Chicago Classical Review “” “Death of Ivan Ilych” Receives Touching Premiere from Thompson Street Opera
Thompson Street Opera Company, a small storefront company that exclusively presents works by living composers, opened its tenth season with a moving lyrical adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s short story The death of Ivan Ilich. Carried over from last season, this opera is a revised “co-premiere” with Opera Orlando, where it was performed in February.
In addition to its commitment to showcasing works by living composers, the Thompson Street Opera Company aims to stage operas that address socially relevant topics. With the pandemic forcing many of us to reassess our priorities and suddenly face our own mortality, this opera has become more relevant than the creators could have imagined.
The subject was even more important to composer John Young. Young was making his living as a singer in New York City in the early 2000s when he discovered a tumor in his nasal cavity. Cancer devastated his singing career and he fell into a deep depression. He turned to composition to help him overcome the loss of his livelihood, treatment and eventual recovery. He approached librettist Alan Olejniczak about writing an opera, who, after hearing some of Young’s works, suggested The death of Ivan Ilich. The opera was completed in 2018, and the now cancer-free composer was in attendance at performances in Chicago this weekend.
The opera begins in the wake of Ivan Ilich. Ivan’s co-worker Pyotr comes to pay tribute to Ivan’s widow Praskovia, who is concerned about the amount of pension she will receive, while the doctor laments that he was unable to diagnose or cure Ivan’s disease. The scene then returns to when Ivan’s illness first presented itself. The opera follows Ivan’s psychological journey as he confronts the inevitability of death and the superficiality of his life. Ultimately, Ilych makes peace with death, atones for his sins, and welcomes death with joy.
While the news is rather dark and the characters are largely self-centered and unpleasant, Young and Olejniczak strive to soften and humanize these characters by adding moments of lightness and tenderness. In particular, there is more warmth between Ivan and his wife, and Ivan is allowed to make up with her more explicitly before the end.
Young’s opera, composed for string quintet, oboe and piano, is rich in counterpoints and dramatic effects such as sudden dissonant chords to portray the angelic pains and tremolos of Ivan as he died. A particularly effective moment comes towards the end when Praskovia sings a haunting, wordless lullaby to her son. She then recites the Hail Mary on sustained chords in the strings in a charming and touching dramatic moment. The ensemble moments offer variety, including a tender duet between Ivan and his butler, fiery exchanges between the protagonist and his wife, and a lively and harmonious quartet at the end.
Praskovya, sung here by rich-voiced soprano Mary Lutz Govertsen, is made much more sympathetic and multidimensional through these hot moments and because we don’t just see her through Ivan’s frustrated eyes as in the short story. Govertsen sang and played the part well, effectively balancing Praskovya’s characteristic nagging with moments of touching tenderness.
Ivan Ilych’s dramatic and musically stimulating role was sung with emotional depth and a variety of vocal colors by Peter Wesoloski. Because much of the story centers around Ivan’s inner monologue, it was vital to have someone who could bring dimension to the role. Wesoloski sang with a clear baritone, which particularly shone in his main aria in the middle of the opera. His use of the falsetto has been particularly effective at the crucial moment when Ivan realizes he is facing certain death.
Brian Pember sang the role of the butler, Gerasim, with touching seriousness, and Dorian McCall was the stage owner with his portrayal of Doctor Smarmy. Rounding out the cast, Ross Kyo Matsuda as Pyotr and the Priest, and Benjamin Govertsen, the soprano’s son, who made an adorable Vladimir when he debuted on stage.
Conductor Gregory Tufts conducted the seven-piece ensemble with sensitivity and precision. Despite the logistical challenge of having the orchestra behind a backstage curtain, the playing was always well balanced and unified with the singers. Young’s lush score had some remarkable moments of painful lyricism for the oboe, ably played here by Laura Perkett. Director Grant Preisser made effective use of the small black box space, taking advantage of multiple entry points to maintain the momentum of the staging.
While there were some rough spots during the 90 minute opera due to the nature of the plot and a few musical elements that require extra work, overall it was about an impressive debut opera by Young and Olejniczak, given the worthy advocacy of Thompson Street. Opera.
Company News: Music Director Alexandra Enyart has left Thompson Street Opera. The company will reserve guest conductors for all future productions.
Death of Ivan Ilich will be rehearsed at 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Studio Three at the Athenaeum Theater. thompsonstreetopera.org
Katherine Buzard is a freelance writer, editor and singer who recently moved to Chicago from Champaign-Urbana. She graduated from Princeton University, where she majored in music and obtained a certificate in vocal performance. She obtained her Masters in Vocal Performance from the Royal College of Music in London. In addition to her solo work, she is a singer in the choir of St. James Cathedral.
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