BWW Review: A Whirlwind Named ELIZABETH CREE by Puts and Campbell Blows into Opera Philadelphia
Winston Churchill called Russia "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." Well, Mother Russia had nothing on ELIZABETH CREE, the new chamber opera by Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell, based on Peter Ackroyd's novel--having all those traits plus a brilliant score and a smart libretto that raced forward with cinematic speed.
Nor did it have a stellar cast, led by the lush, vibrant mezzo Daniela Mack as Elizabeth, ably abetted by baritone Troy Cook as her husband John and tenor Joseph Gaines in a star-turn as music hall celebrity Dan Leno, soprano Deanna Breiwick as the music hall wench turned maid, and a small, skillful cast that doubles and triples roles (including, by the way, an appearance by Karl Marx). CREE may have been only 90-minutes long, but to call it a "chamber opera" does it a disservice, because there's nothing small about it.
ELIZABETH CREE is the story of a mass murderer--or is it?--and the retribution brought down on the perpetrator--or has it? It keeps you guessing right to the end, with many a time that you think you've got it solved and then the story makes a right-angle into another direction. This is Puts's and Campbell's third collaboration, including the Pulitzer-winning SILENT NIGHT and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, and they seem to have each other's rhythms down pat.
Puts's luscious, percolating score makes the music side look almost too easy, going from eliciting terror to composing a pastiche-of-a-pastiche in what seems like a blink of an eye but is much more than that.
In his program essay, he talks about starting "at the beginning and let things unfold naturally and intuitively" but in this tale that starts at the end--well, almost the end, since it has more twists and turns than the French Riviera's Grand Corniche--and goes back and forth in time, "naturally" and "intuitively" are games he plays with us.
Musically, Puts gives us a three-note motif at the start, and it insistently returns in different forms and tempi, moving the action along vigorously, while never forgetting the emotional depth of the characters.
Campbell, for his part (and he wrote the libretto first), has already set the tone of premeditated repetition, as Elizabeth says a mysterious "Here we go again!" on her way to the gallows in the prologue, returns in a variation as a song with Elizabeth and Dan called (you guessed it) "Here We Are Again" and then it returns in its original form, from Dan Leno, in Scene 29 (yes, 29 scenes and a prologue in an hour and a half!).
While, on paper, this seems a violent, unpleasant "penny dreadful" of a piece, it somehow manages not to be off-putting in the least, with thanks to deft director David Schweizer and Opera Philadelphia's music director Corrado Rovaris, who conducted the crack Opera Philadelphia orchestra. The simple, yet versatile set was by David Zinn, who also did the period costumes. Alexander V. Nichols gets high marks of his lighting/projection design. Jesse Robb's choreography kept the cast nicely in motion.
The multiple murders are done in silhouette--unlike the wonderful but gruesome, grisly and blood-spurting SWEENEY TODD--and manages to elicit groans, gasps and giggles (not necessarily in that order) from the audience, who seemed to be having a very good time, indeed. (Maybe they've seen too many episodes of "Criminal Minds" or "CSI" on television to be shocked by anything as simple as an opera.)
ELIZABETH CREE makes for a grand evening at the opera--and one that deserves a wide audience.