Tradition with a twist

Lyric Opera introduced Chicago audiences to director Barrie Kosky last year, when it brought his production of The Magic Flute—created for Komische Oper Berlin, where he’s been music director for a decade—to the Opera House on Wacker.

Kosky staged the Mozart favorite as a silent film.

So the announcement that Kosky’s production of Fiddler on the Roof would be part of this season’s schedule gave rise to some apprehension. His comments about previous Fiddler productions he’d found too soft and kitschy didn’t help, though he made a valid point about not wanting to romanticize conditions in the shtetls of Eastern Europe.

Fiddler on the Roof Through 10/7: Thu-Fri 9/22-9/23 7 PM, Sat 9/24 7:30 PM, Wed-Thu 9/28-9/29 2 PM, Fri 9/30 7 PM, Sun 10/2 2 PM, Thu-Fri 10/6-10/7 7 PM, Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker,, 312-827-5600, $40-$330

Not to worry: Saturday night’s opening performance put those qualms to rest. Kosky has made changes, but his Fiddler is a deeply appreciative, even (where it matters) traditional, take on this musical theater masterpiece. With designer Rufus Didwiszus, he’s replaced the shtetl image (originally inspired, as was the show’s title and central metaphor, by the art of Marc Chagall) with a solution that also speaks to the problem of how to make a musical theater piece work in a vast opera house. Their strategy: pare the sets down to a single symbol. Then pack the stage with live bodies and ramp up the energy.

Anatevka—the fictional village somewhere in the 1905 Czarist Russian empire where the dairyman Tevye ekes out a living for his wife, Golde, and their five daughters (all drawn from the stories of Sholem Aleichem)—is represented by a mountainous pile of old furniture, with a hazy image of trees as background. (In the second act, with the exception of a single cabinet, even the furniture disappears; the mood on the massive stage is set by nothing but lighting and a nearly constant snowfall.) But a multitude of people pour out of that pile of dressers and cupboards, starting with Tevye himself, emerging from a cabinet that soon spills forth an entire singing, dancing village.

This magic cabinet is opened by a child, a modern kid wearing headphones, riding a scooter, perhaps on his way to or from a music lesson. In Kosky’s production, this boy is the fiddler—a pointed and literal connection to our time. It’s the riskiest change he makes in 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. As brought to life at Lyric, however, by remarkable local fifth-grader and violinist Drake Wunderlich, it works. 

A few songs in the Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick score (book by Joseph Stein) are choreographed within an inch of their lives. “Matchmaker” with its terrific lyrics comes to mind.  But that’s a quibble. Overall this jam-packed Fiddler is irresistibly energized, with standout dance sequences (created by Silvano Marraffa, based on the choreography of Otto Pichler and, originally, Jerome Robbins), generous use of Lyric’s wonderful chorus, and an excellent acting and singing cast headed by Steven Skybell as a richer-voiced (if more svelte) Tevye than we’re used to, and Debbie Gravitte as his long-suffering Golde. Kimberly Grigsby conducts the Lyric Opera orchestra.

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