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Elizabeth CreeWe Shall Not Be MovedThe Wake World 

Opera Philadelphia

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Daniela Mack as Elizabeth Cree at Opera Philadelphia
© Steven Pisano/Opera Philadelphia

AFTER YEARS OF PREPARATION, Opera Philadelphia launched O17, the first iteration of its new festival format, on September 14 in the intimate Perelman Theater, with the bracing world premiere of Elizabeth Cree, the first chamber opera by Pulitzer Prize-winning composerKevin Puts. Librettist Mark Campbell cleverly transformed Peter Ackroyd’s culturally allusive novel about a Victorian serial killer into a viable, fast-paced, ninety-minute entertainment. The material tackles abuse, pathology and the quest for various forms of “scientific” truth, but both Ackroyd’s novel and the libretto skirt profundity for a virtuoso, enjoyably literate titillation. Karl Marx and novelist George Gissing appear as supporting characters, and the piece’s inherent theatrical milieu is centered on real-life music-hall star Dan Leno. Puts’s rhythmically alert score, ingeniously orchestrated in a way that keeps one listening, flowered under Corrado Rovaris’s leadership. A ceaselessly arpeggiating piano took the principal role, and Linda Henderson, who was also responsible for the synthesizer, performed heroically.

In his first work for OP, director David Schweizer contributed a fluid, bang-up staging maximizing the theatrical nature of all the characters’ desires: it’s not just the endearingly seedy music-hall troupe that seeks applause and “good notices” but the murderer and her pursuer, Inspector Kildare, as well. Schweizer’s design team supplied a taut, memorably image-generating framework for a strong cast. David Zinn was responsible for the flexible sets and spiffy costumes, Alexander V. Nichols for the lighting and chilling black-white-and-red projections, and David Zimmerman for the fine period wigs and makeup.

Three brilliant performances anchored the opera. In the title role, Daniela Mack shone wonderfully, her rich yet agile mezzo coping masterfully with rangy writing that incorporated aspects of her Handel- and Rossini-honed technique. Her clear, expressive diction lent poignancy to Elizabeth’s plight even as the libretto’s complicated narrative arc made her character ever less a heroine. The brilliantly written part of the melancholy comic Dan Leno—half Sportin’ Life, half Cabaret Emcee, with a superimposed Brittenesque tinta—offered a field day to light tenor Joseph Gaines, who met the challenge with vocal skill and superb physicality. As the cheerfully demented Kildare—his every appearance marked by an insistent ostinato figure straight from Jenu˚fa—gifted baritone Daniel Belcher uttered each syllable with relish and point. 

Troy Cook’s role as Elizabeth’s doomed, unhappy husband, John, offered the baritone fewer opportunities for theatrical virtuosity, but he sang with his customary tonal and dynamic elegance. Deanna Breiwick confidently voiced the coloratura flights of Aveline, a sexy, sinister Adèle figure. The entire ensemble performed with admirable aplomb, with Melissa Parks (Doris), baritone Johnathan McCullough (Gissing) and bass-baritone Thomas Shivone (Marx/Solomon Weil) offering the most individual, convincing vocalism. At the work’s end, all the characters confront the audience with a witty meta-theatrical acknowledgement (“Opening Night!”) of shared circumstances—a nod, and a smart one, toward The Rake’s Progress

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Clockwise from top left: Aubrey Allicock, Lauren Whitehead, John Holiday, Daniel Shirley and Adam Richardson in We Shall Not Be Moved
© David DiRentis/Opera Philadelphia

ON SEPTEMBER 16, We Shall Not Be Moved, a trenchant, keenly judged collaboration between composer Daniel Bernard Roumain and poet/spoken word artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph played to an appreciative audience at Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater, marking the second of three scheduled world premieres at Opera Philadelphia’s O17 Festival. We Shall Not Be Moved points up Philadelphia’s (and society’s) persistent structural injustices to communities of color; the threat of rape, vulnerability to both police and peer violence and the marginalization of gender fluidity all fuel the plot of the new work. Philadelphia’s 1985 MOVE bombing and resultant fire—still a painfully divisive topic—provide a ghostly background to this story of contemporary youths seeking refuge in an abandoned structure from school, families and their own misdeeds. 

This ambitious project, which has artistic roots in OP’s community-based school workshops, was fortunate to have Bill T. Jones on hand as director, choreographer and dramaturge, staging the action on Matt Saunders’s flexible sets, superbly lit by Robert Wierzel. Viswa Subbaraman, a strong conductor specializing in contemporary music, led a taut performance (essentially played backstage) of a compelling score utilizing classical, jazz, music theater, hip-hop and dance-music vocabularies. What sometimes seemed repetitious in advance readings of Joseph’s libretto took powerful wing under Roumain’s rhythmic, expressive word-setting.

The entire ensemble showed commitment and talent, but the work pivoted on two contrasted female characters—the elective family’s brave young ringleader, Un/Sung, played by impassioned spoken-word artist Lauren Whitehead, and Glenda Ramos, a self-styled “ghetto flower” turned police officer, sung by vibrant mezzo Kirstin Chávez. Both artists were electric presences, and their scenes of conflict and dialogue structured the piece’s trajectory. Un/Sung’s inventive sorties were usually not titled, but thanks to Whitehead’s focus and verbal clarity no titles were needed. Un/Sung actually sang at some junctures, and Whitehead soared impressively. Chávez sounded lovely and soulful in tensile lines often delivered a cappella. 

