There were instances during Opera Philadelphia’s Festival O18 a week when you wondered precisely how weird things were going to get. It may happen to be when the mezzo-soprano showed up in a fake beard singing “We Are the Champions. ” Or possibly when that trio of youthful singers came far too close to getting amorous on stage.
Or maybe it was that instant when you had been viewing the countertenor belt outside a Handel aria and someone came up in your seat using a dolly, hoisted you up, and gearing you to a new spot from the auditorium so that you might find a different view on the show.
No doubt, it was opera odd. But additionally opera adventuresome, bright, legitimate, experimental and, on top of that, hopeful.
Philadelphia is reaffirming that classical music is a fictitious place in 21st century American art, and anyone who cares on opera should pay attention.
Plus, it wasn’t all out there. There were comforting touchstones for traditionalists in the six-event lineup, such as a production of Donizetti’s 1835 “Lucia di Lammermoor,” that was set conventionally and allowed to linger because of the full few hours (or about three times as long as all the new stuff around it).
You will find familiar faces, too, like the admired, 73-year-old soprano Frederica von Stade, who co-starred with veteran mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson in the premiere of “Sky on Swings,” a profoundly affecting job about Alzheimer’s disorder. And there was cult soprano Patricia Racette, who sang and twirled through Francis Poulenc and Jean Cocteau’s 1959 “La voix humaine” (“The Human Voice”-RRB- using a desk phone to her ear the entire time.
Like most of memorable opera moments, the fest was powered by those diva turns. Sure, tenors attracted tears and baritones rattled bones, but O18 completely recognized that opera’s bread is buttered by a certain type of anguish that just a tortured soprano can supply. It appeared publicly.
That’s the thing, for better or worse, which attracted the festival together, though in precisely exactly the same time, it effectively served to update the art form.
At one end, there was “Lucia,” set in mid-19th century Scotland and a virtual catalogue of the ways women have been abused and used for many time as its anti-heroine is forced by her wicked brother into a marriage she doesn’t desire. Powerless and lovesick, she falls into insanity and homicidal anger.
Soprano Brenda Rae sang it with delicate precision, right online of lilting and looney. She started to the border and ended up on a cliff, so her white wedding gown covered in blood, nevertheless her innocence as plain as black and white. In fact, thanks to clever design work, the rest of the cast, chorus and all, wore just black for the whole production at Philly’s ornate Academy of Music.
At the opposite end, Von Stade’s Alzheimer’s victim revealed such resignation to her destiny “Sky on Swings,” the contemporary drama from composer Lembit Beecher and librettist Hannah Moscovitch set in a memory care centre and presented in the Perelman Theater. She’s a professional researcher finally conquered by memory loss, but she doesn’t even go down without a fight.
No doubt “Sky on Swings” was the most important offering of the festival, and not merely because it explored an urgent issue. It was harrowing in the way it revealed how Alzheimer’s strikes intentionally and destroys whole families.
Composer Lambert keenly gave von Stade and Simpson purposeful notes they could sing at the advanced stage of their of vocal professions, handing off the coloratura-powered moments to the skilled soprano Sharleen Joynt, who also depicted Simpson’s mentally manicured girl. For your chamber orchestra, he built a score which allowed the woodwinds, strings and brass float on their own avenues, only sometimes finding cohesion– just like somebody who suffers from memory loss. It felt just like a historical moment.
So did the staging of “La Voix Humaine,” using the larger-than-life Racette giving all, dressed only in a black lace nightgown and faking to become part of a two-way dialog as her lover dumps her. She worked that phone just like a majorette using a baton on flame, twirling, lounging, pouting. With this romantic edition, directed by James Darrah, she was accompanied only by a piano.
The production, in the nightclub-like Theater of Living Arts on Philly’s boho South Street, was embellished with a prologue and introduced under the name “Ne Quittez Pas” (“Hold the Line”-RRB-. The additional first action was spoken and spoken around four young folks in a bar playing with forgettable games of musical and sensual dare. In addition they touch each other, often, and in romantic ways and, at one point, crossdress.
It was ridiculous, however in a Cocteau type of manner, which felt right. In addition, it was a good excuse to estimate poetry and film dialogue and also for pianist and music director Christopher Allen along with baritone Edward Nelson to weave at several of Poulenc’s art music, which they did in a manner that created everything just nice.
Much more off-the-cuff was a Monday night edition of a drag-related chain called “Queens of the Night,” that was to be presented three times during the fest with different agendas. This one had heralded mezzo Stephanie Blythe in full beard and waxed mustache portraying an ego-driven tenor talking about his conquests and mixing ancient samples into songs by Queen and other pop acts.
It was the sort of haul show you’d anticipate from an opera business, rather than, say, a fictitious gay bar, so it never really got dangerous or bawdy sufficient to shock anyone. Blythe tried, dropping expletives. Opera crowds love Blythe even by means of this form of wicked self-indulgence — and it helped that drinks were allowed in the theater.
Self-indulgence done straight came in the kind of “Glass Handel,” a gigantic production gather from the gigantic atrium of the Barnes Foundation art ministry by hyper-popular countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, operating with the “luxurious art and style multimedia company” Visionaire.
Audience members chose a seat in front of one of the four stages — one having Costanzo singing, another with ballet dancers choreographed by Justin Peck, yet another with artist George Condo painting reside along with a fourth incorporating videos made by people like Tilda Swinton and Maurizio Cattelan.
As things progressed, a team of silent people-movers, dressed in red turtlenecks, hand-trucked crowd members invisibly around the room.
Costanzo’s goal was to join 250 decades of vocal composing together by switching his set list between George Frederick Handel (born 1685) along with Phillip Glass (born 1937) and it worked surprisingly well, thanks to his own flair for intense acting along with a nimble instrumental ensemble, conducted by Corrado Rovaris.
The day was terrific rather than terrific; enjoyable while somewhat hard to find a beat on with this much happening. It was also only an hour-long, super fun and probably once-in-a-lifetime. And moving people about was brilliantly democratic. Opera houses are famously class-segregated areas: The longer you pay, the greater your seat. “Glass Handel” fell its expletive on that idea.
That’s really why O18 mattered. The people in Philadelphia have figured out how to make the classical arts appealing to a highly distracted world. If you think about risks — and some others and work don’t — you come off as human rather than elite.
It’s not only the opera doing this in Philadelphia. The city’s chief orchestra has a brand new life with charismatic music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. And dancing is breaking obstacles, courtesy of the exciting business Ballet X. It goes into the avant-garde, thanks to the Fringe Festival, which showcases, simultaneously with the stunt festival, also a well-curated lineup of unusual theater and much more.
Why Philly? Creative leadership has everything related to it. If high art isn’t rocking and rolling in your city, it’s because the proper people aren’t even responsible. But it’s also because of sponsors who fund things, civic leaders who promote them, artists who don’t even leave city when their professions get moving.
Back in Philadelphia, the stewards of now ’s nice art have set a fine example to follow. Because it is, Unusual.
Ray Mark Rinaldi ([email protected]) is a veteran arts writer and critic based in Denver.
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