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BWW Preview: Welcome to the 21st Century (and 1816) at Opera Philadelphia's Digital Festival, including BREAKING THE WAVES

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BWW Preview: Welcome to the 21st Century (and 1816) at Opera Philadelphia's Digital Festival, including BREAKING THE WAVES
Duffy in BREAKING THE WAVES.
Photo: Dominic M. Mercier

Over the last five years, Opera Philadelphia has presented an impressive group of new operas it has commissioned, along with some classics from the standard rep at its fall festival. Starting tomorrow, we'll get a look at some of the best of them, with the company's Digital Festival running through May 29, available on YouTube and the company's website.

As I've written before, there's a difference between seeing a live performance and one that has been filmed, but ultimately, it's the music that counts. And you'll hear some great music at the festival.

BREAKING THE WAVES (Mazzoli and Vavrek)

Back in September 2016, Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek, with director James Darrah, brought BREAKING THE WAVES--based on the movie of the same name by Lars van Trier--to Opera Philadelphia's O16 festival, in a co-commission with Beth Morrison Projects. In my review, I called it a "stark, brutal work...with a thrilling score brought to life by the company's orchestra under Steven Osgood and a star-making turn by soprano Kiera Duffy."

It's not for the faint of heart, but it held up well on second viewing, when it traveled to New York for the PROTOTYPE Festival the following January and received the first "Best New Opera Award" from the Music Critics Association of North America.

The premiere will be streamed on Friday May 29 at 8pm on YouTube and the company's website, with streaming on-demand through August 31.

SKY ON SWINGS (Beecher and Moscovitch)

BWW Preview: Welcome to the 21st Century (and 1816) at Opera Philadelphia's Digital Festival, including BREAKING THE WAVES
Simpson and von Stade.
Photo: Steven Pisano

Two years later, the contemporary centerpiece of the company festival was SKY ON SWINGS by Lembit Beecher and Hannah Moscovitch, astutely directed by Joanne Settle, a very different kind of work, starring wonderful Marrietta Simpson and the irreplaceable Frederica von Stade.

Anyone expecting a piece about Alzheimer's Disease to be sad and maudlin, will be surprised. I thought it had an "eloquent, intricate, edgy score that maps the decline of the characters through music, mixing dissonance and gorgeous melody, jazzy inflections and jarring Sprechstimme (a cross between speaking and singing)," conducted by Geoffrey McDonald. (You can also read my interview with composer Beecher for his own insights into the work.) It's a simple but moving story and well worth watching.

The premiere will be streamed on Friday May 22 at 8pm on YouTube and the company's website, with streaming on-demand through August 31.

WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED (Roumarin and Joseph)

BWW Preview: Welcome to the 21st Century (and 1816) at Opera Philadelphia's Digital Festival, including BREAKING THE WAVES
WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED.
Photo: Dave DiRentis

In between the other operas mentioned, at O17, there was the astonishing WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED by Daniel Bernard Roumarin and Marc Bamuthi Joseph, directed-choreographed-and-dramaturged by the inimitable Bill T. Jones. While I didn't see it when I was in Philadelphia, I saw it a month later at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, in New York City, I found it "incredibly moving and infuriatingly contemporary in a bold performance that I won't soon forget."

It's not a story that fits the confines of traditional opera--one of the trademarks that the festival's contemporary entries share: Five North Philadelphia teens on the run take refuge in an abandoned, condemned house in West Philadelphia (brilliant scenery by Matt Saunders, with projections by Jorge Cousineau). It ends in an inferno that merges the past and present.

Roumarin's restless and tense score was orchestrated for a small ensemble of strings and percussion, impressively conducted by Viswa Subbaranman. I admired all the performers, but I thought countertenor John Holiday a standout.

The work will be broadcast on WHYY-TV12 on Sunday, May 10, at 2pm., while high-school students will have access on Y2 on Friday, May 15 at 1pm. (WHYY is available on Comcast 812 and FiOs 512; Y2 is available on 12.2, Comcast 257, Verizon Fios 474.)

It will premiere on YouTube and at the company's website on Sunday, May 10, at 7pm.
Streaming on-demand through Monday, August 31.

DENIS & KATYA (Venables and Huffman)

The last of the contemporary works being send out by Opera Philadelphia is DENIS & KATYA by Philip Venables and Ted Huffman, who also directed. It was co-commissioned by Music Theatre Wales (UK) and the Opera Orchestre National Montpellier (France).

BWW Preview: Welcome to the 21st Century (and 1816) at Opera Philadelphia's Digital Festival, including BREAKING THE WAVES
Hoffman and Miller. Photo:
Dominic M. Mercier

DENIS & KATYA is part of the emerging use of opera as a new news medium. It tells the story of two teenagers in a Russian village who began live-streaming their miseries, their trials and tribulations and teenage angst, as well as the tyranny of the regime under which they lived, on Periscope, a website. The big questions is: Did they commit suicide or were they killed by the police? The opera delves into the dark side of social media such as YouTube and the Russian equivalent of Facebook.

Venables made a smart choice using the resonant celli rather than the typical string quartet. They face off against each other, whether melodic or harsh, as well as giving added nuance to the various characters who tell the tale, under music director Emily Senturia's strong leadership and director/librettist Huffman's terse account. I thought baritone Theo Hoffman and mezzo Siena Licht Miller "couldn't have been bettered."

The opera's premiere on YouTube and the company's website will be tomorrow, Friday, May 1, at 8pm. Streaming in North America only through May 8 at 7pm.

BARBER OF SEVILLE (Rossini and Sterbini)

BWW Preview: Welcome to the 21st Century (and 1816) at Opera Philadelphia's Digital Festival, including BREAKING THE WAVES
BARBER OF SEVILLE.
Photo: Kelly & Massa

Last, but certainly not least, is the Rossini favorite, BARBER OF SEVILLE (IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA), which dates back to 1816, conducted by the company's music director, Corrado Rovaris. I didn't get to see it in Philadelphia but it was considered a great success for the company, as it had been at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, where the production had its premiere. Michael Shell's view has been called "one big lollipop for the eyes," recalling the films of the Spanish director, Pedro Almodovar.

The premiere on YouTube and the company's website will be on Friday, May 15 at 8pm, with streaming on-demand through Tuesday, June 30.

For further information about Opera Philadelphia's Digital Festival, including how to support the company financially, see the website.


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From This Author Richard Sasanow