmouthed drunk asking members of the audience to help him find his car keys which he thinks he must have dropped from one of the balconies.  The production is a field day for LGTBQ, assisted cleverly enough by the fact that some of the male singing parts in the Purcell score are falsetto, so that the beloved of Lysander (Ryan Belongie) turns out to be not Hermia as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream but Herman (Darryl Taylor).

Not surprisingly, the love potion of Shakespeare’s play turns out to be LSD, or speed, or heroin. I say “not surprisingly,” since in all the productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream I have seen in the last thirty years, the love potion is invariably a mind-altering drug of Central American ancestry. The idea is hoary with age by now, as is the sexual humor throughout this current production.  I generally like adaptations, but this one is heavy-handed, repetitious, obvious, trivial, and ultimately cynical. Love is promiscuity.

The friends with whom I chatted during the intermission were pretty uniformly of this opinion, that the staging overshoots its mark.  And I think it’s fair to say that we wish COT would stop doing this.

David Bevington is the Phyllis Fay Horton Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Humanities at University of Chicago, where he has taught English language, literature and comparative literature since 1967. He earned his BA, MA and PhD degrees from Harvard University. Dr. Bevington is one of the world’s eminent Shakespeare scholars. His numerous publications and editions include: Murder Most Foul: “Hamlet” Through the Ages, Shakespeare and Biography, This Wide and Universal Theater: Shakespeare in Performance Then and Now, Action Is Eloquence:  Shakespeare’s Language of Gesture, The Bantam Shakespeare, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, and the Norton Anthology of Renaissance Drama.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra – Verdi’s Falstaff

Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff, a lyric comedy in three acts, superbly conducted by Riccardo Muti, with Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff, Luca Salsi as Ford, Eleonora Buratto as Mrs. Alice Ford, and Daniela Barcellona as Mrs. Quickly, along with other excellent soloists and with the Chicago Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, has been an utterly delightful way to celebrate April 23, the date we conventionally associate with the birth and death of William Shakespeare, some 400 years after he died.

(Actually, Shakespeare was baptized on April 26, 1564, and was buried on April 25, 1616. Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon has preserved these records in an age that regarded baptism and burial as holy occasions of far greater importance than mere birth and death. April 23 is the conventional date for Shakespeare’s birth and death because it is St. George’s Day, the traditional date for commemorating the death of England’s patron saint in 303 AD. A charming myth, don’t you think, to suppose that Shakespeare managed to die on his own birthday, and in spiritual company with the saint who is credited with having rescued a king’s beautiful daughter from the devil in the shape of a fearsome fifty-foot-long dragon.)

This Falstaff has unquestionably been a highlight of Chicago’s Shakespeare 400 celebration. Falstaff is my favorite among all of Verdi’s operas, with Otello (splendidly performed in Orchestra Hall in April of 2011 by Muti and company) as a close second. These two late operas show Verdi at his best, fortunately having been brought out of an intended retirement by his librettist, Arrigo Boito. Together, they conceived the brilliant idea of combining the Falstaffian highlights of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor with immortal moments from his Henry IV plays, especially Falstaff’s soliloquy on honor from the battle scene of 1 Henry IV and Falstaff’s praise of wine from 2 Henry IV. These moments show Falstaff as a superb ironist, talking about honor as a quality sought after by brave warriors but of little use to them once they are dead (“Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday”), and extolling sherry wine for its ability to make the brain “full of nimble, fiery, and delectable shapes.” These insights fit neatly into the richly composite portrait of fat Falstaff, who is in many ways a coward, a buffoon, a thief, a ludicrous boaster, and a dissolute alcoholic while also somehow managing to be the irrepressible embodiment of joie de vivre, the apostle of living life to its fullest.

Rumor has it that Queen Elizabeth I was so taken with Falstaff in the Henry IV plays that she commissioned a command performance of Falstaff in love. The result, supposedly, was The Merry Wives, Shakespeare’s truest comedy in the sense of being perfectly funny and romantic without a countervailing tragic or nearly tragic complication. It is also the most perfect example in Shakespeare of city comedy, able to mock gently urban mores with a satiric plot of catching socially pretentious creatures in the web of their own absurdities. Nowhere else does Shakespeare set his comedy in a bourgeois English village which happens to be also the home of a royal residence, Windsor Castle.

