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Relentlessly, the sands of time run—figuratively and physically—through the hands of the four performers in Unholy Wars. Buffeted by inclement weather but undaunted on Saturday night, Opera Philadelphia opened a production of this galvanizing new work, the third offering of Festival O23, now in its fifth year of garnering increasing nationwide acclaim and avid audiences.
Unholy Wars explores the rich aural and visual intersection of baroque music (amplified by contemporary musical interludes) and the Crusades, a multi-pronged military invasion titled by its European perpetrators as “holy wars.” The opera’s title and content seek to reframe our conception of the “Middle East,” a geographic misnomer invented by invaders. This multi-media work, created by Grammy-winning Lebanese American tenor Karim Sulayman (who also appears in the striking production), was crafted with his politically and culturally astute knowledge of this milieu rather than (as often the case) via the reductive gaze of the Western musical canon.
In 18 movements (some clearly delineated, some attacca), Unholy Wars musically stitches together nine recognizable and beautiful baroque pieces (vocal and instrumental) by Monteverdi, Handel, and some lesser-known composers; eight interstitial interludes by contemporary California composer Mary Kouyoumdjian; and one improvisatory section (midway in the piece) that meshes her contemporary work with Monteverdi.
Intimacy and complexity
The opera is presented in the 325-seat Suzanne Roberts Theatre, and it was a great treat to experience this complex work in such intimacy. Throughout the evening, Sulayman often takes the lead, his expressive tenor most beautifully apparent in Handel’s lyrical aria from Rinaldo's “Lascia ch’io pianga” near the show’s conclusion. But Unholy Wars offers multiple opportunities that showcase the fine work of soprano Raha Mirzadegan and bass-baritone John Taylor Ward, with ample and effective dramatic moments provided for all three singers.
Under the musical direction of violinist Julie Andrijeski, the work’s baroque sections are played by an octet seated in the venue’s first few rows and visible to both performers and audience. As well as the expected configuration (two violins, viola, cello, and harpsichord), the ensemble also has a violone (a version of the double bass) and two theorbos (large lute-like instruments), a special treat for early music lovers. Kouyoumdjian’s atmospheric contemporary compositions—an intro, six interludes, and an outro—were pre-recorded and blend seamlessly with the live music.
Beyond music and voice
But the force and substantial impact of this work is not aural alone. Every production element radiates artistry in equal measure. Choreography by Ebony Williams that enhanced the mystery of the evening is threaded throughout, superbly realized by the riveting dancer Coral Dolphin, an Alvin Ailey company member whose fluid, visceral movement is a perfect match for the work’s intensity. An especially fine example of this cross-artistic integration is "Nigra sum" (from Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine), where Sulayman’s lyrical singing and Dolphin’s sinuous movement were dramatically intertwined.
Throughout the too-short 70 minutes (with no intermission), director Kevin Newbury stages his four principals to move fluidly through a seemingly simple but effective interactive environment filled with chairs, buckets of sand, and a trough of water. And move they do. The three singers are also choreographed, singing while moving or dancing or fighting or lying prone on the stage. Not every operatic performer would revel in this kind of physicality (or the mix of “regular” operatic singing and contemporary declamation that the work requires), but Sulayman, Mirzadegan, and Ward are remarkable in their appetite, commitment, and fluidity.
And if all this weren’t enough, there is the mysterious and absolutely gorgeous visual narrative of Syrian-born artist Kevork Mourad, whose work merges live drawing, animation, and music. His mélange of exquisite Renaissance-like architecturally informed line drawings (sometimes coaxed onto the rear scrim by Dolphin as she dances) moves and merges to evoke cathedrals, mosques, cities, forests, oceans, and a fire that periodically consumes them all. Even the (very helpful) supertitles are artistically enhanced. Mourad’s images carry the opera’s message equally with its music and movement, a message that Sulayman mines deeply for multiple resonances, surely different for each person who sees it.
If Unholy Wars has any faults, they arise from an intermittent self-consciousness and a surfeit of imagination. There are so many theatrical riches (visual, choreographic, aural) and so many deeply felt and tempestuously realized performances (dance, singing, orchestral) that it was almost anxiety-producing to decide where to look and which thread to follow, leaving me longing to see it again. Here, opera itself is transformed into “something rich and strange,” a phrase from Shakespeare’s The Tempest that aptly describes this experiential work.
This production originated as a 2022 commission of the Spoleto Festival USA and was developed by Up Until Now Collective before landing at O23, so it’s no surprise that many of the performers and creative team are making their Opera Philadelphia debuts. The substantial and beautiful printed program includes an informative timeline, along with extensive historical context written by Sulayman. My reviewing colleagues have been equally smitten by the festival’s two other major offerings, Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra and the world premiere of the Rene Orth/Hannah Moscovitch work 10 Days in a Madhouse. Each of the operas is reprised this week before O23 ends on Sunday, October 1, so, tantalizingly, there’s still time to see them all.
What, When, Where
Unholy Wars. Music by George Frideric Handel, Claudio Monteverdi, Mary Kouyoumdjian, and others. Conceived and created by Karim Sulayman. Stage direction by Kevin Newbury; visual narrative by Kevork Mourad; musical direction by Julie Andrijeski. Through October 1, 2023, at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S Broad Street, Philadelphia. operaphila.org.
The Suzanne Roberts Theatre is a wheelchair-accessible venue. There is Braille signage, and assistive listening devices are available. There will be an audio-described performance of Unholy Wars on Sunday, October 1, 2023. The performance is sung in Latin and Italian with English supertitles.
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