A Hotbed of Operatic Innovation Wins With Tradition

Posted September 24, 2018 6:04 p.m. EDT
Updated September 24, 2018 6:10 p.m. EDT

PHILADELPHIA — “None of this old tired stuff done in the same way,” a character said in a show here last weekend, though he used saltier language.

Opera Philadelphia, which presented the show, “Ne Quittez Pas,” has tried to take his advice. Facing the same pressures as other performing arts institutions, it revamped its old-fashioned season, which now opens with an annual burst of activity called Festival O.

Rather than spreading productions across the year, as usual, this concentrated hit of opera focuses attention and resources, in theory adding up to more than the sum of its parts. Grand stagings are mixed with more idiosyncratic, intimate presentations, including forays into cabaret and drag.

So “none of this old tired stuff done in the same way” could really be the festival’s motto. But this year’s installment, O18, which began Thursday and runs through Sunday, is most successful when it’s most traditional. Two of the four shows I saw over the weekend were proscenium productions with orchestras in the pit: opera as you imagine it. These were far more satisfying than the pair of out-of-the-box entries.

The highlight of O18, in fact, is the standard: a new production of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” a work at the center of the repertory, performed in the ornate, old Academy of Music. Snooze, right? But Laurent Pelly’s searing staging, produced with the Vienna State Opera, crisply played and superbly cast, showed that a fogy can burn with as much — if not more — fire as something fresh.

Pelly, conductor Corrado Rovaris and the singers take this melodrama, about a troubled young woman whose love for a family enemy sends her toward homicide, deadly seriously, setting it in a snowy landscape of carceral bleakness. The costumes are Victorian, but there’s a pervasive sense of out-of-time unreality. Lucia sings of the ghost she witnesses; this dark, misty production feels persuasively haunted and disoriented.

Quivering with fear and rage in the title role, soprano Brenda Rae acts and sounds girlish but somber, innocent but wounded. Tenor Michael Spyres, as Edgardo, sings with burnished energy and a touch of metallic sheen. It’s starkly clear how the only thing bringing these characters together is their shared emotional damage; this is a star-crossed love affair you watch queasily.

Troy Cook’s compact baritone rang out at climaxes as Lucia’s cruel brother, Enrico. Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn — soon to get a star turn in the title role of Boito’s delicious “Mefistofele” at the Metropolitan Opera — made a booming sound as the generous Raimondo. The orchestra and chorus, barometers of any opera company large or small, sounded crisp and passionate. This was a “Lucia” to be proud of.

O18 has also brought the birth of a modest and eloquent new opera, “Sky on Swings,” composed by Lembit Beecher to Hannah Moscovitch’s poetic yet lucid libretto and performed at the Perelman Theater. It’s the story of two women with Alzheimer’s disease (veteran singers Marietta Simpson and Frederica von Stade), whose stories, gently told, intersect in an assisted-living facility.

Given the brutal subject matter, the opera stays remarkably agile, avoiding sentimentality even as it embraces frank sentiment. (Joanna Settle’s unencumbered production helps.) A small chorus makes swift babble in close harmony; the lines for Danny (von Stade) begin to disintegrate as her illness progresses. There’s lyrical sweep but modernist angles from the ensemble of 11, conducted by Geoffrey McDonald. The more stylized, pearlescent and unpredictable the text and score, the better; banality creeps in whenever things get more naturalistic. But there is quiet nobility to the duets near the melancholy end for the two leading ladies, who sing with sensitivity and grace.

There’s nobility, too, in soprano Patricia Racette’s startlingly exposed yet consummately artful interpretation of Poulenc’s great monodrama “La Voix Humaine,” which gives us the woman’s side of a brutal telephone breakup. It’s too bad her masterly performance, and Christopher Allen’s responsive piano collaboration, is saddled with the rest of “Ne Quittez Pas,” director James Darrah’s strained attempt at giving this classic work some context.

The Theater of Living Arts has been transformed into a club of a few decades ago, with a section of cabaret tables near the stage. (Racette’s character, Elle, may in this telling be an aging lounge singer.) In Darrah’s new prologue, a dazed mash-up of Poulenc songs and surreal spoken texts by Apollinaire, Rilke and Cocteau (who wrote the “Voix Humaine” libretto), a brother and sister taunt a cute guy into a silly ménage that’s confusing for both him and the audience.

The sexiness is effortful, the acting lame. Baritone Edward Nelson sings the songs richly, but to what end? Racette’s rueful maturity came as a relief after intermission.

If you’ve ever been to a huge, high-concept fashion party — frantically busy yet somehow empty-feeling — you have an idea what “Glass Handel,” the festival’s shortest but most ambitious event, was like. (It comes to New York, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, in November.)

Designed to accompany the release of countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo’s new album juxtaposing music by Philip Glass and George Frideric Handel, the hourlong performance filled the soaring atrium of the Barnes Foundation with a starry array of companions for Costanzo: dancers including ballet star David Hallberg, doing swooping choreography by Justin Peck; painter George Condo, sketching live; music videos by the likes of James Ivory, Tilda Swinton and Maurizio Cattelan. Glass and Handel got respective orchestras.

Raf Simons of Calvin Klein designed everyone’s outfits, including a series of gowns, gradually removed like a Russian nesting doll, for Costanzo. Audience members, remaining seated, were occasionally lifted by a phalanx of assistants wielding ingenious dollies, and then solemnly wheeled to new vantage points.

I felt intermittent, quasi-guilty pleasure at the extravagance of it all. But at its core, this was still a solo voice recital. And, as on the album, while Costanzo’s Glass often has lunar purity, his Handel, if effusive, sounded sharp-edged and parched. His dazzling spectacle certainly wasn’t tired stuff done in the same way, but that didn’t make it quite good.

Event Information:

Opera Philadelphia

The O18 festival continues through Sunday; operaphila.org/festival.