August 16, 2018
Lauded as “one of the most creative and ambitious companies in this country” (New York Times), Opera Philadelphia justified that reputation once again when it launched its inaugural Festival O last season; the Washington Post found it “one of the most enjoyable additions to the fall calendar in years,” and the Philadelphia Inquirer noted the festival’s ambition “not to follow taste but to lead it.” The second edition, O18, comprises five operatic happenings – two world premieres, two new productions, and a three-part cabaret event – at multiple venues across the city from September 20-30. Among the new productions is Ne Quittez Pas, director James Darrah’s new site-specific reimagining of Poulenc’s 1958 monodrama La voix humaine, based on a play by Jean Cocteau. Presented at Philadelphia’s Theater of Living Arts, Darrah’s unique production adds a cabaret-style prologue of Poulenc art songs on texts by Guillaume Apollinaire and others, as well as additional poetry by both Apollinaire and Cocteau, expanding the one-act monologue to an evening-length presentation. Starring as La voix humaine’s sole character is Grammy-winning powerhouse soprano Patricia Racette, with the prologue sung by Edward Nelson, praised by Bachtrack for a “ringing baritone” that is “a thrill to listen to.” The production is led by music director and pianist Christopher Allen, winner of the 2017 Sir George Solti Conducting Award, and he and Nelson are both making Opera Philadelphia debuts.
James Darrah’s world-premiere production of Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek’s Breaking the Waves, which opened Opera Philadelphia’s 2016 season, was a runaway success, scoring a nomination for the International Opera Award for Best World Premiere and winning Best New Opera for 2016 from the Music Critics Association of North America. For his return to the company, Darrah has conceived an original, site-specific take on Poulenc’s monodrama La voix humaine, setting the opera in a Paris nightclub in 1980 with a single piano in place of the orchestra, and producing it in Philadelphia’s Theatre of Living Arts, a former movie theater turned concert venue. The opera is a one-woman tour-de-force chronicling the devastating phone conversation of a woman desperate to win back a former lover who has moved on. As Cocteau explained of his play: “The telephone is sometimes more dangerous than the revolver, its tangled cord drain[ing] us of our strength, while giving us nothing in return.” Patricia Racette has already won accolades for the role: in a previous production, the Chicago Tribune praised her “deeply poignant performance as the unhappy heroine of Poulenc’s setting,” in which she “colors words with supple phrasing, velvety tone, and excellent French diction.
For this production Darrah has also chosen, unusually, to provide some insight into the gentleman on the other end of La voix humaine’s one-sided telephone conversation, adding a prologue of Poulenc art songs and additional poetry; the implication is that the young man performing the songs – baritone Edward Nelson – is La voix humaine’s invisible presence, and the song cycles he performs are chosen so as to flesh out this possibility without coming to any conclusion. Three additional bilingual actors supplement the prologue, creating what Darrah describes as a scenario that, without creating any explicit links, “seems to linger in the second half.” Poulenc called the opera a “musical confession;” Darrah’s prologue hints at what he, or Cocteau himself, might have left unconfessed.
Darrah also has a further ambition for Ne Quittez Pas: the production is being used as the basis for an art film adaptation that he is producing in tandem with the live version but filming separately without an audience, with an eye toward using the vocabulary of art film to bring an organic dramatic sensibility to the heightened drama of the opera stage. As he says of this part of the project:
“I think opera is a very strange thing to film. At its heart, it’s a super-human freak show. You’re watching people sing very loud, often very intense, hyper-theatrical things. Filming that isn’t very interesting to me because you have to find a way to film it so the theatricality of it makes sense. And that’s hard to do, which is why it tends to be done as a documentary. I thought, if we film this as an art film, experimentally and psychologically, there are things we can’t do with a live performance. The use of a camera and cinematography opens up a whole bunch of possibilities to tell the story in a really cool way.”
Darrah’s team is thus designing a theater piece and a film at the same time, making some technical adjustments along the way, but with the intention of keeping many elements the same onscreen. The team includes lighting designer Pablo Santiago and costume designer Chrisi Karvonides, both of whom are longtime Darrah collaborators who also contributed to the success of Breaking the Waves. Production designer Tony Fanning, whose credits include Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, Amistad and Straw Dogs, is a new collaborator for Darrah, and is making his Opera Philadelphia debut. Both Karvonides and Fanning are also Emmy Award-winners. The film will be edited by Adam Larsen, a filmmaker himself and the projection designer for Breaking the Waves.
About Opera Philadelphia
Opera Philadelphia is committed to embracing innovation and developing opera for the 21st century. O17, its first annual season-opening festival, was welcomed as “one of the most enjoyable additions to the fall calendar in years” (Washington Post). Now the 2018-19 season kicks off with O18, comprising five operatic happenings – two world premieres, two new productions, and a three-part cabaret event – at multiple venues across Philadelphia. The festival sees Lembit Beecher and Hannah Moscovitch, the team behind O17’s I Have No Stories to Tell You, return for the world premiere of Sky on Swings, a chamber opera exploring the impermanence of memory, starring Frederica von Stade and Marietta Simpson. Anthony Roth Costanzo headlines the world premiere of Glass Handel, the immersive, multidisciplinary operatic installation he is creating with transmedia specialist Visionaire at the Barnes Foundation. New productions include Brenda Rae singing the title role in Laurent Pelly’s new mainstage production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, and Ne Quittez Pas at the Theater of Living Arts. The latter venue also hosts Queens of the Night, a three-night cabaret takeover starring Opera News Award-winner Stephanie Blythe and self-described “drag queen king” Dito van Reigersberg. Described as “the very model of a modern opera company” (Washington Post), Opera Philadelphia was the only American finalist for the 2016 International Opera Award for Best Opera Company. For more information, visit operaphila.org.
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Opera Philadelphia’s Ne Quittez Pas: A Reimagined La voix humaine
Music by Francis Poulenc; libretto by Jean Cocteau
Based on the play by Jean Cocteau
Sep 22, 23, 27, 29, 30, 2018
Theatre of Living Art
Elle: Patricia Racette
Le Jeune Homme: Edward Nelson*
The Owner: Ames Adamson*
Elizabeth/Lise: Mary Tuomanen
Music director & pianist: Christopher Allen*
Director: James Darrah
*Opera Philadelphia debut
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© 21C Media Group, August 2018