Review: A Singular Sensation Returns to Philadelphia Opera with the O22 Festival

It was “expect the unexpected,” from Hosokawa’s RAVEN, Rossini's OTELLO, Little and Waldman’s BLACK LODGE

By: Oct. 06, 2022
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Review: A Singular Sensation Returns to Philadelphia Opera with the O22 Festival
Daniela Mack, Lawrence Brownlee. Photo: Steven Pisano

Opera Philadelphia's fall festival is back, or at least it was until Sunday night, with the last performance (until it returns in its film version later in the month) of David T. Little's BLACK LODGE with libretto by poet Anne Waldman.

O22, as the festival was called this year, wasn't exactly "something old, something new" but more like big fat sandwich cookie. On one side, there was a kind of "traditional" contemporary opera, Toshio Hosokawa's THE RAVEN (with an odd, introductory take on a theatrical game show), a big filling of Gioachino Rossini's OTELLO opera seria in the middle (chock-a-block with tenors, most notably Lawrence Brownlee, and mezzos, spectacularly Daniela Mack, and a far cry from Verdi's take).

It finished with the Little-Waldman BLACK LODGE, a rock opera that was half ear-blasting concert, half film-take on William Burroughs via David Lynch. (There was also an opera film component that filled in some of the blanks between the live performances, though none of them seemed gratuitous.)

While I wouldn't exactly describe the sum of the parts a tasty morsel, it was good to have this one-of-a-kind delicacy back after the festivals-that-weren't because of the pandemic. It also gave us a glimmer of things to come, perhaps--though we've come to expect that the Opera Philadelphia festival hardly ever delivers anything conventional.


Review: A Singular Sensation Returns to Philadelphia Opera with the O22 Festival
Muyu Ruba, Kristen Choi. Photo: Steven Pisano

Before getting down to the business of the Japanese monodrama/performance piece by composer Hosokawa, which I associate with the Japanese Noh-style (though the director Aria Umezawa hedged in his program notes), there was an opening, audience participation piece.

Yet it is the part that is taken directly from the poem by Edgar Allan Poe, minimalist yet haunting, sung/narrated eerily by the captivating mezzo Kristen Choi with the dancing raven of Muyu Ruba, that is the center of the show. Director Umezawa kept things firmly under control.

For me, the music was the thing, with no little kudos to conductor Eiki Isomura and the hard-working musicians of his ensemble. It was mesmerizing, particularly the chamber orchestra's interplay with mezzo Choi, who recites the poem, chanting, singing and simply reciting. Her interactions with the dancing Lenore-as-raven, with music that seemed atonal here, illogical there, clearly focused elsewhere. The three-sided performing area seemed the natural way of presenting the piece, with the orchestra taking the fourth side.

Conductor Eiki Isomura seemed so totally in control of what the chamber players were doing that everything seemed to make sense, even when it was at its most atonal.

Though I can't honestly admit that I understand why the audience participatory introduction by the group Obvious Agency was there, featuring a bevy of Lenores (re Poe: "From my books surcease of sorrow--sorrow for the lost Lenore--for the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore--nameless here for evermore....") who would later be part of the opera, it was diverting and the audience seemed to love it. The Lenores, however, seemed more necessary in the chamber opera. They were Joseph Ahmed, Ang(ela) Bey, Vitche Boule-Ra, Makoto Hirano, Daniel Park, Minou Pourhariati, Pax Ressler and, most notably, Muyu Ruba.

The scenic design by Jennifer Hiyama, lighting by Bless Rudisill and costumes, etc., by Ariel Wang.


Review: A Singular Sensation Returns to Philadelphia Opera with the O22 Festival
Alek Shrader, Khanyiso Gwenxane. Photo Steven Pisano

I've heard it said that Verdi's OTELLO should have been called IAGO, because that evil character really is the center of the opera. Similarly, this version of the story by Rossini should probably have been called DESDEMONA, since she dominates the narrative so clearly. Daniela Mack was clearly up to the task, with her stunning vocalism and rich acting in the best-written of the opera's roles.

Musically, however, I'd be hard pressed to bill anyone over the Rodrigo, sung magnificently here by Lawrence Brownlee. This killer of a role offers the tenor a stunning showcase for the kind of singing we expect from him, taken to the nth degree. Rodrigo? If you've never heard of this character in "Othello," neither did Shakespeare. Desdemona is betrothed to him by her father, though her true love is the Moor, sung distinctively here by newcomer Khanyiso Gwenxane (yet another tenor!), but whose voice seemed a little light for what was demanded of him.