A huge benefit of seeing Verdi and Boito’s operatized version of the Falstaff story in a concert performance rather than in the opera house is that it enables us to concentrate on the music: on the superb voices of the soloists, on Muti’s deft conducting, and perhaps most of all on the orchestra. Here, in Orchestra Hall, we are treated to hear and watch an ensemble that is perhaps three times the number of players that could be accommodated in most opera pits: four trombone players, for example, one of them playing a bass trombone at least eight feet long, four trumpets, five French hornists, two harpists, six clarinetists of various persuasions, seventeen first violinists and an equal number of second violins, thirteen violists, eleven cellists, nine double bassists, and so on. Size is not everything, of course, but to hear and see the violinists executing Verdi’s rapidly ascending scales in perfect union is to experience breathtaking perfection. More substantially, we appreciate what the orchestra is asked to do in its witty underscoring of the sung lyrics. No Verdi score matches Falstaff in its pyrotechnic versatility and cleverness in providing musical interpretation, as in the repeated joking on the time for Falstaff’s intended assignation with Alice Ford, “Dalle due alle tre” (“Between two and three,”) or Mistress Quickly’s mocking salutation of the fat knight, “Reverenza!” (“My respects!”), or the command of silence, “Zitto!” (“Hush!”). Verdi and Boito should have done more comedy. This is music and voice and theatrical art brought together with sublime success.

Because Verdi’s Falstaff is an avowed adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor (with moments of the history plays thrown in), comparisons of the two are legion. Many are the opera fans who regard Falstaff as an improvement over its Shakespearean original. My own preference is to cherish both as inimitably wonderful, but I do of course see the point of those who prefer the opera. The Shakespearean plot is simplified and thereby easier to follow. Many characters in the original disappear in the operatic version: the Welsh parson Sir Hugh Evans, the Justice of the Peace Robert Shallow, his dimwitted nephew Abraham Slender, Slender’s foolish servant John Rugby, the Host of the Garter Inn (mentioned, but never appearing on stage), Meg’s husband George Page, and still more. In Shakespeare’s comedy, these are “humors” types, that is, burlesque caricatures who display various features of absurd behavior like jealousy, fatuous self-confidence and French foreign-ness. Many of their quirks of behavior and speech are, in Falstaff, folded over into the “humors” of those who remain: Doctor Caius, for example, is a composite of the jealous Frenchman (Caius) and the testy Justice of the Peace (Shallow), along with his nephew, Slender. Falstaff himself is endowed with “humors” qualities found in other Shakespearean caricatures. The compression provides clarity of plot along with the compression needed in reducing a stage comedy to operatic proportions.

At the same time, that compression and eliding leaves out a lot of rich satirical representation of human folly. The practical joke that the Merry Wives play on Falstaff with Mistress Quickly’s help, of inducing him to accept the invitation to an affair so that we can laugh at the lengths to which Falstaff is driven to extricate himself from an embarrassing exposure, is wonderfully funny in Falstaff as it is The Merry Wives. But Shakespeare’s play, by providing one more such escape plot than remains in the operatic adaptation, increases the comic pleasure that we and the wives enjoy in wondering whether this fat old man, having repeatedly been caught at his lecherous attempt, can possibly be tricked into submitting himself to the same danger yet another time. He does submit thus, in the Shakespeare, to the comic credit of his inventive tormenters.

More than anything else, the brilliance of Boito’s and Verdi’s Falstaff, so splendidly performed for us in Orchestra Hall, is a tribute to the greatness of Shakespeare’s comic creation. Falstaff has become for us a composite of all the ways he has been characterized, in plays about English history, in a city comedy, and in the opera that bears his name. We are blessed to have him in all these guises and in all these genres.

David Bevington is the Phyllis Fay Horton Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Humanities at University of Chicago, where he has taught English language, literature and compara­tive literature since 1967. He earned his BA, MA and PhD degrees from Harvard University. Dr. Bevington is one of the world’s eminent Shakespeare scholars. His numerous publications and editions include: Murder Most Foul: “Hamlet” Through the Ages, Shakespeare and Biography, This Wide and Universal Theater: Shakespeare in Performance Then and Now, Action Is Eloquence: Shakespeare’s Language of Gesture, The Bantam Shakespeare, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, and the Norton Anthology of Renaissance Drama.

