Diverse Offerings Set Philly Opera O18 Festival Apart

Marietta Simpson and Frederica von Stade are Alzheimer’s patients in the world premiere of Lembit Beecher’s ‘Sky on Swings.’ part of Opera Philadelphia’s O18 Festival. (Steven Pisano)
By Keith Powers

PHILADELPHIA — David Devan calls it “Netflixing the consumption opportunity.” Sounds like marketing babble-blather. But for the general director/president of Opera Philadelphia, it’s all about the artist. “We give the artists more license and more artistic edge,” he said. “What we can do to excite the artists, excites the audience in due course.”

Binge-watching fuels the company’s energetic O18 Festival, a ten-day series of various works in various venues. The concept is the result of Devan’s delving into the creator’s, as well as the consumer’s, psyche.

Marietta Simpson in ‘Sky on Swings’: Brilliant vision and execution. (Steven Pisano)

In this year’s festival (last year’s O17 was the first), the “artistic edge” included world premieres by Lembit Beecher and Anthony Roth Costanzo; a re-imagined look at Poulenc’s monodrama La voix humaine; a new production of Lucia di Lammermoor; a gorgeously conceived vocal recital at the Curtis Institute; an outdoor Opera on the Mall presentation; and Stephanie Blythe, curating a hyper-flamboyant cabaret evening.

It’s programming enough for an entire summer festival but packed into less than a fortnight, spread all over the city, and appealing to listeners, if sold-out performances throughout the festival are any indication.

Not everything proved an artistic success, but this is what opera should look like: a clash of ideas, of genres, and a range of stagings. O18 melded indie energy with the resources of a major company.

‘Sky on Swings’ is set in an antiseptic, unwelcoming room. (Steven Pisano)

Beecher’s heart-rending Sky on Swings, heard on Sept. 29, struck the most profound chord. Instrumentally, it’s a chamber opera with a string quartet, winds, and percussion animating Hannah Moscovitch’s crisply idiomatic libretto. Vocally, it’s a character piece, with the protagonists — the estimable duo Frederica von Stade and Marietta Simpson — each provided with their own vocal style. Theatrically, it’s a moving experience that tackles a timely social issue: the pervasive disruption caused by Alzheimer’s.

Simpson and von Stade play the patients — brave roles for both. Presented at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater, the production places the duo in an antiseptic, fluorescent open room — vast, empty, and unwelcoming.

This is not the first exploration of Alzheimer’s onstage, and any such work must avoid bathos. Sky on Swings does paint a pathetic picture of two vibrant personalities losing their memories. But it moves on — quickly — to what memory loss means. Having no memories breaks everything. We see it poignantly in the opera when sons and daughters are not remembered. We see it angrily when a box of matches can’t be found, or the kitchen seems a foreign place. We see it terminally when we can’t remember how to swallow or breathe. We are memory beings. Losing memory means losing everything.

[Read more stories by Keith Powers here]

Sky on Swings posits the requisite Alzheimer-care premises, then moves on. We see the children — especially Simpson’s daughter, sung magnificently by high soprano Sharleen Joynt — have their lives ruined making care decisions. But as the relationship between fellow patients Simpson and von Stade advances — “deepens” would be a cruelly inappropriate way of putting it — we see them acquire grace by creating their own skewed memories.

Patricia Racette drove brilliantly through ‘La voix humaine.’ (Dominic M. Mercier)

Simpson remembers (mistakenly) von Stade as a young infatuation of hers, dredged from the distant past. As von Stade acquiesces to the mistaken narrative, an island of safety gets created for both of them, in an ocean of emptiness.

Vision and execution in Sky on Swings matched each other in brilliance. Beecher’s score was perpetually inventive, tricky but accessible. The stage hardly changed, but morphed into a dozen different places, thanks to the imaginative set (Andrew Lieberman) and lighting design (Pat Collins). Simpson and von Stade extended remarkable careers in these remarkable roles.

The many facelifts of the aging Theatre of Living Arts have left it a tired venue, but two O18 presentations there — director James Darrah’s own makeover of the Poulenc’ monodrama La voix humaine (staged here as Ne quittez pas), and Blythe’s triptych of cabarets based on the gay persona Blythly Oratonio — had supercharged energy. But not much focus.

Darrah’s Ne quittez pas does have huge potential. Poulenc’s original, with script by Jean Cocteau, is a one-soprano tour-de-force. It forms part two of Darrah’s re-setting, and on Sept. 27, Patricia Racette made certain we understood without a doubt that the original needs no updating. She drove brilliantly through Poulenc’s score and Cocteau’s libretto.

Director James Darrah concocted a companion piece to ‘La voix humaine’ conjuring
the unseen former lover (Edward Nelson) as a singer in a rock club. (Adam Larsen)

She plays an abandoned woman, but all we know of her situation is what we overhear on the phone. It makes for a delicious scenario: Who among us hasn’t imagined the details of a relationship from an overheard conversation? She anguishes over the break-up. She lies about what she’s wearing, what she’s doing (eating a bottle of sleeping pills, for instance). She fumes, she forgives, she rages. Anything she can think of to reverse the hopeless course of this relationship.

