United States Festival O19  – Joseph Keckler, Let Me Die: Veronica Chapman-Smith (soprano), Natalie Levin (mezzo-soprano), Augustine Mercante (countertenor), Saori Tsukada (actor & dancer), William Kim (piano), Lavinia Pavlish (violin), Opera Philadelphia, Fringe Arts, Philadelphia, 27.9.2019. (RP)
Director & Dramaturge – Elizabeth Gimbel
Musical Arrangements – Matthew Dean Marsh
Lighting – Evelyn Shuker
Costumes – Diego Montoya
Sound – Isaac Levine
Videos – Lianne Arnold
The lights went up to the sight of Joseph Keckler jumping off a parapet shouting Tosca’s defiant ‘O Scarpia, avanti a Dio!’ Keckler only fell a few inches, but he leaped with the gusto of the grandest of divas. It was the launch pad for Let Me Die, his transversal of operatic death scenes. Lots of people associated with opera have a compulsive gene coupled with a penchant for excess, and Keckler appears to be one of that elect tribe. What else can explain his creating a spreadsheet of operatic death scenes and then figuring out which scores are in the public domain?
The title of Keckler’s show is taken from an aria, ‘Lasciatemi morire’, from the lost Monteverdi opera L’Arianna, which a teacher assigned to him when he began studying voice. His morbid fascination with the role of death in opera was with him from the start. In speaking to the audience, his skills as a performance artist were readily apparent: a dry delivery laced with humor and a bit of self-deprecation. For a while I thought he would opt to be a more serious, twenty-first century version of Anna Russell, Victor Borge, Danny Kaye or Ira Siff in his Madame Vera Galupe-Borszkh guise, but instead he lay stock still and silent for most of the performance in his catapult-cum-coffin. He was ever-present, but his voice was missed.
What followed was a romp through the death scenes of some 50 odd operas performed by soprano Veronica Chapman-Smith, countertenor Augustine Mercante and mezzo-soprano Natalie Levin, all robed in sweeping, jewel-toned caftans. Some scenes were reduced to a few measures of music, or in the case of La bohème just Rodolfo’s cry of ‘Mimì’ sung over and over again, while others, notably Azucena’s arias from Il trovatore, were given fuller treatment. They were grouped under the headings of icons, couples, witches, men, last lines and immortality. That wasn’t enough structure, however, to provide context or coherence.
The kinetic pace of this operatic romp favored the familiar, as instant connections could be made with familiar passages. Chapman-Smith made the greatest impact vocally and dramatically due to a combination of voice and the excerpts that she sang. With her spiky hair and glittery persona, Levin has an edgy presence. Her voice was a bit on the wild side too. Countertenor Mercante was a fish out of water in most of this repertoire. The timbre of his voice was unsuited to the grand, tragic utterances of the romantic era, and he affected an odd aloofness. I kept on thinking of Nero fiddling while Rome burned. There was no real connection between the singers; most of the time they simply sang their allotted bits and yielded to the next one in the spotlight.
For the concluding segment, Saori Tsukada danced a long, slow procession on a bare stage. The music was not identified, but it could have only been inspired by the final scene of Poulenc’s Dialogue of the Carmelites. It’s one of the most harrowing finales in all of opera, where the condemned nuns walk to their deaths while chanting the hymn ‘Salve Regina’, their fates made clear by the whooshing sound of the guillotine. Tsukada generated more emotion in her expressive movements than the singers did with their voices, but then she was afforded the time and space to do so.
Matthew Dean Marsh had the Herculean task of arranging all of the music for violin and piano and stitching it together, which he managed to do admirably. Pianist William Kim and violinist Lavinia Pavlish provided the musical glue for this endeavor. Kim was a particularly fine accompanist, capturing the myriad of styles expertly, and Pavlish played the many solo lines that Marsh provided her with panache. Their performance of Marsh’s arrangements brought the most musical satisfaction of the entire evening.
I rather enjoyed all of this, but then I might be classified as a bit of a kook myself. Of the 50 operas quoted in Let Me Die, I had seen 42 in staged or concert performances. A few of the others I know from recordings. The snippets of Satie’s Socrates made me want to delve deeper into that score. Keckler is on to something here, but he needs to be more than an inert object on stage. Just as important, he has to make Let Me Die comprehensible to someone who likes a bit of plot.
For more about Festival O19 click here.