The Tallis Scholars

Tallis Scholars

Music was extremely important to Shakespeare. Some of his comedies are virtually what one might call musicals, they rely so much on song. The lovely lyric at the end of Love’s Labor’s Lost, comparing the “daisies pied and violets blue” of spring to “icicles that hang by the wall” in winter, was so popular and thematic that it was imported into other Shakespeare comedies in revival in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The song at the end of Twelfth Night, “When that I was and a tiny little boy,” sung by the fool Feste, hauntingly tells a story of human life as it progresses from being “a little tiny boy” to “man’s estate” to marriage and “the rain raineth every day.” “A great while the world began, / With hey, ho, the wind and the rain.” Earlier in the play Feste has sung the superb “O mistress mine, where are you roaming?” with its thematic echoing of the play as a whole: “What is love? ‘Tis not hereafter. / Present mirth hath present laughter. / What’s to come is still unsure. / In delay there lies no plenty. / Then come and kiss me, sweet and twenty; / Youth’s a stuff will not endure.”

Shakespeare is, among his other amazing accomplishments, a superb lyricist. His songs were often sung by professional clowns and by the boy actors who played women in his plays, many of whom had been trained as choirboys. The level of performance appears to have been high, both in the singing and in the instrumental accompaniment. Shakespeare often mentions popular melodies such as “Walsingham” and “Rowland.” Part singing was second nature to professional actors, as when Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Feste sing a “catch” in their drinking scene called “Thou knave” in Twelfth Night. Music is the occasion of much mirth, as when Sir Toby replies to Malvolio’s complaint that the revelers “squeak out” their “catches without mitigation or remorse of voice,” showing “no respect of place, persons, nor time” by insisting that “We did keep time, sir, in our catches. Sneck up!” (2.3). Thomas Morley wrote the music for As You Like It’s superb “It was a lover and his lass,” which is to say that Shakespeare wrote the lyrics for Thomas Morley. Some songs like this one may have existed before the play in which it appears. Some songs are set to popular tunes.

What was Shakespeare’s relationship to the sacred music that forms such a substantial part of the Tallis Scholars’ fine program on April 5? Such music came with its own Latin texts and does not gain much prominence in Shakespeare’s plays, other than, for example, the singing of Non nobis domine” at the conclusion of the great Battle of Agincourt in Henry V. The phrase Non nobis domine, “Not to us, Lord, not to us but to thy name give the glory,” from Psalm 113 in the Vulgate text or 115 in the King James version, had been the motto of the Knights Templars and was widely popular. Holinshed’s Chronicles tell us that King Henry did in fact order his prelates and chaplains to singNon nobis after the victory at Agincourt, while the soldiers knelt at each verse. William Byrd composed a popular canon on this text that one hears sung in Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film.

Even if the high art of contrapuntal church music was not part of Shakespeare’s dramatic vocabulary, we can see much of his theatrical interest in music as a sort of counterpoint to the music of William Byrd, John Taverner, Alfonso Ferrabosco, Thomas Tallis and Richard Davy. Such music was at the center of the conflict in the sixteenth century between Catholicism and the new Protestant faith to which England was uncertainly committed under Queen Elizabeth I. Elizabeth’s predecessor, her older half-sister Mary Tudor, had been raised a devout Catholic by her Spanish mother Katharine of Aragon, and had done her best to return England to the Catholic fold during her reign from 1553 to 1558. She had married Philip II of Spain in 1554, who thus became in his own eyes at least the King of England co-reigning with Mary, even though he could not read English. Elizabeth’s succession to the English throne in 1558 was by no means unchallenged, since in Catholic eyes she was the bastard child of Henry VIII’s liaison with Anne Boleyn. A northern rebellion in 1569, the rising in the north, challenged Elizabeth militarily by the northern earls who were in no way reconciled to Protestant rule. Philip of Spain raised a huge armed force to invade England; throughout the 1580s, leading up to the failed Great Armada of 1588, conspiracies in secret support of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, Elizabeth’s first cousin once removed, living in house arrest in England until she was executed in February, 1587, incessantly reminded the English that they were in imminent danger of invasion and brought the loyalty of English Catholics into serious question: would they come over to Philip’s side once the invasion had begun?

