PHILADELPHIA — Over the past several years, Opera Philadelphia’s Festival O has become one of the most anticipated events in the world of opera. This year’s Festival O19 continued to carry the banner of innovation, in both its new works and its productions of classics.
The most delightfully unusual piece was Joseph Keckler’s Let Me Die (here, in its world premiere), which the creator describes as a “morbid collage” of death scenes from the opera canon. Most of the performance involves one death aria after another — some in full, some in pieces woven together. A list of incorporated works that was distributed as we entered the venue named some 49 operas, with arias by composers from Monteverdi through Richard Strauss. The pastiche of so many death scenes is at times hilarious — since the tropes of death in opera are pointedly, intentionally over the top — and at times very moving, especially given the knowledge of some of the stories touched upon, and the tragic ends of their characters.
Let Me Die also includes, near the beginning, Keckler’s thoughtful monologue on the significance of the ways death is handled in opera. Death, he says, is paradoxically “the beating heart of tragic opera” — though, of course, this could be extended to all forms of tragedy. He also examines the paradox that scenes depicting the body’s failure often require the most skilled acts of vocal athleticism, as well as the uncomfortable fact that 75% of deaths in operas befall female characters (trust me, he has counted). To none of these questions does he give a definitive answer, but he opens a space for the audience to contemplate them. My one misgiving about Let Me Die is that Keckler didn’t delve into these fascinating topics more deeply.
Another world premiere was Denis & Katya, with music by Philip Venables and libretto by Ted Huffman. An adaptation of the true story of two Russian teenagers who live-streamed their shootout with police in late 2016, this opera takes a kind of documentary form, with the two singers (in the performance I saw, baritone Theo Hoffman and mezzo-soprano Siena Licht Miller) playing various characters who comment on the events, rather than trying to reenact them. This makes the gut-wrenchingly tragic material easier to process, as the opera avoids trying to inhabit the mindset of the doomed teenagers.
The minimalist set design by Andrew Lieberman matched the stripped-down quality of the music (the only instrumentalists were four cellists, one in each corner of the stage). Yet the music has a remarkable range, with more reserved passages featuring droning notes and eerie harmonics, and others building to a frantic energy with rapid antiphonal elements. That the four cellists (Branson Yeast, Rose Bart, Jean Kim, and Jennie Lorenzo) so deftly handled this difficult material without a conductor, despite the constant changes in tempi and the need for precise cues, is a testament to their superb musicianship.
A somewhat more traditional, though no less thrilling, production was that of Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges. It’s an absolutely bonkers tale of a hypochondriac prince who is cursed to fall in love with three oranges by a witch after he laughs at her. Filled with all kinds of absurd sub-plots and diversions, it’s Mother Goose meets Luis Buñuel.
Alessandro Talevi’s staging was opulent and fittingly whimsical for the kitchen-sink plot. Some ingeniously simple elements, such as extras carrying giant clouds at full-speed past the main characters to simulate a plane flight, drew huge laughs from the audience. Prokofiev’s music is as wide-ranging as the story itself, careening from lush romanticism to crunchy modernism to comical sound effects. Talevi starts the action in Europe and moves the second half to America, reflecting the circumstances of Prokofiev’s life at the time he was composing the opera. He had fled to the US during the Russian Revolution, and found in America’s more heterogeneous society an array of musical and cultural influences previously unavailable to him, including jazz. The change of setting provides a smart framework that not only connects the work with the history of its composition, but also provides an organizing principle for the purposefully haphazard plot.
All four of the performances I saw at Festival O19 were exceptional, but for me, the most extraordinary one was of Handel’s Semele. Baroque opera, due to its relative unfamiliarity compared to the bel canto classics, allows directors to take more risks without contravening the rigid expectations of certain audiences. It is more than a century older than most of the repertoire one typically sees at the opera house, and yet this staging was one of the most stylish, energetic, and downright sexy productions I have seen in some time. Director James Darrah was wise to work with choreographer Gustavo Ramirez Sansano, who imbued the entire performance with movement taken from the vocabulary of contemporary dance. Every singer performed with panache, from those in the chorus to those in the lead roles. Among the most noteworthy were mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack (Juno/Ino), soprano Amanda Forsythe (Semele), and countertenor Tim Mead (Athamus), all of whom sang the extremely intricate and demanding music with the utmost precision and expressive power.
The combination in this production of virtuosic, complex order with raw, chaotic energy echoes the fusion of Apollonian and Dionysian qualities that Nietzsche saw in The Birth of Tragedy (1872) as exemplary of the best Greek tragedies. Such a combination is fitting for a story that ends with Apollo’s decree to create the god Bacchus from the ashes of the title character.
I am practically counting down the days until the programming for Festival O20 is announced. With this year’s festival, Opera Philadelphia showed us again the many things opera can be. So often, discussions around opera today center on the art form’s relevance and viability (“Is opera dying?”). Opera Philadelphia’s stunning festival makes this hand-wringing seem out of touch. Of course opera is relevant when it’s done like this, and of course audiences will flock to it when the productions are this fresh and thoughtful.
Festival O19 took place at various venues in Philadelphia from September 18–29.