We never see or hear her lover at this point, but thanks to Darrah’s set-up, we have indeed seen her lover. In a mash-up of French absurdist theater traditions, Darrah builds an opening act that obliquely makes the mystery man (sung by baritone Edward Nelson) into a singer in a rock club (also performing Poulenc’s music — various art chansons). He and an angst-ridden, cigarette-smoking cohort spout DADA rhymes, lament dead flowers, and make sudden, trenchant confessions in Darrah’s opening act. A sample: quasi-poetic pronouncements like “the roses die of hope.” The audience laughed. In the end, it was an utter distraction, and a poor complement to Poulenc’s taut La voix humaine.

Pianist Christopher Allen was superb throughout as an interpreter of Poulenc, both in the chansons that Darrah had chosen and as Racette’s accompanist. Nelson’s lyric baritone helped mollify the dragging energy of Darrah’s vision, singing with gusto, even while being stripped, tied up with a belt, blindfolded, and lying on the floor. Without Poulenc’s extraordinary music — both the chansons and the opera — one dares to guess that most of the audience would have walked out.

Stephanie Blythe as Blythely Oratonio in ‘Blythely After Hours.’ (Dominic M. Mercier)

Blythe’s three cabarets (seen at the finale on Sept. 28) spun the Ring Cycle of her amorous persona Blythely Oratonio, an operatic tenor in search of love. Yeah, in all the wrong places — but mainly on Grindr, introduced by her inamorata, Martha Graham Cracker (Dito van Reigersberg), as “GPS for homos.”

The presentation was loud, flamboyant, punning, and thoroughly frivolous. The finale seemed to disregard its script, and both Blythe and Cracker (sample witticism: “I Googled you and came up with wheat thins and Republicans”) wandered aimlessly in an overlong attempt to consummate their infatuation. At least Blythe sang: some “Aida” and “Tancredi,” some Roy Orbison and Beatles, too. Not enough to offset the in-jokes, noise, and careless script, however.

Anthony Roth Costanzo’s Glass Handel (Sept. 30) had many moving parts, including the audience. Countertenor Costanzo curated this multi-artist presentation to complement his debut recording of works by Handel and contemporary composer Philip Glass, ARC, just out on Decca Gold. “We asked Anthony to animate his first commercial recording,” Devan said of the project, and animate it he did.

Brenda Rae took the title role in ‘Lucia di Lammermoor.’ (Kelly & Massa)

Staged in the entryway of the Barnes Foundation, Glass Handel was all precision. It features a simultaneous collaboration with Costanzo singing, in Calvin Klein costumes, on one stage; George Condo painting live behind a screen; multiple artists’ videos; Justin Peck’s choreography on yet another stage; two orchestras (one period, one modern, conducted by Corrado Rovaris); and the squadron of people movers.

It was either a brilliant amalgam of the arts, or the most elaborate album release party ever. The centerpiece was Costanzo, whose elegant countertenor veered easily from the vibrato-less Handel settings to the minimalist repetitions of Glass. Even though he was hard to see him at times, his sound was riveting.

The people moving was just a gimmick. The performance stages were spread out along the long, narrow Barnes foyer, and a small army wheeled audience members by picking up their chairs with hand trucks to different vantage points during the performance. It certainly was fun being carted around, but the action could have been situated so that we all stayed put and got to see everything.

Michael Spyres as Edgardo, Brenda Rae as Lucia. (Steven Pisano)

On Sept. 30, Lucia di Lammermoor proved easy to listen to but hard to watch. This new staging, co-produced by the Vienna State Opera and Opera Philadelphia, was performed in the venerable Academy of Music. The cast included rapturous soprano Brenda Rae in the title role, and the collection of brilliant male vocalists who bring about her demise: tenor Michael Spyres (her lover, Edgardo); baritone Troy Cook (her brother Enrico, who engineers her forced marriage); and bass Christian Van Horn (as Raimondo, her priestly confidant).

Along with a dynamic chorus (prepared by Elizabeth Braden), and beautiful work in the pit by Rovaris and the instrumentalists, Donizetti’s unflaggingly gorgeous score doesn’t contain a single measure that isn’t lovingly realized. (Affecting and original use of harp, flute, and glass harmonica noted.)

But the sets were badly conceived. An uneven ridge covered most of the stage. It worked as a one-time, visible metaphor for the instability and eventual madness that overwhelms Lucia, but it posed too many blocking and movement challenges. For most of the action, poor Lucia lurched, staggered, and generally fumbled around with inorganic, non-idiomatic movements. She’s mad, but not a klutz. There were other misfortunes: When her brother confronts her lover, claiming he’s there to “hasten his death,” the audience laughed. They had to, because of the way the duo were placed unevenly on the stage. They looked like they were arguing over a dinner check.

O18 also ranged over to Independence Park for an outdoor screening of Daniel Bernard Roumain’s We Shall Not be Moved, and to Curtis Institute’s Field Concert Hall for a pair of recitals performed by soprano Ashley Marie Robillard and mezzo-soprano Siena Licht Miller. That set — heard during the second recital on Sept. 28, a darkly curated and moving grouping of American texts, mainly about the immigrant experience — showed two singers to watch.

Keith Powers covers music and the arts for GateHouse Media and WBUR’s ARTery. Follow @PowersKeith; email to keithmichaelpowers@gmail.com

Countertenor Anthony Ross Costanzo curated and starred in a multi-artist presentation called ‘Glass-Handel’ to complement his debut recording of works by Handel and Philip Glass.(Dominic M. Mercier)