Opera often thrives on unspeakably dark humanity. But even by those most lurid standards, the first premiere in Opera Philadelphia's O17 Festival had a high corpse count, an ending full of black-humor giggles, and a self-righteous confidence that invites even the squeamish to enjoy blood, guts, and dismemberment at Thursday's festival-opening performance at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater.
The opera was Elizabeth Cree, and you might not guess that this murder-mystery/courtroom drama was on its first outing, so keen was the suspense, pacing, and plot twists. Composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell reinvented their creative selves in a piece that had little resemblance to their previous, Pulitzer Prize-winning collaboration, Silent Night, about a high-minded World War I cease-fire.
Nobility of any kind has no place in this adaptation of the Peter Ackroyd novel The Trial of Elizabeth Cree. Murders are gleefully detailed, but with a dark sociological undercurrent in Dickensian England, where human life is seemingly considered worthless.
The narrative bounces between Elizabeth's trial for the murder of her husband and flashbacks to her past as an abused child, vaudeville performer, and trophy wife, told in 29 tight scenes contained in a 90-minute, intermissionless run time. Puts formulated a canny musical manner that had the orchestra constantly bubbling, pulsating, simmering, and rippling as a frame for pithy vocal lines, occasionally recalling John Adams-style minimalism at high-velocity moments.
Sparingly used, out-of-left-field dissonances gave the murders a near-physical impact. Varied orchestral textures and momentary dips into minor keys suggested that certain stage occurrences were not what they seemed.
For all of Elizabeth Cree's grand opera scope, with three-dimensional human beings and the culture around them, there was also chamber-music spareness when the music scaled back into a lonely wind solo that was only slightly propelled by a barely sketched rhythm.
It's a triumph of strategy — underscored by Corrado Rovaris' conducting — that also felt emotionally detached, until you realized how completely you were taken in by everybody's plight. A few of the scene endings fizzled in their final seconds, and plot points could be too efficient to be true. Operatic greatness probably wasn't achieved here. But I'd recommend this to anybody with a taste for sophisticated music theater, particularly since the rest of the package is first-rate.
You might initially wonder whether the lead singers were miscast. As Cree, Daniela Mack was too vocally formidable to be a waif, and as her husband, Troy Cook, sang too heroically to be a scoundrel. But such judgments are premature, since the audience doesn't really know what these people are until the very end. The clearly drawn secondary characters were well-sung by Deanna Breiwick as Aveline (the maid who knows everything) and Joseph Gaines as music-hall comedian Dan Leno.
And how might the squeamish be catered to in such a grisly story? The blessedly functional David Schweizer production uses screens, projections, and shadow play for the bloodiest parts, leaving nothing to the imagination (even a cutoff penis), but maintaining unreal abstraction. It's all so shamelessly frank, how can you look away?
Opera Philadelphia production plays Sept. 16, 19, 21, and 23 at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater.