From its debut in 2011, the Haymarket Opera Company has thrived by putting on repertory of the sort no other Chicago group has investigated as thoroughly – unusual baroque chamber operas using period instruments and historically informed stage direction, movement and design. These intimate rarities have felt perfectly at home in Mayne Stage, a cabaret-style theater in the city's Rogers Park neighborhood that seats 230 and serves drinks during performances.
Sold-out houses have greeted such esoteric offerings as Handel's "Acis and Galatea" and "Clori, Tirsi e Fileno," and Marc-Antoine Charpentier's "La Descente d'Orphee aux Enfers." This weekend, music director Craig Trompeter and friends are completing their second full season with performances of a more mainstream baroque masterpiece, Henry Purcell's only opera, "Dido and Aeneas," which dates from around 1689.
Trompeter, who doubles as the company's principal cellist and conductor, took time out from rehearsals last week to talk about what makes the Haymarket "Dido" different from other stagings of the Purcell piece given in the city in recent years.
He's particularly excited, he said, about the addition to the Haymarket artistic team of Sara Edgar, an internationally-known baroque dance specialist and choreographer who has been teaching cast members 17th century dance style. As such, her work complements that of stage director Ellen Hargis, who's known for infusing Haymarket's productions with a painstakingly researched movement vocabulary that's faithful to what we know of period practice.
"Sara is a fantastic dancer but she's also a really good teacher, and so she's given the cast these 11 dances, which make up a huge part of the production," said Trompeter. "Now that she's in town to teach baroque dance at Northwestern University, she has given Haymarket a lot more possibilities in terms of doing pieces, such as early French operas, with lots of dancing in them."
Another new wrinkle drawing on historical precedent will be Haymarket's use of a musical prologue Hargis created for a student production at Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University that combines miscellaneous Purcell songs and ensembles to create a kind of back story for the tragic love affair of Dido, queen of Carthage, and the Trojan hero Aeneas.
"I have never seen a production of 'Dido' with historical dancing and authentic historical costumes. Usually they are modernized, in one way or another," Trompeter said. "The way Ellen does things, every movement comes from the music. There's no disconnect, no sense of anything being pasted on."
The cast will include such Haymarket regulars as bass-baritone Peter van de Graaff as Aeneas and mezzo-soprano Angela Young Smucker as the Sorceress. Oak Park-based soprano Kimberly McCord, who sings regularly with Music of the Baroque and the Handel Week Festival, will portray Dido. Kelly Ballou will take the role of Dido's confidante, Belinda. Meriem Bahri's costumes and David Mayernik's décor promise to reinforce the sense of historical re-creation.
Haymarket Opera – which takes its name from both the notorious 1886 bombing in Chicago's Haymarket Square and the theater in London's Haymarket district where many of Handel's operas were produced – has made steady artistic advances in its two seasons. The company budgets conservatively (expenses for the two "Dido" performances total about $40,000) and, largely because of that, continues to operate in the black. Trompeter reports a hands-on involvement on the part of Haymarket's seven-member board. Last year the Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation awarded the company its first grant.
Inevitably the organization is feeling the pinch of growing pains.
While Trompeter is pleased with the full houses the company has attracted to Mayne Stage, he concedes the venue is too tight a fit for some of the 17th and 18th century operas he has on his Haymarket dream sheet. (Already audience members are practically sitting in the laps of the musicians.) And so the music director has been scouting larger theaters around the city, such as the Athenaeum Theatre, to test their feasibility as sites for future shows.
On the other hand, the intimate focus provided by Mayne Stage, with its postage-stamp-sized stage, presents a potent argument for the company's staying right where it is, at least for the time being.
"It's so powerful for the audience to be able to see faces on stage, and the gestures of baroque opera are so subtle that they would never work in a large theater," said Trompeter.
Haymarket Opera Company's production of Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" plays at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 7 p.m. Saturday at Mayne Stage, 1328 W. Morse Ave.; $53; 773-381-4551, maynestage.com.
CD of the week
The Chicago-based contemporary music sextet eighth blackbird picked up two Grammy awards on Sunday for "Meanwhile," its latest album on Chicago's Cedille label. And for good reason: It's an exhilarating mix of new-music styles played with the sort of knife-edge brilliance and elan the blackbirds have made distinctively their own.
The six sections of Stephen Hartke's "Meanwhile: Incidental music to imaginary puppet plays" (which won for best contemporary classical composition) evoke Asian puppet theater with wondrous subtlety, using modern instruments to mimic the shimmers and twangs of Javanese gongs, Vietnamese dulcimers and the like.
The pieces on either side of the Hartke – Missy Mazzoli's jumpy, elegiac "Still Life with Avalanche," Philippe Hurel's knotty but nice "…a mesure," Philip Glass' hypnotically repetitive "Music in Similar Motion" and Thomas Ades' tart, quirky "Catch" – are vital and engaging in their own right and add considerably to the pleasures of this disc. Too bad, though, that Chicago composer Roshanne Etezady's "Damaged Goods" is represented by only two excerpts.
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