Tradition Revisited – Chicago Reader

Opera theater

Lyric Opera introduced Chicago audiences to director Barrie Kosky last year, when he presented his production of The magic flute—created for Komische Oper Berlin, where he was musical director for a decade—at the Opera on Wacker.

Kosky staged Mozart’s favorite as a silent film.

Thus, the announcement that Kosky’s production of fiddler on the roof would be part of this season’s program has raised some apprehensions. His comments on previous Fiddler productions he found too bland and kitschy did not help, although he argued that he did not want to idealize conditions in Eastern European shtetls.

fiddler on the roof
Until 07/10: Thu-Fri 22/09-23/09 7 p.m., Sat 24/09 7:30 p.m., Wed-Thu 28/09-29/09 2 p.m., Fri 30/09 7 p.m., Sun 10/2 2 p.m., Thu-Fri 10/6-10/7 7 p.m., Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker,, 312-827-5600, $40-$330

Don’t worry: Saturday night’s opening performance put an end to those scruples. Kosky made changes, but his Fiddler is a deeply acclaimed, even (where important) traditional version of this musical theater masterpiece. Together with designer Rufus Didwiszus, he replaced the shtetl image (originally inspired, like the show’s title and central metaphor, by the art of Marc Chagall) with a solution that also addresses the problem of how to perform a musical theater piece in a vast opera. Their strategy: reduce the sets to a single symbol. Then fill the scene with living bodies and increase the energy.

Anatevka – the fictional village somewhere in the 1905 Tsarist Russian Empire where the milkman Tevye earns a living for his wife, Golde, and their five daughters (all from Sholem Aleichem’s stories) – is represented by a mountainous pile of old furniture, with a blurry image of trees in the background. (In the second act, with the exception of a single cabinet, even the furniture disappears; the mood on the massive stage is given only by the lighting and an almost constant snowfall.) But a multitude of people come out of this stack of chests of drawers. and cupboards, starting with Tevye himself, emerging from a cabinet that soon pours out a whole village singing and dancing.

This magic cabinet is opened by a child, a modern child wearing headphones, riding a scooter, perhaps going to or returning from a music lesson. In Kosky’s production, that boy is the fiddler – a sharp, literal connection to our times. It’s the riskiest change he brings to a story that, with its themes of sweeping social and generational change, persecution and the plight of refugees, already has clear contemporary relevance. Like the magic cabinet, it could be Kosky’s own kitsch. However, as given to Lyric by outstanding fifth grader and local fiddler Drake Wunderlich, it works.

A few songs from the Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick score (book by Joseph Stein) are choreographed within an inch of their lives. “Matchmaker” with its great lyrics comes to mind. But it’s a quibble. Overall it’s stuffed Fiddler is irresistibly energetic, with standout dance sequences (created by Silvano Marraffa, based on choreography by Otto Pichler and, originally, Jerome Robbins), generous use of Lyric’s wonderful chorus, and an excellent cast of actors and singers led by Steven Skybell as the richer-voiced (if slimmer) Tevye than we’re used to, and Debbie Gravitte as her long-suffering Golde. Kimberly Grigsby conducts the Opéra Lyrique orchestra.