BWW Review: 'Losing Your Mind' Three Ways in a Weekend at Opera Philadelphia's Festival O18
Whether from disease, 19th century #MeToo-style abuse, or unrequited love, Opera Philadelphia's (OP) Festival O18 opening weekend showed us three ways that central female characters lost their grip on reality. While I considered only one of them a total success, audience openness to sometimes-demanding material made it clear that the company has clearly come up with a formula that strikes at the hearts of opera-goers, new and old, giving them journeys they find worth tackling.
SWINGS hits a home run
OP took a big chance on opening the second iteration of its festival with SKY ON SWINGS by Lembit Beecher and Hannah Moskovitch, directed astutely and sympathetically by Joanna Settle, with a new opera about one of the most painful subjects for modern audiences--the loss of a loved one to the debilitating effects of Alzheimer's disease. The result was a triumph for everyone involved. (I saw the opera's second performance on September 22 at the Kimmel Center.)
Beecher, who was the company's first composer-in-residence and was represented in last year's festival by I HAVE NO STORIES TO TELL YOU, also with Moskovitch, has come up with 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).
He takes no easy way out--and gives none to his singers or orchestra, under the crisp, understanding baton of Geoffrey McDonald. Moskovitch is Beecher's perfect "other half." She has developed a simple but moving story of two women--one already in the throes of the disease, the other beginning her steady decline, and the children who can only sit and watch their mothers slip away.
The two women, Danny (Frederica von Stade) and Martha (mezzo Marietta Simpson), find each other and a life worth living, even in their dwindling days, until they may not even recognize each other. They grab at life, even as other patients around them have already reached a semi-vegetative state. The creators are smart enough to know when the story should end--no mean trick.
And what characters the two central singers are able to create with the composer and librettist's help! The two veteran mezzos, with their distinctly different voices, played off one another like a pair of old friends getting together for their weekly game of bridge.
I first heard mezzo Frederica von Stade in glistening roles like Mozart's Cherubino and Rossini's Rosina; when I last saw her, it was in Ricky Ian Gordon's A COFFIN IN EGYPT, where her entry, barely able to walk and using a cane, shocked me until I saw it was her superb skills as an actress, and not infirmity, at work. That artistry is put to the test here and is triumphant.
She begins the piece understanding what's ahead of her and wanting to make choices about her future while she still can (while tenor Daniel Taylor ably shows the frustrations of her son); by the end, she has bonded with Simpson's Martha and undertakes a life that no one could have imagined for her. Yes, she puts up a fight, but realizes when she has found a semblance of peace in the arms of Martha.
Simpson's Martha may have been an even larger challenge than von Stade's, with a role comparable to Lucia di Lammermoor's mad scene, as she slips in and out of awareness of her surroundings, challenging her daughter (impressively done by the rangy soprano of Sharleen Joynt) as she makes a new life without her. The totally different kind of mezzo sound that this other singing actress produces played brilliantly off von Stade's.
Veronica Chapman Smith, Maren Montalbano, George Somerville and Frank Mitchell do fine work as the quartet of patients around them, sometimes taking on the air of an a capella chorus.
The simple but capable scenic design by Daniel Lieberman is aided greatly by Jorge Costineau's projections and Pat Collins' lighting, where the shadows from a squiggle of neon morphs into words that Danny cannot recall was particularly effective. Costumes by Tilly Grimes were just right.
LUCIA offers a challenge
OP seemed to score something of a coup in drawing director Laurent Pelly's new production of Donizetti's LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR (seen on Sunday, September 23 at the Academy of Music), in conjunction with the Vienna State Opera. I wish there was more to cheer about besides the thrilling (if oddly staged) mad scene from soprano Brenda Rae, a singer who's made her mark elsewhere but is less known in New York, my usual bailiwick. Pelly--whose funny, effective FILLE DU REGIMENT returns to the Met this season--didn't find his feet with this opera and the result was decidedly mixed.
His conception of the opera as being about power and Lucia a pawn in her brother's (baritone Troy Cook) struggle, ended up portraying her as being very child-like and three-quarters over the edge by the time the opera begins. This left little room for the character to evolve; as she hovered, quaking in corners, I kept thinking of one of Torvald's pet names for Nora in A DOLL'S HOUSE, "My little squirrel." It seemed a distracting annoyance during the great aria, "Regnava nel silenzio," in Act I, when Lucia's about as lucid as she gets in the opera, but hardly seems so here.
Taking this kind of approach to the character is also a no-win challenge for the singer, because I've yet to see anyone called upon to play "young," in any opera (MANON, eg), actually pull it off, no matter how advanced their dramatic skills. It ends up being simply eye-rolling. Pelly's other, unnecessary challenge for the title role is to have her sing a number of times while lying flat on her back, like a rag doll tossed in the corner, though Rae didn't seem fazed by it.
