Operatic tastes have always been fickle, and what was the masterpiece of one moment can today be considered trash, and vice-versa. Mere decades ago the operas of Puccini, today’s Lyric Opera favorite, were routinely considered trite and trashy, sentimentalized and watered-down Verdi with vulgar dashes of Wagner. When I once asked Sir Georg Solti why he hadn’t conducted or recorded more Puccini in his long career as an opera conductor, he winced and described Puccini as an “overrated hack.” So it should come as no surprise that Bizet’s “Djamileh,” once championed by no less than Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, fell out of favor more than a century ago and has yet to make it back it back into the repertoire. One practical reason is that the one-act work clocks in at only an hour, and thus has to be filled out to make a full evening. But as the current and mega-rare revival by the City of Chicago’s free summer opera program demonstrates, the work has been ignored at the peril of lovers of French opera. Yes, this story of a slave girl in love with her playboy master is trivial, but would those who would attack the work on that basis alone really want to defend the narrative merits of the shopworn warhorse “Carmen,” for which “Djamileh” is clearly an important stepping stone? Using the space under the newly restored Tiffany Dome done up as an inviting harem complete with large oriental rug, cushiony pillows and water pipe, the colorfully costumed characters sing in French with subtitles with the dialogue spoken in English. Mezzo soprano Katherine Pracht appropriately pines and sings her heart out as the title character and her master Haroun (tenor Cornelius Johnson) gives moments of unexpected tenderness and some wicked trills to his portrayal while the thankless role of matchmaker Splendiano who doesn’t get the girl is sung by baritone Bill McMurray. A short opening set of Middle Eastern music performed by Ronnie Malley on oud (Middle Eastern lute) and percussionist George Lawler perfectly complements the proceedings. (Dennis Polkow)
Free. 7:30pm. August 5, 7, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington; (312)742-8497.