As for Iago...still one more tenor! This one was sung ably and intriguingly by Alek Shrader. The problem for me is that Rossini seems to have spent so much time writing showcase pieces for Rodrigo that, I believe, he shortchanged the other major tenor roles. Similarly, the orchestral writing is not as interesting as it might have been, even under the steady baton of Corrado Rovario and excellent musicians of the orchestra. The chorus did a fine job as well.

And librettist Francesco Berio de Salsa didn't do a particularly good job in fleshing out these characters; the result was a storyline that didn't quite make sense. The only other role, besides Desdemona, where de Salsa did a better job than Verdi's Boito was with her confidante Emilia, who has a fuller part in this opera; as sung movingly by mezzo Sun-ly Pierce, she is a fine match in her arias with Mack and marvelous when on her own.

While the opera moved along adroitly, under Emilio Sagi, he didn't quite figure out where it took place. The setting by scenic designer Daniel Bianco (lighting by Eduardo Bravo), along with the costumes by Gabriela Salaverri, were a puzzlement. It seemed to be placed in a snow-bound palace in the mountains of Switzerland rather than in Venice and Cyprus. And in what century? It seemed like it could have doubled as a set for LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR in a high-concept version of that opera taken out of Scotland.

Never mind. With the singing of Mack and Brownlee at the head of the cast, much else could be forgiven.


Review: A Singular Sensation Returns to Philadelphia Opera with the O22 Festival
Timur, on screen and live (r), Opera Philadelphia
String Quartet, Dime Museum. Photo: Steven Pisano

Opera Philadelphia's festivals always seem to be pushing the boundaries of what opera is.

Certainly this was never more apparent than in BLACK LODGE, produced by Beth Morrison Projects. Here, film and live performance exist in the same place and time, as exemplified by Timur, who is both star of the film and centerpiece of the glam rock band, Timur and the Dime Museum, which performed live as the film ran.

Timur, who's from Kazakhstan, has three voices in one person and can handle the demanding music--"rock bombast and brooding moods," as composer Little describes the score in the program--and certainly those of us in the audience would heartily agree with him.

I'd be lying if I didn't say that it was often hard to take. Yet in the often gritty, ear-shattering performance, one often found oneself enraptured by Little's music, as by the amplification produced by Timur and the other musicians in the band--Hannah Dexter, Andrew Lessman, Matthew Seltzer and Milo Talwani--as well as the Opera Philadelphia String Quartet, consisting of Luigi Mazzocchi and Elizabeth Kaderabej on violin, Yoshihiko Nakano on viola and Jennie Lorenzo on cello.

There is no typical libretto, though Anne Waldman has written what one might call a "treatment," and there is indeed an extra challenge in relating to an opera that doesn't have a traditional story. It's the difference between art, said Little in a filmed interview that ran before the performance, which you have to let it tell you what it wants to say, and entertainment, which meets you where you are. From that definition, this is definitely art.

BLACK LODGE doesn't go from A to B to C. It is totally nonlinear and hallucinatory, it starts where it should end, occurring in that nightmarish place between death and rebirth (Bardo), with a man trapped in purgatory, haunted by a woman. The film showcases a pair of bravura performances, by Timur and Jennifer Harrison Newman.

The story, screenplay and film/stage direction are by Michael Joseph McQuilken, though much of the piece was already in place by the time he came on board. There are echoes of the works of Antonin Artaud and his theatre of cruelty, David Lynch, creator of television's "Twin Peaks," and the drug-induced writing of William S. Burroughs (whom Waldman knew).

The latter includes a version by the librettist of "the worst event in Burroughs' life," according to Little: the killing of the woman he loved in a "William Tell moment" (i.e., trying to shoot a glass off her head and missing), which is central to the piece.

Bravo as well to Andrew McKenna Lee of Still Sound Music, who took the music of every instrument, which was recorded separately, and made them work as a whole.

If you want to take a look and listen for yourself of what Little, Waldman, Timur and everyone else involved in BLACK LODGE have created, the all-film version is set for its streaming premiere at the end of the month on Oct. 21 through the Opera Philadelphia Channel.

Opera Philadelphia and all its underwriters should be saluted for putting together this unique group of works and giving us the opportunity to decide for ourselves what this means for the future of an art form that's been around for centuries. May it live for centuries more!