Throughout all these perilous times, Elizabeth kept England out of war and appealed to her people to profess loyalty to her as head of the English church in its defiance of Rome. Elizabeth’s own tastes in religion appear to have been what we would call High Church. She liked to hear the service sung in Latin. She greatly admired the church music of William Byrd, and protected him with the proviso that he was not to flaunt his Catholicism in public. She protected Thomas Tallis by granting him a twenty-one-year monopoly on polyphonic music; he and Byrd were the only composers allowed to use the paper that was used in printing music. With her courtiers, too, she was prepared to tolerate discreet Catholic worship so long as they acknowledged her as supreme head of the church rather than the Pope. Her father, Henry VIII, seems to have imported Jewish musicians from Italy to adorn this court, similarly countenancing their choice of faith so long as they practiced privately.

Where was Shakespeare in all this? His father, John Shakespeare, had been born before the beginning the Protestant Reformation in England. A group of scholars argue that he remained a Catholic, at least in secret, during his lifetime, and chose to die a child of the Roman church. I find this doubtful, since John Shakespeare rose to civic prominence in his town of Stratford, becoming for a time its chief administrative official. Shakespeare himself lies buried under the altar in the town’s church that had become Protestant, along with his wife and other members of his family. It is true, nonetheless, that Stratford was part Protestant and part Catholic during these years of the late sixteenth century, like many a town at a distant and northerly direction from London. Some of the schoolmasters in the school where Shakespeare appears to have been educated were Catholic.

In his plays, Catholic prelates are often treated with tolerant respect and even admiration in ways that are not so visible in the plays of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. In the late Henry VIII, Queen Katharine of Aragon, Henry’s longsuffering wife, is a sympathetic figure during the grossly unfair trial that she is forced to endure. She sees a vision of angels as she is about to be gathered to her eternal reward. Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet is a warm-hearted, caring friend and counselor of young Romeo. Friar Francis in Much Ado About Nothing is a champion of the falsely accused Hero. Corrupt priests abound in Shakespeare’s early history plays, presumably Catholic since the history is that of the fifteenth century, but they are no more venal than the worldly aristocrats with whom they conspire and struggle for power. The Bishop of Carlisle, in Richard II, speaks boldly in defense of the soon-to-be-deposed Richard not for self-interested reasons but out of principle. Shakespeare almost never enunciates matters of dogma, of Christ’s resurrection and of salvation through His sacrifice; he is interested more in the human drama of guilt, penance and spiritual recovery. One can imagine, then, that Shakespeare was attuned to the music of William Byrd and Thomas Tallis, his great contemporaries, and others featured in the Tallis Scholars’ superb concert under the direction of Peter Phillips, while at the same time living in a more secular world where his dramas of human conflict could thrive.

David Bevington is the Phyllis Fay Horton Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Humanities at University of Chicago, where he has taught English language, literature and compara­tive literature since 1967. He earned his BA, MA and PhD degrees from Harvard University. Dr. Bevington is one of the world’s eminent Shakespeare scholars. His numerous publications and editions include: Murder Most Foul: “Hamlet” Through the Ages, Shakespeare and Biography, This Wide and Universal Theater: Shakespeare in Performance Then and Now, Action Is Eloquence: Shakespeare’s Language of Gesture, The Bantam Shakespeare, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, and the Norton Anthology of Renaissance Drama.

Cheek by Jowl and Pushkin Theatre, Moscow – Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure in Russian, Cheek by Jowl + Pushkin Theatre, Moscow, directed by Declan Donnellan and designed by Nick Ormerod, at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, January 27-31, 2016. An event of Shakespeare 400 Chicago, 1616-2016, celebrating the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 1616.

This is a stunning production, certainly the best Measure for Measure I’ve ever seen. It is highly experimental in design in a way that remains brilliantly faithful to Shakespeare’s text and theatrical genius.

