Death Rules Stage In Philly O19 Fest Opera Premieres

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Veronica Chapman-Smith, Augustine Mercante, and Natalie Levin in Joseph Keckler’s ‘Let Me Die’ at Opera Philadelphia.
(Photo by Johanna Austin)
By Margaret Darby

PHILADELPHIA – “Is any of this for f—–g real?” So reads the type across the back wall of the stage, with an electronic bloop that signals incoming texts. Unfortunately, it is. The words are taken verbatim from the internet. Both composer Philip Venables and librettist Ted Huffman delved deeply into the story of the deaths in 2016 of the Russian teens Denis Muravyov and Katya Vlasova for their chamber opera, Denis & Katya, co-commissioned and co-produced by Opera Philadelphia (which presented the world premiere on Sept. 18), Music Theatre Wales, and Opéra Orchestre National Montpellier.

Venables and Huffman followed the trajectory of the ill-fated pair to Russia, taking opera video designer Pierre Martin to film what they saw. They chose not to create a reportage of the events, but drew six characters through whom they could create an operatic retelling of the story. They wove the story with threads of verbatim comments collected from interviews and from the internet.

Principal singers Siena Licht Miller and Theo Hoffman were superb at juggling their characters, changing from one to the other in an instant. Huffman, who doubled as director of the production, made sure each singer had ample cues through clicktracks. Rob Kaplowitz, who created the sound design, deserves high praise indeed for the smooth sequence of music and text.

Venables’ score was surprisingly versatile in its range of expression and dynamics. His writing for the four cellos was so well matched to the vocal parts that the cellos seemed to become a chorus for the voices.

Siena Licht Miller and Theo Hoffman in ‘Denis & Katya.’ (Photo by Dominic M. Mercier)

The stage was a low-walled box with projections as a backdrop. Scenic and lighting designer Andrew Lieberman favors a stark setting to tell a sad story. The cellists, occupying each corner, did not play as the two singers entered the stage and sat. The singers used spoken word at the start to set up the scene, describing the rooms that Katya is filming as she and Denis are barricaded in their cabin in the small village of Strugi Krasnye. “The first thing you see is the sofa, a round table, a box, a pink armchair. On the sofa is an empty whiskey bottle….” Slowly, it becomes evident that our singers are NOT Denis and Katya. They are observers and bystanders.

A cello tremolo thrums after the spoken introduction and the other three cellos join in, creating a chorus of resonant melodic harmony. Miller portrays the journalist, singing in a honeyed voice with little or no vibrato that sails over the cellos’ orchestral backdrop. The journalist is a reluctant witness who, after being barred from interviewing teachers and students at Denis and Katya’s school, goes to the mall to interview students. “Kids,” she sings, “it’s like total imagination land.”

Hoffman sings the role of Denis’ best friend in shy, lyrical Russian, using the upper register of his smooth baritone. Miller translates his words, speaking them quickly but clearly in the rests. The melodies and the cello accompaniment are soft and gentle, evoking the shock and puzzlement of a kid who doesn’t know how to help his friend. “Channel 1 and the talk shows all called me. I was offered 30,000 rubles, but I turned it down,” sings the teenager in puzzlement that his world could be so mercenary.

Denis and Katya’s teacher is a composite character sung in unison by Hoffman and Miller. The teachers’ duets have a smooth, neutralizing and calming effect. The teachers try to calm the students. “Katya had problems at home,” they sing, as if to minimize the horrors of a teenager who is regularly beaten by her stepfather.

Hoffman sings the Teenager, a more frenetic voice panicked by the whole event and driven by youthful angst. His anguish is palpable, representing how some of the teens Huffman and Venables interviewed reacted to the events.

A parallel panic is sung by Miller when she portrays the neighbor who watches the Special Forces close in on the cabin where the teens are holed up. Miller’s voice is much higher, less calm, and even sometimes strident as she paces back and forth on the back wall of the stage box looking at the besieged dwelling and trying to figure out what is going on. She reveals both compassion for the teens and fear of flying bullets and violence.

The final character, the Medic, was sung by Hoffman in a sweet, pure, calm voice that expressed his emotion under the veneer of control as he responded to the aftermath of the siege. A cello pizzicato in octaves is complemented by a second cello playing a slow, high, dirge-like hymn.

The stage suddenly goes dark as a film shows Russian countryside through a train window as it goes by a small station and then through endless forests. The singers continue their narrative epilogue and then we hear the actual journalist, in a recording, saying “I just wanted to get out of there.”

From the beginning to the end of this 65-minute chamber opera, the audience is engaged as if witnessing direct reportage of a tragic story of teens enmeshed in the foibles and mistakes of the adults around them. Venables’ music and Huffman’s libretto take you directly into the story, give you a minute to think, and bring you to the Russian countryside to see the quiet aftermath of the trees, woods, and tiny villages that exploded into violence and then settled back into a serene pastoral setting. The opera provokes the conscience and shows how life can go wrong at warp speed.

Joseph Keckler in his opera, ‘Let Me Die.’ (Photo by Johanna Austin)

But warp speed was the very essence of Joseph Keckler’s Let Me Die, the second world premiere of Opera Philadelphia’s third fall festival, O19. As soon as the audience sighed at hearing a familiar and beautiful death song begin, it was over.

Keckler, a rising phenomenon on the New York opera scene, has an amazing comic talent and a three-plus octave range to mimic, sing, and decry the world of opera. For this pastiche ranging from Monteverdi to Mussorgsky, he examines operatic death, using as his central work the only surviving aria from Monteverdi’s Arianna (Ariadne),Lasciatemi morire.” He sings 35 minutes of classic operatic death arias (complete with gyrating throes of death). On stage are two excellent musicians, pianist William Kim and violinist Lavinia Pavlish. Interspersed into the wildly fast scene changes, voice changes, and catlike leaps onto the stairs beside the audience in Rows 5 and 6, Keckler also performs two of his original operatic patter songs, one in Russian and one in Italian.

Suddenly, he turns over his podium and lays it down on the stage, where the audience can see that the interior is padded, forming a three-quarters-length coffin. He lays himself down in it for his final death and stays on stage motionless as three singers creep in to take the stage.

They are “the wayward sisters”: Natalie Levin, mezzo-soprano, Veronica Chapman-Smith, soprano, and Augustine Mercante, countertenor (who jumped into the role a mere two weeks before the first performance). They, too, perform a series of all-too-brief vignettes of death songs running the gamut from Berlioz to Debussy, reversing the genders of many of the arias and teasing with beautifully sung and played arias for most of the second part of the performance. Then Chapman-Smith sings Dido’s Lament (“When I am laid in earth”) from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, suddenly transitioning from silly shtick to a heart-rending solo.

Eventually, everyone on stage “dies,” including the musicians. A slim dancer, Saori Tsukada, throws a stage door open and creeps slowly and silently up to each corpse, observing, moving, and magnetizing the audience with her intense gaze. She moves to center stage, raises her hands, and cues a recorded chorus. Then she bows, and the show is over.

It was a whistle-stop romp through opera, and it would be hard to tell if Keckler is writing to mock the genre or to praise it. But one thing was clear: Keckler’s journey through opera is an intense musical seminar that lasts only an hour and a quarter.

Margaret Darby is a freelance music critic in Philadelphia and an active chamber musician. She writes for Broad Street Review, Phindie, Philly Life and Culture, and other publications.