Unique, rarely staged ‘Elizabeth Cree’ an exciting challenge for COT

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Katherine Pracht, who plays titular character in “Elizabeth Cree” performs a scene during rehearsal for the opera, which is being staged by Chicago Opera Theater.| Erin Brown/Sun-Times

Murder and mayhem have long been integral to opera, but no other work in the form brings those two ingredients together quite like Kevin Puts’ “Elizabeth Cree.” “It’s a thriller with a twist, which is not exactly the first kind of material you think of for an opera,” said director David Schweizer.

In this multi-layered story set in the sometimes menacing world of Victorian London, a serial killer dubbed the “The Limehouse Golem” is on the loose as noted music-hall singer Elizabeth Cree (mezzo-soprano Katherine Pracht) stands trial for killing her husband, John (baritone Christopher Burchett).

‘ELIZABETH CREE’ When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 10 and Feb. 16; 3 p.m. Feb. 18 Where: Chicago Opera Theater at Studebaker Theater, 410 S. Michigan Tickets: $45-$145 Info: chicagoperatheater.org

Chicago Opera Theater will present the second staging of this chamber opera, which premiered at Opera Philadelphia in September to considerable acclaim. Performances are set for Feb. 10, 16 and 18 in the 691-seat Studebaker Theater.

Schweizer, who helped secure the rights to the novel on which the opera is based, directed the premiere and is overseeing this version as well. Because this is a co-production, it features the same scenery seen in Philadelphia: an open Victorian box, inspired in part by 19th-century English music halls, into which an ever-changing series of set pieces are inserted and removed.

The big change is the cast of 13 singers, which is almost entirely different. “It’s an interesting challenge, because it’s the same production,” the director said. “Part of rehearsing a new cast is that you have to let them breathe in it. The performances will only have life in you allow them to invest in their own ways.”

Director David Schweizer (left) discusses a scene with actor Christopher Burchett at a rehearsal for the opera “Elizabeth Cree” on January 29, 2018. | Erin Brown/Sun-Times

Director David Schweizer (left) discusses a scene with actor Christopher Burchett at a rehearsal for the opera “Elizabeth Cree” on January 29, 2018. | Erin Brown/Sun-Times

Although a few colleagues had suggested that the lyrical and narrative qualities in Puts’ predominantly instrumental music would be well suited to opera, the transition to that theatrical realm can be daunting and he had no idea how where to begin.

Then Dale Johnson, artistic director of Minnesota Opera, called and suggested the now 46-year-old composer create an opera based on the 2005 film, “Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas),” about a celebrated Christmas Eve cease-fire truce during World War I.

“It was a crazy idea,” Puts said. “It was going to be a huge opera with a big chorus written in five languages with a lot of characters and a big orchestra. And I said sure.”

Johnson suggested he team with veteran librettist Mark Campbell, who collaborated on five operatic premieres in 2017 alone, and the two hit it off immediately. Once the composer received Campbell’s text, he couldn’t work fast enough.

“Silent Night,” as the opera was titled, proved to be big success, earning Puts the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in music. It has since been staged a dozen more times and another production is scheduled this summer at the prestigious Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, N.Y.

In 1995, Campbell read Peter Ackroyd’s novel, “The Trial of Elizabeth Cree,” and immediately began looking for a way to adapt it. So around 2013, when Opera Philadelphia wanted to commission a chamber opera by the duo, he suggested it for their third collaboration. Despite a few raised eyebrows over the sometimes sordid subject matter, everyone quickly bought into the idea.

“First of all, it’s a thriller,” Campbell said. “I don’t think this would quite work as a play, but the music really intensifies and brings in the passion and the darkness. I just thought it was a damned good story.”

Used to writing for the sonorities of a bigger orchestra, Puts was nervous about conceiving a score for just 16 musicians. But in the end, he found it exciting to make the most of the players he did have and create the illusion of grand-opera sound when necessary.

“Kevin is certainly a melodic and rather passionate composer,” Schweizer said. “All the attention that he got for ‘Silent Night’ had a lot to do with the fact that you could tell that this was a fresh voice, but he was unafraid of the passions and feelings that older-school operas evoked.”

The director’s main task is making sure the story is clear, because it consists of 29 short scenes and multiple settings that dovetail non-stop into each other as the opera propulsively unfolds over 90 minutes with no intermission.

“The big thing we worried over was whether so much story-telling would pull people in or just be confusing,” he said. “But the good news from the Philadelphia premiere is that there was no confusion. They got it.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.

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