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From the Chicago Tribune: Geoffrey McDonald '03 conducts "Elizabeth Cree"
From the Chicago Tribune: Geoffrey McDonald '03 conducts "Elizabeth Cree"

By John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune

If the plethora of activity in Chicago alone is any indication, the field is experiencing a veritable golden age of new American chamber operas.

This season is bringing the local premieres, both by Chicago Fringe Opera, of Laura Kaminsky's "As One" and Ross Crean's "The Great God Pan." Lyric Unlimited will present the first Chicago performances of Gregory Spears' "Fellow Travelers" next month at the Athenaeum Theatre and has announced its Midwest premiere of Jack Perla's "An American Dream" for March 2019.

Meanwhile, Chicago Opera Theater's new administrative and artistic team, Douglas R. Clayton and Lidiya Yankovskaya, has joined with Opera Philadelphia to co-produce the world premiere of "Elizabeth Cree." The show had its initial run in Philadelphia in September and, for its second production, opened Saturday night at the Studebaker Theater in the first of three performances under COT auspices.

Based on Peter Ackroyd's historical crime fiction, "The Trial of Elizabeth Cree," the 95-minute opera revolves around the eponymous character, a former music-hall actress in Victorian London who's hanged for poisoning her husband. It reunites composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell, the creators of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning opera "Silent Night."

Exuberantly staged and brilliantly performed by a 14-member ensemble of accomplished singing actors, this courtroom thriller/Gothic whodunit follows its titular anti-heroine through a series of tightly bound episodes that leap back and forth in time, mixing stylized shocks and gallows humor with Hitchcockian glee. Not since "Sweeney Todd" has operatic blood, guts and dismemberment been so entertaining.

As the narrative moves from courtroom to music hall to police station to library to parlor, far more horrific crimes come to light. John Cree's diary entries recount grisly murders by a Jack the Ripper-like psychopath who stalks the back alleys of the city's Jewish district; the tabloids dub him "The Limehouse Golem." In the course of a prologue and 29 discrete scenes, however, we soon come to realize that John Cree isn't the only character carrying around dark secrets.

Having grown up in working-class squalor, with an abusive mother, the destitute Elizabeth is befriended by a seedy music hall troupe, which hires her as a prompter and later promotes her to star once her talent is revealed. She is wooed by Cree, a playwright whose gentlemanly demeanor betrays no hint of the monster that supposedly lurks beneath. They marry, but their unhappy union leads to further plot complications.

"Elizabeth Cree" represents a superior fusion of creative impulse, one element enhancing the other. Puts' varied and evocative score, Campbell's taut libretto (he also fashioned the text for "As One") and David Schweizer's surefooted direction mesh like a well-oiled clockwork to sustain the darkening atmosphere and to propel the story to its devastating conclusion, with David Zinn's set and costumes and Alexander V. Nichols' lighting providing a suitably creepy milieu.

Puts is a composer overdue for a hearing in Chicago. His beautifully crafted score combines parlando and arioso elements, and razor-sharp ensembles, in ways that enhance the drama without calling undue attention to its moving parts. Growly, subterranean pedal points and eerie screeches signal the three murders, evoked in animated silhouette by Nichols' artfully gruesome projections.

A tense thriller that would feel lost in a larger theater works exceedingly well in the intimate confines of the 750-seat Studebaker. The polished ensemble of strings, winds, brass, piano, percussion and harp gives its considerable all under conductor Geoffrey McDonald, sending waves of sound now lush, now sentimental, now sinister, through the auditorium.

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