Elizabeth Cree in Philadelphia
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In Review > North America

Elizabeth Cree

Philadelphia Opera

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Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack in the title role of Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell's Elizabeth Cree at Opera Philadelphia
Photos by Steven Pisano for Opera Philadelphia
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Baritone Daniel Belcher and bass-baritone Thomas Shivone, Inspector Kildare and Karl Marx
Photos by Steven Pisano for Opera Philadelphia
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Tenor Joseph Gaines as Dan Leno
Photos by Steven Pisano for Opera Philadelphia

AFTER YEARS OF PREPARATION, Opera Philadelphia launched its new festival format in the intimate Perelman Theater on September 14 with the bracing world premiere of Elizabeth Cree, the first chamber opera by Pulitzer-winning composer Kevin Puts. Librettist Mark Campbell cleverly transforms Peter Ackroyd's culturally allusive novel about a Victorian serial killer into a viable, fast-paced ninety-minute entertainment. The material treats on abuse, pathology and the quest for various forms of “scientific” truth but both Ackroyd’s novel and the libretto skirt profundity for a virtuosic, 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 is not just the endearingly seedy music hall troupe that seeks applause and "good notices" but the murderer and the pursuant 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 make-up.

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 poignance 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 M.C. , 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 Jenůfa—gifted baritone Daniel Belcher uttered every syllable with relish and point. 

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Little Victor Farrell (tenor Jason Ferrante), Doris the Wire Walker (mezzo-soprano Melissa Parks), Aveline Mortimer the Wide-Eyed Warbler (soprano Deanna Breiwick), and Uncle (bass Matt Boehler)
Photos by Steven Pisano for Opera Philadelphia

Troy Cook's role as Elizabeth's doomed, unhappy husband John offered the baritone less 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, persuasive 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, towards The Rake's Progress.  —David Shengold 

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