Philadelphia — Opera Philadelphia’s 017, a festival of five operas presented in less than two weeks, certainly had range: from a traditional opera to one that combined live action and animation. However the most experimental production was given at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Entitled War Stories, this is a double bill of two one-act operas: Monteverdi’s Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda combined with a new work, I Have No Stories To Tell You by composer Lembit Beecher and librettist Hannah Moscovitch.
Monteverdi’s piece is a subject of controversy by musicologists who have nothing better to do—is it an opera or a madrigal? Both? Actually it is a dramatic scena that was published in a book of madrigals.
Monteverdi endowed this work with some innovative uses of the orchestra, such as dividing the strings into four parts instead of five, and using some new string effects such as pizzicato (plucking the strings) and tremolo, that were not readily adopted by other composers for centuries.
The libretto comes from Torquato Tasso’s 1574 work, Gerusalemme Liberata (Jerusalem Liberated). The plot is strange.
Tancredi is in love with Clorinda. When they meet in battle—how this happens is not explained—they don’t recognize each other because they are in armor. So, what else can two unknown knights do when they meet up? They challenge each another to a duel to the death and they begin to fight in the dark of the night. When the sun rises, and they are still fighting, Tancredi sees that his enemy is worse off than he is and asks the mysterious knight’s identity. Clorinda refuses and the fight recommences (remember, neither knows who the other is). Finally, Clorinda is mortally wounded and reveals herself to Tancredi, who is devastated.
War is hell.
The opera was staged in the round in a cloisters exhibit. We were seated around the perimeter but a columned structure with a fountain blocked the view when the action moved from one side of the circle to another. Besides, Mary Ellen Stebbins’ lighting plunged the action into the dark, but no sun rose at the pause in the battle. Thus, we saw shadowy figures, but little detail except for the slightly futuristic design of the armor. In an almost comical gesture, some of the cast ran around with flashlights, using them like mini-spotlights. However, some in the audience thought they might be ushers.
Craig Verm was a magnificent Tancredi. It is easy to understand how Clorinda, played by Cecelia Hall, fell for his virile presence a deep bass-baritone voice. When she was unmasked, fortunately on my side of the fountain, the look of pure love on her face as she gazed up at Tancredi was a moment to remember.
Verm and Hall also stared as another ill-fated couple separated by conflict, in the premiere companion piece. This time, it is post-traumatic stress syndrome rather than unknown identities, but the battle between them is no less real.
Sorell, played by Hall, is either in the war theater or has just returned from it. She has PTSD, for reasons only hinted at, and her husband, played by Verm, is unable to reach her to repair their relationship.
This work was staged on the museum’s grand staircase, using the levels as the various locations of the action. War on the top and home on the bottom. Verm’s perplexed husband remained on the lower levels of the gigantic staircase while Hall’s distraught wife hovered nervously from the top to the middle level. Thus, the two of them lived in different physical as well as psychological spaces.
The constant movement up and down this immense and steeply canted staircase kept some in the audience holding their breath and hoping that the agility of the singers would prevent a fall.
Beecher’s music is best described as a version of 20th century modernism. The long break between hearing the Monteverdi and this new score prevented detailed comparison between the two musical styles but it was easy to tell that they share a leanness of texture. Moscovitch’s intense libretto is set with careful attention to the pronunciation of the words by Beecher, but his modernist score sounded oddly anachronistic in this neo-romantic era.
However, we are now in an era where composers can write in any style they choose without fear of the tyranny of the hierocracy, such as the shunning that neo-romantic composers felt in the modernist epoch when the Tower of Babbitt reigned supreme.
As an evening of opera, War Stories gets mixed reviews. It was innovative to use the museum but sightlines for the Monteverdi and the long break between the two operas were unfortunate. The singing was magnificent, especially Verm, but the acting was constrained by the limitations of the venues.
But big bravi must be bestowed on O17 for presenting a world premiere, the revival of Monteverdi’s prescient piece, and the innovative use of a non-traditional venue.
This is the future of opera.