Opera Philadelphia’s O17 Festival presents David Hertzberg’s ‘The Wake World’

Dreaming wide awake

Ambition has characterized the O17 Festival, Opera Philadelphia’s two-week love letter to music theater, but so has conservatism. O17’s initial offerings included a fairly straightforward chamber opera (Elizabeth Cree), a familiar work from the classical-music repertoire (The Magic Flute), and a recital by one of the world’s leading sopranos (Sondra Radvanovsky). Even the excellent We Shall Not Be Moved, while dealing with weighty subjects, operates within established musical and textual landscapes. However, convention flew out the window on the festival’s fifth night with its premiere of David Hertzberg’s The Wake World.

The Fairy Prince (mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb) guides Lola (soprano Maeve Höglund) through his palace. (Photo by Dominic M. Mercier.)

An operatic happening

R.B. Schlather, one of young opera’s leading lights, presents the chamber opera at the Barnes Foundation, where a skinny catwalk was installed across the length of Annenberg Court. Couches flanked the makeshift stage, though many audience members spent the performance on their feet, moving about with the performers. Supertitles were projected onto the ceiling; mid-performance selfies were encouraged.

The whole evening had the feel of a happening. The gallery opened an hour before the performance; donors and doyennes in thousand-dollar suits mingled with hipsters sporting man buns and messenger bags. The glamorous audience included famous Philadelphians, singers and creatives from other festival entries, and the usual suspects from the moneyed class. Once the piece began, the staging’s malleable nature created an atmosphere that was equal parts performance art, ambush theater, and bacchanal.

You’d be forgiven for forgetting you were at the world premiere of an opera. I sometimes did. Hertzberg’s unapologetically lush music complements the slender plot, which concerns a dreamy love affair between Lola (soprano Maeve Höglund) and her Fairy Prince (mezzo Rihab Chaieb, decked out in an impeccably tailored double-breasted suit). The courtship occasionally turns nightmarish, but Hertzberg steadfastly rejects dissonance. Major-chord harmonies punctuate the score, which Elizabeth Braden (the company’s chorus master) conducts with sensitivity and a fine attention to detail. But there were moments when the orchestra fell into inaudibility, lost in the acoustical clamor of loud voices and louder footsteps. I cannot imagine this being an intentional choice.

Interesting choices:
Interesting choices: "Smurf-blue and Pepto-pink." (Photo by Dominic M. Mercier)

Libretto like a lead zeppelin

The text was also frequently lost — although that’s not necessarily a problem. Working from a short story by British mystic Aleister Crowley, Hertzberg’s libretto was replete with patchy doggerel. Take, for instance, Lola’s word salad of wonder upon entering her Fairy Prince’s palace: “That I have lived/to sink but one toe/in this ablution of breathing beauty.” Even the stage directions ping high on the pretension meter: “The apparitions solemnize the secret syllables. A music of voices.” Whatever clarity of vision infused Hertzberg’s compositional style abandoned him when he donned the librettist’s cap.

Hertzberg was purportedly encouraged to use the Barnes’s art collection for inspiration, but the work seemed devoid of such corollaries. Terese Wadden’s costumes occasionally resembled outfits worn in paintings on display, with the Fairy Prince’s suited figure even invoking Giorgio de Chirico’s portrait of Dr. Barnes himself. But the rest of the chorus included singers painted Smurf-blue and Pepto-pink, as well as two unruly leprechauns who looked like refugees from a Mummers parade. The more piquant inspiration appeared to be Crowley’s liberal use of mind-altering substances.

The two principal soloists provided the evening’s only unquestionable triumphs. Höglund’s high-lying soprano attacked Hertzberg’s thorny vocal lines with abandon; I wrote “future Lulu” in my notepad. Chaieb is a current member of the Metropolitan Opera’s prestigious Lindemann Young Artist Development Program; her dusky mezzo-soprano perfectly communicated the Prince’s sensual, enigmatic nature. Their voices beautifully blended together, filling every corner of Annenberg Court.

In this debut production, The Wake World succeeds as a bona fide event. But does a great opera stand beneath all the bells and whistles of this inventive production? I’m still not sure. 

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