OPERA NEWS - The Wake World
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In Review > North America

The Wake World

Opera Philadelphia

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Jessica Beebe and Maeve Höglund, Luna and Lola in The Wake World at Opera Philadelphia
Photo by Dominic M. Mercier
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Maeve Höglund with bass-baritone James Osby Gwathney, Jr., Man of the Blue House, in The Wake World
Photo by Dominic M. Mercier
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Rihab Chaieb as The Fairy Prince
Photo by Dominic M. Mercier

AFTER THE HIGHLY RESONANT testament of We Shall Not Be Moved at Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater 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 composer and librettist David Hertzberg’s new work—the third world premiere of Opera Philadelphia’s O17 Festival—shared an imagistically rich evening. 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-shaped Annenberg Court. The production was part fairy tale, part Carnival of Souls remake, 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 near 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 near-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 itself. Vocally, the best writing was for the chorus; Elizabeth Braden, OP's valiant chorus director, led both singers and a crack chamber ensemble with balancing command. 

The most radiant solo singing came from soprano Jessica Beebe as Luna/Hecate, but central pair of principals 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 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 premiered a third striking new work within five days.  —David Shengold 

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