Fin de siècle describes the mass psychosis which gripped Europe at the end of the nineteenth century, as people’s faith in all the old assumptions about their place in the universe fell apart. In never completely dissipated, and a century later, Peter Ackroyd used late nineteenth century London as his setting for his novel The Trial of Elizabeth Cree. The book studied the absurd juxtaposition of violence, nihilism, social reform, and burgeoning feminism during the time of Jack the Ripper. In 2016, it was adapted as the movie The Limehouse Golem. Now, it’s being presented as a new opera by Pulitzer Prize for Music winners Kevin Puts (music) and Mark Campbell (libretto), co-produced by Opera Philadelphia and Chicago Opera Theater. A play that is psychological thriller, gothic horror, and courtroom drama provides a lot of ground to cover in ninety-five minutes, but cover it they do thanks to a score conducted by Geoff McDonald that’s as flexible as director David Schweizer’s staging.
A Gruesome Image Sets the Stage
Elizabeth Cree (Katherine Pracht) has been hanged for poisoning her husband, John Cree. We see her dangling body before the play begins. The music starts with a flash back to her trial, where her finery, poise, pride, and apparent indifference to the proceedings made her an obvious media darling. When asked to recount her life, she describes how she was raised by a single mother in an extremely religious household in Lambeth Marsh. For a moment, we suspect we’re being razzle-dazzled, until she describes how, as a tween, she stabbed her abusive mother to death in self-defense, an action she has never regretted for a second. The first thing she did with her freedom was go to a music hall, where she saw the cross-dressing comic Dan Leno (Richard Troxell) perform in a skit portentously about Bluebeard.
Years go by, with Elizabeth joining the company, while drama critic and former medical student John Cree (Christopher Burchett) describes in his diary his many horrific murders. While Cree begins his slaughters with a prostitute, he does not limit himself to them. He acquires the moniker “Limehouse Golem” from having slain a cantor and left his severed penis on a book of Jewish lore. While less visually explicit than Grand Guignol, these eerie moments are the opera’s most distinctive, with the murders acted out through shadow-puppet style projections. John Cree’s lyrics are stomach-twisting and Burchett’s performance nightmarish. His baritone warble captures emotions from obsession, to rage, ecstasy, and self-satisfaction. But Burchett masters tender moments as well. When he proposes to Elizabeth their duet is so sweet it’s chilling as we realize we are going right along with someone making a terrible mistake.
A Starring Role for Katherine Pracht
Pracht in the title role is nothing short of outstanding. The mezzo plays Elizabeth at several ages and changes her physicality to represent the confidence level of each. She is also equally adept at her in-universe music hall numbers and her modern arias, which the well-contained Elizabeth breaks into only sparingly. Pracht’s Elizabeth is as funny as she is cruel, and it’s easy to see why she would become the star of Dan Leno’s troupe. Even when playing a Sweeny Todd-style butcher, the character comes across as aloofly sophisticated. It’s also understandable why the other troupe members, besides Dan, hate her, since in some way, she is always performing. The exception comes at the very end, with a mad scene in which we finally understand her and the full horror of the story.
Chicago Opera Theater Advances the Art Form
Elizabeth Cree is no chamber drama; although short, it has a large cast, including many historical figures. Shocked by the cruelty of the murders, funnyman Dan joins Karl Marx (Zacharias Niedzwiecki) and George Gissing (Samuel Weiser) in the British Museum’s reading room looking for answers. Nothing really satisfies, and it turns out that this seat of civilization is where new victims are stalked.
Nonetheless, Puts’s ethereal music, so different from the blaring brass heard at other points, and the designs by David Zinn and Alexander Nichols treat their search respectfully. In the end, Dan is left muttering “Logical, absurd, all get blurred, every word,” but the audience has enjoyed a thrilling yarn which managed to be funny and horrifying. Chicago Opera Theater is rightly proud to have helped develop a new opera. This one is “modern” in the sense that it captured a distinctly contemporary outlook with music suited to opera buffs, musical lovers, and anyone who collects the soundtracks to movies.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
410 S Michigan Ave, Chicago
February 16 at 7:30 pm
February 18 at 3:00 pm
Running time is 95 minutes with no intermission
About the Author: Jacob Davis
Jacob Davis has lived in Chicago since 2014 when he started writing articles about theatre, opera, and dance for a number of review websites. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Theatre, where he specialized in the history of modernist dramatic literature and criticism. While there, he interned as a dramaturge for Dance Heginbotham developing concepts for new dance pieces. His professional work includes developing the original jazz performance piece The Blues Ain’t a Color with Denise LaGrassa, which played at Theater Wit. He has also written promotional materials for theatre companies including Silk Road Rising.
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