A bumpy ride at Chicago Opera Theater world premiere

Dara Rahming (left) as Sylvie and Kim Jones as Ruby in "Freedom Ride." 

What: “Freedom Ride”

Where: Studebaker Theater (410 S. Michigan Ave.)

When: Through Feb. 16

Tickets: ChicagoOperaTheater.org

Would you risk beatings, imprisonment, or worse to fight for civil rights? Would your family and friends agree and support you? Could you assemble enough courage to actually do it?

These are the questions facing Sylvie Davenport, the main character in the new opera “Freedom Ride,” by Dan Shore, which opened at the Studebaker Theater Saturday night. This world premiere, presented by Chicago Opera Theater, even had actual Freedom Riders in the audience.

The story is set in 1961 and civil rights activists are recruiting volunteers like Sylvie at Black colleges to ride interstate buses to protest the continued segregation Black riders faced. Sylvie trains with others, learning what to expect, and gets to know other Freedom Riders. But not everyone supports this form of civil disobedience, including Sylvie’s mother. And the night before they are to begin their journey, a violent act kills one of her friends.

It’s a first-rate idea for an opera, and a worthy one as well. But the opera itself is a disappointment. Shore’s music is direct and accessible, and at times rather catchy. But it is less an opera than a collection of unexceptional, thinly developed original spirituals and gospel numbers. Shore’s libretto is not merely bland, but a dull and lifeless collation of banalities. The story lurches forward in an awkward and confusing manner. It amounts in the end to little more than a string of individual numbers haphazardly knitted together.

The production is minimalist, with no stage decoration save some folding chairs and a handful of projections on the upper part of the back stage. Costumes are black and white (get it?). Singers mostly stand and deliver. The static staging is interrupted occasionally with simple circle dancing. In one case an unarresting cakewalk suddenly breaks out. In another, when a Jewish character has a song, it is laced with stereotypical cheesiness: a melody in the Phrygian mode with the chorus in the background dancing a hora. The smattering of chuckles in the audience was not in admiration.

The night before the protestors are to begin their journey, they are the victims of a bombing that director Tazewell Thompson for some reason illustrates with pretty glitter dropped onto the stage. Because it was so unclear what was happening, the glamorous glitter was perplexing until you realized it was meant to represent ash and debris.

But the singing is glorious. This well-chosen cast has clearly invested themselves in the opera, and there was pleasure in experiencing them do everything they could to honor the work and the ideas it represents.

Soprano Dara Rahming as Sylvie has an abundance of power and passion, and has been involved for the past nine years in the development of the opera, but I yearned for more color in her upper register and a less distracting vibrato. Baritone Robert Simms was a treat as civil rights activist Clayton Thomas, infusing the role with both gravitas and charisma and singing with cool authority.

This opera has no white villains. In fact, it really has no villains at all, with members of the Black community who disagree with the Freedom Ride protest serving as a foil to Sylvie. These two “angry women” roles were sung magnificently. Mezzo-soprano Zoie Reams as Sylvie’s mother brings a rich vocal quality to the music. Soprano Whitney Morrison as Leonie was spectacular in her bravura dressing down of Sylvie at the bus station.

Tenor Tyrone Chambers II has youthful heft as Sylvie’s brother. Soprano Kimberly E. Jones gives a winsome and winning performance as Ruby, the young activist killed in the bombing. Tenor Cornelius Johnson brings both dignity and a firm resolve to the role of Rev. Mitchell, one of the leaders of the Freedom Riders.

Even the small roles are bursting with talent, with Leah Dexter, Blake Friedman, and Vince Wallace standouts in a truly fine cast. The chorus provided robust singing, bursting with enthusiasm.

Cardiff Prize winner Lauren Michelle was originally advertised as starring in the production, but she dropped out. No mention was made of her opening night (even though her name appeared in the program) and when I inquired, was told only that it was for “personal reasons.”

Lidiya Yankovskaya, COT music director, paces the music well as she conducts the Chicago Sinfonietta, but the sound from the pit was not as admirable as past outings by this talented maestra. The orchestra sometimes lacked intensity and had some flabby entrances and punctuation.

COT is proud to advertise its diversity, and I was given stats about artists, staff, and board members (37 percent of the last group are female-identified, according to a press release). But they didn’t provide any statistics on their composers. The company produced Duke Ellington’s “Sweetie Pie” in 2014, but there have been no other Black composers represented on the COT main stage. Perhaps that is a statistic that the new leadership at COT can change.

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