In fact, even though I admired Rae's Mad Scene, it worked because the director (or singer?) seemed to throw the rest of the characterization out the window by this time. Lucia (Rae) seemed more mature here, as if, by murdering her husband, she was finally thrown off the shackles imposed by her brother's view of her as chattel. She had great support from conductor Corrado Rovaris and the Opera Philadelphia Orchestra, with special applause for Friedrich Heinrich Kern on glass harmonica, which gave off a sound that echoed Lucia's shattering psyche.
The rest of the roles were handled capably. Topping my list of favorites was bass-baritone Christian van Horn--this year's Richard Tucker Award winner--as Raimondo, a chaplin who's Lucia's ally (or as much of one as she had in this production). His suave, low-lying portrayal added much to the proceedings. Tenor Michael Spyres--excellent on a recent recording of LES TROYENS with DiDonato--appeared a good choice for Lucia's true love--though, in fact, ready to throw her to the wolves when he felt betrayed--Edgardo, with his ringing high notes.
His breath control, however, was troubling in some places, with lines simply petering out before they ended. Baritone Troy Cook was every inch the villain as Lucia's brother, Enrico, though less creamy in tone than I would have wished for. Tenor Andrew Owens, as Arturo (Lucia's forced marital partner), used his compact voice smartly. With Hannah Ludwig as Lucia's handmaid, Alisa, the group gave a fine performance of the opera's famous sextet at the end of Act I, Part 2 (usually Act II, but played without an intermission here).
I wasn't particularly impressed by the efforts of director Pelly's design team, with Chantal Thomas's sets adding little but slippery surfaces to challenge the balance of the cast. Lighting design was by Duane Schuler. Pelly himself did the costumes.
One question: Why did Lucia make her entrance from one of the wings in the Mad Scene, rather than the door everyone was watching? A mad choice, indeed.
A shadow of a VOIX
For me, the big disappointment of the weekend was NE QUITTEZ PAS (DON'T LEAVE), a reimagining of Francis Poulenc's monodrama, LA VOIX HUMAINE, by director James Darrah, seen on September 22. The "reimagining" changes the original's setting--the bedroom of a woman of a certaine age--and turns it into a rundown rock club, here portrayed by Theatre of Living Arts. Jean Cocteau's libretto, based on his play of the same name, is prefaced by an introductory act of Poulenc songs ("Banalites"), and texts by various writers, and his Intermezzo #3 for piano.
I'd say that "More is less," except for the elegant piano performances by Music Director Christopher Allen and baritone Edward Nelson as Le Jeune Homme (The young man), which plays off the title role in VOIX, Elle (She), which I found quite pleasing. I found soprano Patricia Racette to be a wrong-headed choice for the role of Elle, whose story is basically (with pardons to Puccini's MANON LESCAUT) "Sola, perduta, abbandonata (Alone, lost, abandoned)." My qualms are not about her singing, but her persona.
If there's one thing that isn't natural to Racette it is being the victim--even her Cio-cio San in MADAMA BUTTERFLY manages to take some control--and central to the role in the Poulenc is that Elle, basically, is pleading her lover not to dump her. I didn't buy it here, because she simply doesn't come across dramatically as a 'woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown' (or, rather, someone who has attempted suicide) and can't make up for it in the vocalism of the score.
This Elle may have been mad (as in "angry")--but wasn't mad (as in "crazed)." I imagine Elle as more like Barbara Stanwyck (no shrinking violet herself) in "Sorry, Wrong Number" or Jeanne Moreau (ditto) in Louis Malle's "Elevator to the Gallows," but that doesn't seem to be what Darrah and Racette had in mind.
The cast was rounded out by Marc Bendavid as Paul, Mary Tuomanen as Elizabeth/Lise and Ames Adamson as the Owner. Production design was by Tony Fanning, lighting by Pablo Santiago, sound by Robert Raplowitz and costumes by Chrisi Karvonides.
Opera Philadelphia's Festival O18 had an additional two pieces that I didn't see: GLASS HANDEL, a glitzy take on the music of Philip Glass and Georg Frideric Handel starring countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, and QUEENS OF THE NIGHT, billed as "The Ring Cycle of drag, tenors, and rock & roll," unfolding over three nights, hosted alternatively and together by mezzo Stephanie Blythe (as Blythely Orantonia) and Dito Van Reigersberg (as Martha Graham Cracker).
Weather permitting, there will be an outdoor showing of WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED, the wonderful Daniel Bernard Roumain-Marc Bamuthi Joseph opera from last year's festival, directed by Bill T. Jones, on Saturday September 29 at 7pm on the Mall in Independence National Historical Park, with free tickets now available.
For more information about the operas and the remaining performance schedule, through September 30, see Opera Philadelphia's website.