The staging focuses on several large box-shaped structures, the modern equivalent, perhaps, of the periaktoi of ancient Greek theater: that is, devices that can be thrust forward onstage and rotated to reveal changes in scenic intent. At the beginning they are arranged backstage in a row, separated from one another by spacious gaps so that the entire acting company (thirteen in all) can process between them and out onto the stage. The acting company swirls about, disappears, and re-emerges, serving as audience for one scene and then another. Key actors drop out of this swirl to become the figures of a given scene. At key points, three of the large boxes turn and open to reveal characters, one at a time, about whom we have been anxiously waiting to learn their fates. The staging concept is thus one of discovery, and as such is a terrific rendition of the way Shakespeare has structured his play.

The actors are all members of the Pushkin Theatre in Moscow, speaking in Russian. Rapidly moving supertitles provide the theater audience with Shakespeare’s text. Unlike the script of Grigori Kozintsev’s wonderful film versions of Hamlet and King Lear, in which Boris Pasternak’s Russian translation is re-translated into English with occasionally wide departures from what Shakespeare wrote, this production mostly gives us the original. The text is cut, to be sure, very adroitly so, providing us a brisk and taut two hours, wisely without intermission. Costumes are simple, modern, un­derstated. Few props are needed, as was true of Shakespeare’s Globe stage.

Sexuality is, for much of this production, an insistently dismal affair. When Angelo (Andrei Kuzichev) reveals to Isabella (Anna Khalilulina) his intent to possess her sexually as the price of sparing her brother’s life, he underscores the point by lifting her white sisterhood gown, spreading her legs as he forces her down on to a table, and kneeling before her as he insults her virginal body. The motif recurs when Claudio (Petr Rykov), told by Isabella that she can save his life by giving herself to Angelo, panics at the thought of dying and begs that she do what Angelo has asked by making his own sexual attempt on her. This ugliness of male importunity is well suited to the production’s pointed depiction of prison life; no play of Shakespeare spends so much time inside the prison’s walls. The dark prison humor is splendidly augmented by Lucio (Alexander Feklistov) and his partners in the play’s wry scenes of humor.

Incarceration and spying are thematic elements that unite the show into a devastating critique of human carnality. The Duke of this production (Alexander Arsentyev) is brilliantly in control, but from behind the scenes. Whatever his reasons for leaving his city under the too-easily-corrupted authority of Angelo, the Duke is aware of what is going on. The final scene shows him at his most enigmatic and forceful. The play is seen as intensely political, and in a way that silently comments on a nation like modern-day Russia. The Duke knows how to arouse the adulation of his subjects. As he gestures with his arms, their roar of approval, heard over the sound system, swells and subsides in orchestrated waves of popular hysteria. Power of this sort is intensely dangerous. Angelo has attempted to abuse such power in the most craven manner possible; the Duke, conversely, is a charismatic figure who, almost miraculously, knows how to use power in the service of forgiveness and reform.

How would this magnificent production, I wondered, handle the business in the final scene of whether Isabella accepts or rejects the Duke’s proposal of marriage? For some decades now, feminist insights into Shakespearean staging have insisted that Isabella, who is given no lines of reply, can choose to walk away from such a proposal. Her refusal of the Duke’s offer has nearly reached the status of de rigueur. How remarkable, then, that this Isabella, though surprised at first and indeed decidedly skeptical at an idea that the audience too finds unexpected and amusing, agrees at last to dance with the Duke in a gesture of acceptance. The final stage image is of three dancing couples: Claudio with his fiancée Juliet (Anastasia Lebedeva) and their newborn child, a disconsolate Angelo with his Mariana (Elmira Mirel), and, center stage, the Duke and Isabella. She has managed to find a comic resolution to this play’s insistently dark view of human depravity. Love and marriage offer themselves as a choice one must perilously make if one is to avoid existential despair.

David Bevington

David Bevington is the Phyllis Fay Horton Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Humanities at University of Chicago, where he has taught English language, literature and compara­tive literature since 1967. He earned his BA, MA and PhD degrees from Harvard University. Dr. Bevington is one of the world’s eminent Shakespeare scholars. His numerous publications and editions include: Murder Most Foul: “Hamlet” Through the Ages, Shakespeare and Biography, This Wide and Universal Theater: Shakespeare in Performance Then and Now, Action Is Eloquence: Shakespeare’s Language of Gesture, The Bantam Shakespeare, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, and the Norton Anthology of Renaissance Drama.