If all had gone according to plan, Chicago Opera Theater would have presented a rare performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Kashchej the Immortal” over the weekend.
But the coronavirus pandemic has forced opera companies around the world to readjust, which is exactly what COT did on Saturday night, offering a “Rimsky Rebooted” concert online that had been prerecorded at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie. The program gave listeners a taste of what we were missing, in the form of “Kashchej” excerpts, augmented by additional repertoire. Though this was a far cry from COT music director Lidiya Yankovskaya’s original vision, it was a testament to the company’s refusal to surrender to today’s difficult circumstances.
The “Kashchej the Immortal” vignettes provided the evening’s highlight, thanks to the work of mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen, baritone Will Liverman (making his COT debut) and bass Wilbur Pauley. Each sang authoritatively in a gnarly, technically challenging score and a devilishly complex Russian language replete with consonants (onscreen subtitles provided translation).
In the evening’s culminating “Scene with Prince and Wind Spirit,” the smoldering love duet between Rosen and Liverman eventually blossomed into a plush trio including Pauley. Though each singer poured ample passion into Rimsky-Korsakov’s long-held notes and sinuous lines, there was no missing the clarity of their delivery. Liverman’s deep-amber tones found counterbalance in Rosen’s pristinely ringing pitches, their contributions buttressed by Pauley’s resonant low register.
Pianist Michael Pecak, also making his COT debut, dispatched fistfuls of notes in an accompaniment that easily could have been mistaken for a Russian piano sonata unto itself. Amid all that keyboard activity, Pecak consistently made music.
Mezzo Rosen preceded the finale with “Night has come,” also from “Kaschej the Immortal,” the singer dramatizing her character’s murderous intentions not only with insinuating vocals but by raising a sword for the dastardly deed. Rarely has such a weapon been more lovingly caressed.
Russian music dominated the program, nowhere more menacingly than in “Gamayun, Bird of Prophecy,” from Shostakovich’s “Seven Romances on Verses by Alexander Blok.” As Rosen unfurled urgent lines that amounted to an outcry, Yankovskaya produced dark tones and unyielding martial rhythms at the piano.
And in selections from 20th century Russian composer Georgy Sviridov’s “Russia Cast Adrift,” Liverman ranged from the forlorn tone of “Where Are You, O My Father’s House” to the soaring phrases of “Beyond the Hills of the Milky Way.” Yankovskaya provided the Rachmaninoff-like accompaniment.
The program’s vocal portion opened in a much more translucent tone, with Rosen, Liverman and Pauley in the “Tower Scene” from Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande.” Rosen and Liverman duetted delicately here, their physical distance onstage – necessitated by social distancing – an apt metaphor for the space separating the title characters.
As a kind of sneak preview of COT music yet to come, mezzo Rosen and pianist Pecak performed an excerpt from Kamala Sankaram and Jerre Dye’s “Taking Up Serpents,” scheduled for its Midwest premiere next February. That the company chose to feature the aria “For days I’ve sat and watched him die” may have been a commentary on the world’s current pandemic woes; this startling deathbed scene unsparingly evoked grim scenes that have been in the news most of this year. Singer Rosen and pianist Pecak’s performance was chilling, not least because of the repeated high pitch on the piano, designed to suggest the beeping of a heart monitor.
The evening opened on a brighter note, with pianist Pecak playing contemporary composer Errollyn Wallen’s “Louis’ Loops,” a piece originally penned for toy piano. Pecak underscored the point with a playful, rhythmically buoyant approach. In so doing, he offered a kind of overture for what would be a most appealing concert.
“Rimsky Rebooted” tickets are $20 at cot.org/rebooted; tickets are available to purchase until 7:30 p.m. Nov. 24, and purchasers then have 72 hours from their time of purchase to view.
Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.
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