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In Review > North America

Queens of the Night: Blythely After Hours

Opera Philadelphia | Theater of Living Arts

In Review Blythely Opera Philadelphia O18 1018
Stephanie Blythe as Blythely Oratonio in Opera Philadelphia's presentation of Blythely After Hours, part of its O18 Festival
Photo by Dominic M. Mercier for Opera Philadelphia

HAD YOU BEEN IN THE THEATER OF LIVING ARTS on Philadelphia’s South Street on September 24, you too would know that Stephanie Blythe bids fair to sing the best distaff version of “Nessun dorma” since the late Aretha Franklin. Puccini’s stadium favorite opened a show that ended 100 minutes later with a recap—in fact, two recaps—of the aria’s (somewhat rewritten) finale. Blythe did a pretty thrilling Canio too, though the recit of his soul-baring aria morphed into “Send in the Clowns”—a wise, proud version—before morphing back. 

What was going on? In the bearded guise of the grandiose but charming tenorissimo Blythely Oratonio, Blythe offered a bold, sometimes bawdy and occasionally rambling cabaret show as part of Opera Philadelphia’s O18. Blythely after Hours kicked off a series (Queens of the Night) of three such evenings done in tandem with actor Dito van Regersberg from the innovative local troupe Pig Iron, appearing in his legendary-in-her-own-mind guise as drag queen Martha Graham Cracker. In Blythely after Hours, Martha Graham Cracker appeared only in a video, summoning the sexually ambidextrous Oratonio to a date—the series’s last night, Dito + Aeneas.

Did you follow that? Well, we in the theater didn’t always either. The usually piquant writer/director John Jarboe, here not on best form in either capacity, offered his characteristic arch loucheness but also equally characteristic structural lacunae. Nevertheless, Blythe’s Oratonio proved good company and a vocal force of nature, despite occasionally resorting to the prompter. Called upon to pepper other songs with snatches of tenor chestnuts (a device that was hoary for Bubbles and Burnett back in 1976), the singer—who’s shown a serious gift for putting over mid-twentieth-century popular songs à la Kate Smith—really rocked out with authority and power in electric guitar-backed numbers associated with Rick Springfield (the inevitable “Jessie’s Girl”), Queen’s Freddie Mercury (“I want to break free,” which Blythe powered through superbly), and “We Are the Champions,” partially in translation by OP music director Corrado Rovaris) and The Cure (“Friday I’m in Love,” referencing the upcoming duo date). Bits of John Denver, the Beach Boys and the Carpenters also rang out. 

In “his” patter, Oratonio notably dissed “Stephanie Blythe” as a one-time romantic prospect and a contentious colleague. Yet the show incorporated some true details of the real Blythe’s upbringing—the jazz-musician father, some body image issues successfully channeled into operatic stardom when rock stardom seemed unlikely. In any idiom, it’s a hell of a voice.

Guests happened by. A white fur draped over her bloodied Lucia wedding dress, soprano Brenda Rae swanned in in high-maintenance diva mode, licensing several obvious “blood” and “madness” jokes. Accompanying herself on the piano, Rae channeled Tori Amos’s “Winter” with startling accuracy—until Signor Oratonio shut her down. Styled as flowers, excellent Curtis Institute Young Artists Ashley Robillard and Siena Licht Miller warbled the Lakmé–Mallika duet as Oratonio descanted. Justin Vivian Bond showcased trademark mordant timing in patter, though for all Bond’s incisiveness and insight as a song stylist, Blythely set the timbral bar high in their duo medley. This evening of high bars, low bars and indeed two working bars won its unquestioned star a warm and well-earned standing ovation.  —David Shengold

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