British conductor extraordinaire Raymond Leppard was an early-music pioneer long before such a field existed, and it is great to see him back at the podium after a long absence from area stages conducting an engaging double-bill for Chicago Opera Theater. Though area mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer has suffered from the long-practiced Lyric Opera dictum that a prophetess is never appreciated in her own home, she has made the world her stage, literally, and makes her COT debut as Dido in the Henry Purcell one-act opera of the legendary lovers. Though preferring to gloss over the vocal runs of the work’s technically demanding brisker sections, Mentzer’s glorious timbre and poignant pathos in the finale alone make this a very special evening and director Lillian Groag staging of the tragic finale packs a true emotional punch often lacking in operatic stagings. By contrast, the frivolity of Charles Dibdin’s “The Padlock” opens the evening and serves as a clever framing device for the presentation of “Dido.” Though some of the chatty unsung dialogue of the work could be cut, the music is engaging and tuneful and has been lovingly reconstructed by Leppard himself. This is exactly the kind of edgy and engaging program that COT excels in: using resources and repertoire untapped by Lyric Opera that would otherwise go unheard. (Dennis Polkow)
7:30pm, Feb. 23, 25, Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph; (312)704-8414.