PHILADELPHIA — Madness has become such a complicated subject in the opera world — a social justice issue as well as a confounding illness — that the just-premiered 10 Days in a Madhouse struggled to encompass everything it wants to say at Opera Philadelphia’s Festival O23 (as heard Sept. 23 in the Wilma Theater).
In character-based mad scenes, 19th-century composers could let loose with truly adventurous rule-breaking music while capturing the deepest sympathies of an audience that cared little if men went mad (as in Orlando Furioso) but wept when stylized figures such as Lucia di Lammermoor snapped. Here, composer Rene Orth and librettist Hannah Moscovitch approached the real-life story of investigative journalist Nellie Bly (née Elizabeth Jane Cochran, 1864-1922) who, in 1887, faked madness at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on what is now Roosevelt Island in New York City to expose the appalling living conditions. Sexual exploitation is in the mix with the predatory Dr. Blackwell. Women are held there for dubious purposes. The food is repulsive. Sadly, none of this is surprising.
Why is this story being told here and now? As musically distinguished as the opera is — and it’s a substantial compositional breakthrough for Orth — I left not knowing what to think. Concept, libretto, and score are on the same page, but different parts of the page. What mainly claimed my heart was a secondary character (named Lizzie) whose late-in-the-opera confession of deep grief following the death of her daughter was so compelling that one had to ask why the audience had to wait so long for something with this level of emotional gravity. Or for the libretto to clarify its intentions.
The story was told backward chronologically, starting on day 10, allowing much plot information to be withheld. It’s a time-honored theater technique, though withholding too much for too long left the daily accounts of asylum life seeming tedious for lack of dramatic context. Not until the very end did the opera confirm that Bly’s identity as a reporter was true — as opposed to a delusion. Some patients seem more afflicted than others, and madhouse life is, at times, portrayed with generalized tropes, including a forerunner to Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. How important is the exposé element? Mental illness care remains highly problematic, though the specific issues have morphed far beyond what is dramatized here.
Later in the opera, librettist Moscovitch delivered more genuine interactions in a scene that has the female inmates sizing each other up to determine just how mentally ill they are. (Answer: Not much). Another secondary idea is that sane people can be driven mad in that kind of environment — a point well worth making but which doesn’t lead anywhere. The larger idea is that Nellie is not the only sane one in there; women were just stashed there when nobody knew what to do with them. Amid such issues, Nellie spends so much of the opera in a state of evasion that the character is puzzlingly under-utilized. As a historic figure, Nellie is securely immortalized in the National Women’s Hall of Fame and wasn’t only a feminist trailblazer but led one of the more adventurous lives of her time. Only in the end did the opera give hints of the fortitude required to be her.
Much of the score — somewhat contrary to the libretto — suggests that mental illness was prevalent in the hospital. Clouds of choral sound sung out of sight of the audience suggested Kaija Saariaho influences but with a level of tension and aggression that went into the György Ligeti zone. The point was that the diffused vocal writing eloquently suggested brain confusion and related hopelessness. Waltzes (19th-century style) drifted in and out; that was a part of the hospital’s music therapy. Eruptions of mental agitation were conveyed by modern electronic rhythms that bordered on club music. Much was polytonal, polyrhythmic, and full of vivid collage effects.
Orth — a Curtis Institute composition graduate, class of 2016 — juggled these elements like a master composer in a far more sophisticated sound world than her previous opera, the accomplished, highly listenable Empty the House. Conductor Daniela Candillari kept all elements in balance, conducting an orchestra positioned above the stage action. Andrew Lieberman’s set, whose dominating feature was a giant cylinder with an opening for entrances and exits, reminded you the asylum was on an island, and why so many inmates were preoccupied with wondering when the next boat is leaving for anywhere but there. It was well used by stage director Joanna Settle in what was generally a ship-shape production.
But singers — in a blue-ribbon cast headed by Kiera Duffy as Nellie, Will Liverman as Dr. Blackwell, and mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis as Lizzie — weren’t always well served by the vocal writing. Liverman’s had extremely measured word settings one would expect from a doctor seeking to calm attractive female patients (not for honorable reasons). His character stayed one dimensional. During exchanges with Blackwell, Nellie’s music was projected by Duffy conversationally, as an island of straightforward common sense that telegraphed her hold on sanity. This was just one manifestation of Duffy’s considerable acting chops. But her extended epilogue aria pushed the bounds of her formidable technique so that one heard the effort more than the expression.
In contrast, Orth’s vocal writing for Lizzie’s big set piece was so lyrically written — as if Puccini had entered the 21st century, and sung by lush-voiced Bryce-Davis with immense inner feeling — that it was like a different opera, one that I wanted to hear repeatedly. Amid lost opportunities, this opera is by no means a lost cause.
10 Days in a Madhouse will be repeated Sept. 28 and 30 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S Broad St., Philadelphia. For tickets and information, go here.