Heavy on the plot points: The Great God PanReview
As their final offering of the 2017-18 season, Chicago Fringe Opera is presenting The Great God Pan, a new opera receiving its fully staged world premiere. Ross Crean composed the score and libretto, which is based on an Arthur Machen novella dating from 1890. Set in Victorian-era London the story explores desire and an obsession with the supernatural.
We are introduced to the surgeon Dr. Raymond, who has invited his friend Clarke to witness an operation that will allow the recipient (Raymond’s wife Mary) to see the Great God Pan. In the next scene we skip ahead twenty years, where we see Clarke (a banker) compiling supporting evidence for his “Memoir to Prove the Existence of the Devil”. One of the accounts tells of a young girl named Helen Vaughan who spends much time in the woods and terrorizes other children in the village, some to the point of death.
Next, we are introduced to Villiers and his confidant Austin. They are investigating a series of strange events, to which the supernatural obsessed Clarke is also drawn. A murder, enigmatic drawings, and a string of suicides warrant investigation and Villiers and Austin eventually discover that Helen Vaughan is the instigator of these strange events. They confront Helen and extort her to commit suicide, lest the public know what she has done. The description of Helen’s death and birth form the epilogue of the opera.
This is a fast-moving plot told through ten characters, with the six scenes totalling a brisk 85 minutes of music. At times, the story felt a bit overstuffed. With so many necessary plot points to get through, character growth got stifled; I found myself wanting a better sense of what motivated these characters, and who they are as individuals. That said, the cast takes full advantage of the work’s numerous opportunities for dramatic singing and acting.
Vince Wallace and Bridget Skaggs had great chemistry together as the investigative duo Villier and Austin. They brought valuable moments of comic relief to the show, and their dynamic singing was a musical highlight. Tenor Tobias Wright showed vulnerability in his portrayal of the curious Clarke. Christina Pecce sang the soprano role of Helen Vaughan with drama and authority. The imposing large ensembles displayed some of Crean’s most gripping music in the work.
Chicago Fringe Opera seems to seek out venues that fit the vibe of the work to be performed in some kind of meaningful way - a consistently refreshing aspect of their productions. This run of The Great God Pan is performed almost in the round, in the dark lower theater of Chicago’s Chopin Theatre. The stage action occurred in the center of the room, with the audience seated in three blocks surrounding the performers. The basement space’s cold stone support pillars and walls were an appropriately eerie setting for the opera. Erik’s Barry’s engaging lighting design elevated the set, utilizing a variety of color and shadow effects to differentiate the different dramatic elements of this work.