Chicago Opera Theater’s latest offering shows that the company continues to pioneer new ways to offer opera productions when in-person audiences are not permitted. Composer Kamala Sankaram’s “Taking Up Serpents” is a fascinating short opera centered on a small family: father, mother, and daughter, all at one time a part of a charismatic Pentecostal congregation that employs the handling of poisonous snakes as a means of worship.
The libretto is by the same talented writer who created the libretto for COT’s “The Transformation of Jane Doe.” Here, Dye draws on his own experience in a similar church, and creates a kind of plain spoken poetry: “God gets in the cracks of things.” “Weak as water.” “Scalded dog.”
The opera premiered in Washington, D.C. in 2019 and COT’s production was the premiere of a new version that added about 20 minutes. Dye served as director of a production that was minimal in stage dressing, yet nonetheless clearly kept the story moving forward.
Soprano Alexandra Loutsion stars as Kayla, the daughter of a man who found salvation in God and now preaches with snakes. Kayla is urged to return home by her mother Nelda, who phones her daughter to tell her that her father has been bitten by a snake and is dying.
Loutsion has soaring high notes, power to spare, and a gripping way of singing her story. Her acting is considerably less impressive, but Sankaram’s music carries the day.
Baritone Michael Mayes gives us both a wild drunk and a flamboyant preacher. The church scene is quite brief, but packs a wallop. Sankaram’s music here is upbeat gospel, almost a rock anthem, that immediately grabs you and Mayes uses it incredibly effectively.
Mezzo-soprano Leah Dexter is the mother, Nelda, a pivotal character who has a certain understanding of both her husband and daughter, but who is also tied to her own religious views. Her singing is fluid, natural and bright, and her acting flawless. Near the very end of the opera Nelda takes action, unexpectedly, and when she sees the result her face is an eloquent silent essay in grief, revulsion, and horror. I will not soon forget the power of that moment.
The weakest part of this opera is the staging. The Studebaker Theater is mostly dark, with the back of the stage looking like an ugly alley parking lot (where the first scene takes place) and the ugly alley aspect seems to haunt the production. Dark lighting often obscures the action.
The use of a couple of pre-recorded videos of Kayla as a young girl contribute some light and lightness, but I laughed out loud when the final installment of the video scenes featured numerous snake skins. Oh, so the two women of our opera are going to shed their skins. Not only is the imagery blindingly obvious, the problem is that the action these two women take at the very end is either unclear or makes no sense.
Morgan Middleton, Justin Berkowitz, and Rachel Blaustein served as the chorus and mostly appeared in triple screens which was beautifully done. The three take on different small roles and in repeated viewings (this opera is one which I found impossible to view just once) I saw tremendous detail in this trio’s approach to different scenes.
Music director Lidiya Yankovskaya presided in the pit over a 13-member chamber ensemble that played fantastically from start to finish. The machinery beeps in Daddy’s hospital room are pitched to match the orchestra and the use of whirly tubes created an otherworldly feel.
This is beautiful, imaginative music paired with an unusual story and cast with committed, talented singers.