Un/Sung’s four adoptive teen brothers are all named John. An attack on John Blue, a transboi, sets the plot in motion. With his unusually well-integrated registers and gorgeous tone, countertenor John Holiday has made a major splash in the Baroque repertory; his work here was luminous, moving and spectacular. If any classical or music-theater composer has contemplated a theater piece centered on the fantastic disco divo Sylvester, its star is at hand. Daniel Shirley’s plaintive, well-controlled tenor illuminated the inner struggle of John Little, a white or mixed-race kid who identifies as black. Adam Richardson fielded a gorgeously textured baritone as the devout John Mack. As the dynamic, sensitive/macho John Henry, fast-rising bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock showcased great player attitude, but in Act I the amplification of his voice made his diction sound opaque. Some coups de théâtre place John Henry’s survival in doubt at Act I’s close, through the intermission and onward. Act II began with a ravishing, seemingly out-of-body monologue owing something to Britten’s “Billy in the Darbies” but also to the expressive vocabulary of spirituals. Here and thereafter—in a (potential) death scene nearly as long as Tristan’s—Allicock fielded Joseph’s affecting words with great precision.

Jones’s insightful work with the actors shaped a tight, intelligent narrative. The staging was only occasionally over-literal, as when Officer Ramos raised the specter of “red and blue lights” invading the elective family’s refuge and we saw an approximated police-car light. The spectral “OGs” (original gangsters)—lingering victims of the abandoned house’s previous state-administered violence who are tutelary spirits to the displaced youth—manifested themselves in Jorge Cousineau’s deft projections and also as lithe, energetic dancers singing in pop voices; Tendayi Kuumba and Caci Cole Pritchett sang more incisively than their male colleagues, Michael Bishop and Duane Lee Holland. As often happens when even the most gifted choreographers direct, Jones overused his dancers during some finely crafted ensemble numbers. They drew focus both from the principals’ nuanced interaction and from Roumain’s music.

Although We Shall Not Be Moved has particular resonance after a summer marked by heightened tension between the Black Lives Matter movement and the Philadelphia police—as well as the Trump Administration’s treatment of the transgender community—Roumain and Joseph’s opera succeeds on the level of art and not just polemic. One wishes that the piece could have had more local performances than its six slated shows at the Wilma Theater, but the production is bound for a run in Manhattan.

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Maeve Höglund as Lola in The Wake World in Philadelphia
© Dominic Mercier/Opera Philadelphia

AFTER THE HIGHLY RESONANT testament of We Shall Not Be Moved on September 16,the world premiere of The Wake World two days later at the city’s spectacular Barnes Collection felt all the more elfin and recherché. The participants and spectators for this new work by composer and librettist David Hertzberg—the third world premiere of Opera Philadelphia’s O17 Festival—shared an evening rich in imagery. Starting with the galleries’ painted treasures, from which we were roused by pastel-painted choristers and several strikingly accoutered principals, the show continued through director R. B. Schlather’s all-out staging, lit with daring by Jax Messenger. Schlather placed the work’s action on his near-trademark catwalk, set in the Barnes’s splendid oblong Annenberg Court. The production was part fairy tale, part Carnival of Souls and all Warholian “happening,” especially on opening night, when the largely strolling spectators included Opera Philadelphia staff, stars and industry guests. It proved a fascinating though not consistently comprehensible experience.

Hertzberg passed up the obvious possibility of crafting a work about the singular Dr. Albert Barnes or riffing on the artwork he collected. Instead, positing soul-brotherhood between Barnes and the British mystic Aleister Crowley, this talented composer created a grotesquely overwritten libretto that read like a Stephen Leacock parody of Maeterlinck. Full of post-Raphaelite purple prose, often ridiculous (“thine [sic] brains”), The Wake World text proved mercifully hard to decipher in the hall’s acoustics, except for some almost a cappella solos. For those who cared to ponder the likes of “Drink deep of the purple ambergris,” titles flashed above. 

Despite some pacing longueurs, Crowley’s basic story emerged—a variant of a Fairy Prince’s Bluebeard-like courtship of a certain soon-abandoned, wiser-yet-still-loving Lola. A fine orchestrator, Hertzberg writes in a somewhat decadent French Wagnériste style, hymning rapturous doom; Debussy, Ravel and Dukas are clear models. The final scene, a compendium of late-Romantic final-scene conventions, “harmony checked” Isolde’s Liebestod. Vocally, the best writing was for the chorus; Elizabeth Braden, OP’s valiant chorus director, led both the singers and a crack chamber ensemble with balancing command. 

The most radiant solo singing came from soprano Jessica Beebe as Luna/Hecate, but the central pair of principals also gave generous, impressive performances. Maeve Höglund dealt with Lola’s marathon duties, vocal and dramatic, with amazing aplomb. As her lover, mezzo Rihab Chaieb, working a pipe and an enigmatic sneer/smile, sounded properly seductive. Yet by the opera’s end, Hertzberg’s constant resort to high attacks over heavy choral music yielded near-yelling from both singers, especially Chaieb.

One of the evening’s pleasures was hearing individual strolling choristers’ solo timbres as they paraded past. But the whole evening felt celebratory: Opera Philadelphia had unveiled a third striking new work within five days.  —David Shengold 

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