`McTeague' Opera Gambit Pays Off

Bold staging of new American work reflects well on Lyric Opera of Chicago initiative

LYRIC Opera of Chicago, one of the nation's most responsible companies, has taken a bold new step toward revitalizing the operatic literature with the inauguration of its "Toward the 21st Century" artistic initiative. By the end of the century, the company will have performed seven neglected American works, ten seminal European works from the 20th century, and, most importantly, three newly commissioned operas by American composers.

The first of these new works, William Bolcom's "McTeague," based on Frank Norris's novel, was unveiled Oct. 31.

Without question, it is an important addition to the operatic canon, offering three spectacular roles for singers who are also noted for their acting. The music is as American as the plot itself - a tale of the ruinous impact of gold on man, set in turn-of-the-century San Francisco. The suitably terse yet effective libretto, by Arnold Weinstein and director Robert Altman, focuses tightly on McTeague, a dentist without a diploma.

Told in flashback as McTeague treads his fatal way through Death Valley, we meet the dentist in better times and see his unexpected passionate attraction to Trina, cousin and near-fiancee of his best friend Marcus Schouler. On the day she and McTeague marry, Trina wins a lottery - $5,000 in gold. Schouler decides he's been cheated out of this fortune and vows revenge; Trina declares the money is all hers, and will share it with neither her new husband nor her parents.

Schouler gets McTeague's dental practice shut down by the health inspectors. McTeague leaves town in search of work; Trina become the maid to the new dentist; eventually, a destitute McTeague returns to find her polishing her gold coins; when she refuses to share her wealth, he murders her, and flees with the gold to the heart of Death Valley, where, through coincidence, Schouler finds him. McTeague kills his former friend, who, in his death throes, handcuffs himself to his killer. McTeague is doomed as the curtain falls.

Bolcom has always been a composer interested in countless styles of music, and his newer works have been fairly eclectic. His approach in "McTeague" is to create something of a pastiche of period Americana - rags, waltzes, cakewalks, etc. - amid moments of acute and dramatic mood painting. The opera moves forward briskly (with a generous intermission, the evening barely fills 2 1/2 hours), stopping for the occasional monologue, soliloquy, or duet, but never long enough to lose that hurtling sense of forw ard motion. And he reaches true heights in such dazzling moments as McTeague's second-act solo after his return to Polk Street, and Trina's long aria in which she obsesses over her gold coins, or "babies."

The strikingly evocative sets by Yuri Kuper, the superb costumes by Jeannette Mariani (Jano), and the lighting by Lyric's resident magician Duane Schuler, all abetted Altman's aptly gritty yet detailed - and in one scene, fairly sexually explicit - direction. And Trina's murder is one of the most chilling moments I have seen on an opera stage.

In the title role, Ben Heppner sang the treacherously high part superbly and acted the role masterfully.

Catherine Malfitano, now an important fixture at Lyric, was an ideal Trina, strong of voice and brilliant in histrionic command of a role that moves from shy, retiring ingenue to obsessive, hardened harridan.

There are few more naturally stage-wise baritones than Timothy Nolen, and his Schouler proved another major accomplishment in this engaging artist's career.

The numerous smaller roles were all solidly taken by the large cast. Dennis Russell Davies conducted the Lyric Opera Orchestra, an ensemble that increases in accomplishment and tonal allure as the years tick by. `Pelleas et Melisande'

The European selection for "Toward the 21st Century" initiative is Debussy's "Pelleas et Melisande," a work that has never been a crowd pleaser, yet whose admirers are generally fanatic partisans. On paper, the evening promised much - a strong cast headed by Teresa Stratas, a now legendary Melisande, and directed by the gifted Chicago-based Frank Galati. He and his equally talented designer Robert Israel chose to sweep away the trees, forests, caves, and above all, the shadows, of Allemonde for a clutter ed unit set featuring a series of stubby pillars and an interior wall - complete with two doors flanking a mantelpiece - pitched at an angle and slightly submerged.

On this "interior" set, action was at times realistic, at times symbolic, with little consistent or convincing switching between the two. It was clearly the work of a director of talent not yet comfortable with the singular demands of the operatic medium.

Musically, the third performance (and, as it turns out, the first Miss Stratas was able to sing) was strong, beginning in the pit, with James Conlon leading a richly textured and colored account of the score and roused some beautiful playing from the orchestra.

Stratas is in a class of her own in this role, and these days, her singing has a new-found luster and radiance, and she alone found the wherewithal to make a characterization that transcended the mystifying things going on around her. Dimitri Kavrakos was the vocally impressive wheelchair-bound Arkel, and Yvonne Minton the stately Genevieve.

I had expected tenor Jerry Hadley to make an excellent Pelleas, but though the role fits the range of his voice well (even though the role was, in fact, meant to be sung by a unique French-schooled high baritone), he was puzzlingly monotone of delivery and seemed consistently uncomfortable on stage. Likewise, Victor Braun's potentially strong Golaud was too often hampered by both the director's concept and staging.

* `McTeague' has finished its world-premiere run. There will be further performances of `Pelleas et Melisande,' Nov. 27, 30, and Dec. 2 and 5.

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