Two operas, almost 300 years apart in creation, received their Chicago premieres within a day of each other: Handel's Acis and Galatea and Philip Glass's The Marriages between Zones 3, 4 and 5, produced respectively by Chicago Opera Theater and the DePaul Opera Theater. Two of the Acis singers were Canadian: Nathalie Paulin (Galatea) and Jackalyn Short (Damon), which means that half the principals hailed from Canada, all four being admirable. The other two were Michael Smallwood (Acis) and Derrick Parker as the murderous giant Polyphemus. Nicholas Cleobury led the orchestra of 10, all performing beautifully on original instruments. The young singers proved in a later recital of art songs that each could also deliver first-rate solo performances. Paulin's technique was shipshape, as was that of Short, whose voice had, in addition, a more individual timbre. Director Mark Lamos's updating of Handel's 1718 pastoral work originated at Glimmerglass Opera last year, and then, as now, was of little consequence one wa y or the other. But Paul Steinberg's set resembling corrugated-steel walls suggests a dreary garage rather than a holiday resort for swingers.
Acis was sung in its original English, as was The Marriage between Zones 3, 4 and 5, which had used a German translation at its 1997 world premiere in Heidelberg. Indeed, this was the work's first performance m English anywhere, as well as its American premiere. Less minimalist and monotonous-sounding than some of Glass's other operas, it emerged as an entertaining work performed in a surprisingly polished manner by the university cast. Based on a science-fiction novel by Doris Lessing, who also wrote the libretto, political intrigue and love on a planet from another world were perfectly suggested by Scott Marr's set and Harry Silverstein's direction. But amid this cosmic atmosphere, it was jarring to hear some of Lessing's dialogue, which evoked the prose of newspaper lovelorn columns or The King and I. Robert Kaminskas led the professional orchestra expertly.
Still a third operatic premiere came to Chicago in June. Lyric Opera of Chicago's auxiliary branch, their Center for American Artists, staged its sixth world premiere since 1986 of an American opera: Lovers and Friends, subtitled Chautauqua Variations, by Michael John LaChiusa. Creator of both score and libretto, LaChiusa has had several works performed on and off Broadway. His new work was described by Lyric as a theatre piece that can move from the opera house to Broadway, and, in fact, the music we heard veered from operatic style to that of popular music. It's a tribute to the composer that the switches were smoothly accomplished, except for a seemingly unnecessary splash of swing at the dramatic finale. The subtitle is a reference to Elgar's Enigma Variations, a frank obeisance not to that work's music but to the fact that some of the characters in the new opera may be based on LaChiusa's personal acquaintances. This does not help the work dramatically. All those lovers and friends are not terribly inter esting, and the travails of the main character, a successful poet with writer's block, is an idea that has been thoroughly exhausted by creators from Federico Fellini to Woody Allen.
The cast of eight principals, mostly from this year's crop of Lyric Opera American artists, were an uneven lot, not just among themselves but within passages of their individual arias. The one sterling exception was Robert Orth (the poet), a guest artist who has long been a distinguished fixture on the Chicago and later national operatic scene and who sang and acted with unfailing strength. Bradley Vieth conducted the chamber orchestra of 17 musicians (24 instruments) in a most lively fashion.