By M.L. RANTALA
Think of Jason and you are likely to conjure up images of the Argonauts and the mighty ship Argo, the daring capture of the Golden Fleece, adventure on a epic scale with terrible moral lessons underlined in blood.
You can forget all that with Chicago Opera Theater’s groovy production of “Jason” (“Giasone”) by Francesco Cavalli. The libretto by Giacinto Andrea Cicognini dispenses with the corpses of babies and brutes alike and concentrates on the title character’s adventures with the ladies.
The production team — director Justin Way, set designer Anka Lupes, and costume designer Kimm Kovac — have relocated Jason’s misadventures to the 1960s, although this is less the Summer of Love than long years of lust come back to smack our hero in the face.
“Jason” is a comic romp, almost a bedroom farce, but with certain classical underpinnings and moments of delicious melodrama. It is not surprising that this was reportedly the most popular opera of the 17th century.
Franco Fagioli’s Jason is dolled up rather like James Bond and his backstory exploits certainly justify such an approach. Yet on the stage of the Harris Theater he’s more Martin, Dean Martin: casual rather than cool, flustered rather than fluid. But he’s no less entertaining for that. And Fagioli’s countertenor crooning is pretty, even if he likes the words so much he’d rather swallow them up for himself than spit them out at the audience.
At the heart of this opera is Medea, one of the women who is in love with Jason and will go to extraordinary lengths to hold on to him. Sasha Cooke delivers the goods with a vocal performance that will first seduce you and then scare your pants off.
Also in the hunt for the love of Jason is Isifile, who is eager to win him back. Grazia Doronzio embraces the music with zeal and enlivens the luscious laments Cavalli bestowed in abundance upon this jilted woman.
There are many attractive elements to COT’s “Jason,” not least of which is the 1960s wardrobe. Medea floats across the stage in a snazzy-patterned sleeveless maxi dress. Isifile’s pink ensemble is vaguely reminiscent of the iconic suit Jackie Kennedy wore that fateful day in Dallas. Alinda — sung with teasing fun by Andriana Chuchman — is decked out in a perky yellow dress short on length but long on nostalgia.
The sets are minimal but offer just enough here and there to help propel the story. I wasn’t completely sold on the big boxes (twice the height of a man) that rolled across the stage. Yet wrapped in what looked like watered silk, they did invoke the high seas the characters often natter about. String chandeliers and dim lighting suggest an acid trip colored red and orange.
The water imagery is a pleasing constant, and water is hinted at without any attempt to show it directly. The Argo, in the form of an elegant speed boat, rolls smoothly across the stage; there’s a bathtub filled with bubbles; and after the intermission a lovely ancient cityscape is projected on a scrim at the back, out of focus, out of touch, implying that it is separated from the action by a body of water.
The action plays out nonstop and there are no longueurs. Cavalli’s recitatives are a revelation: spare yet strikingly beautiful, they glide seamlessly into major musical declarations. Baroque Band, led in the pit by Christian Curnyn, creates glorious music with the added charm that for much of the evening the long lanky necks of theorbos poke well above the stage.
The comic side of the story is the main attraction, and there are some fine singers to effect it. Julius Ahn is out of sight as Demo, the stuttering hunchback. While Jason’s two lovers are in fact queens, it’s the drag queen who’s royally demented: Tyler Nelson is over the top as Medea’s servant Delfa. Even if some of the humor is too Benny Hill for my taste, there’s no getting round the fact that the initial popularity of this opera was in no small measure due to its bawdiness. Most likely having a Venetian demimonde backdrop at its premiere, the work continues to please in its swinging sixties setting.
This is a far out opera from top to toe, one you shouldn’t miss.