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.

Shanghai Jingju Theatre Company – The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan


The internationally renowned Shanghai Jingju Theatre Company brought a production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, performed as a highly stylized Peking opera, to the Harris Theater for a two-night run on September 28 and 29. The opera, The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan, was sung in Chinese with English supertitles. The company follows the strict rules of Chinese operatic tradition, including specific types of singing for such roles as a clown or a serious tragic heroine. (Gertrude sang in a high-pitched, warbling voice, for example.) Each type of role also has its own particular style of dress, movement, and vocalization. Some actors, for instance, performed in whiteface, while others had elaborate masks. A small band just offstage played music traditional to the Peking Opera throughout the performance, with the tempo and style of music changing to fit the scenes and to accompany the actors as they sang arias. The libretto was a stripped down but recognizable version of the main events from Shakespeare’s play.

The intricate costumes and stylized acting made this production of Hamlet an intriguing blend of traditions that sometimes worked well, and at other times may have puzzled a Western audience. For instance, actors sometimes moved in extremely acrobatic ways that did not always seem connected to the events in the story. In one instance, when Hamlet (Prince Zi Dan) tells of his father’s ghost, he raises one leg up flush with his ear. At other times, however, the acrobatic movements worked splendidly, as in the highly stylized duel in the last act between Hamlet and Laertes. Another intriguing cultural choice was to portray the Polonius character as a clown figure. He walked about exclusively on his knees for most of the show, but during his death scene he sat cross-legged, pulled up his knees, and rolled around on the floor like a roly-poly toy.

Both the ghost of Hamlet’s father and his brother Claudius were portrayed by actors in elaborate masks, so we never see their faces. The frightening mask worked especially well for the ghost, who appeared out of a mist, rendering him even more supernatural. Claudius’s mask also seemed to fit with his formal role as king, making him seem less human and more distant from the other actors. One could not help but be reminded of ancient Greek theater, where all the actors performed in masks, with audiences trained to recognize whether it was the mask of a king or a young girl.

Another feature of the Chinese opera tradition is minimal settings and props. Actors mimed some actions, such as riding a horse. And instead of formal sets, the troupe used three simple backdrops throughout most of the play. These backdrops were reversed for the final scene, to reveal a single red dragon. Simple chairs used in many scenes were later tipped over and turned backwards to represent gravestones during the gravedigger scene.

The formality of the costumes and movements probably worked best in the final scene; a formal setting at court with the masked Claudius presiding in the center. For the duel in this scene between Hamlet and Laertes, the two combatants entered in Chinese warrior costumes. The duel itself was choreographed as an elaborate acrobatic dance.

Overall, this was a production that challenged the audience with its blend of Eastern and Western traditions. But our familiarity with the Hamlet story allowed us to notice how this production both honored the familiar story and also made it strange and new by adding these formal elements of Chinese operatic tradition.

Cynthia Rutz is an instructor and past chair of University of Chicago’s Basic Program of Liberal Education, a great books discussion program for adults. She also teaches at and is director of faculty development for Valparaiso University. She earned her PhD from the University of Chicago, with her dissertation on Shakespeare’s King Lear and its folktale analogues. She received her BA in mathematics and philosophy from St. John’s College, Santa Fe, New Mexico.