O Festival Diary—Day IV, Part II: War Stories

A sometimes-awkward evening that delivers in Lembit Beecher’s one-act premiere opera.

War Stories at the O Festival. (Photo by Dominic M. Mercier)

Between September 14th and 25th, Opera Philadelphia will boldly go where few, if any, companies have gone before—a festival that brings seven events covering the broad spectrum of opera, and in some cases pushing it into the future. There are traditional works (Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte at the Academy), new voices (We Shall Not Be Moved, which adds hip hop and spoken-word to the mix), big stars (reigning Met diva Sondra Radvanovsky in concert), and unusual venues (including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Barnes). I’ll do my best to cover as many of these events as I can. You can also find more information about the O Festival on their website.

At the core of War Stories, a provocative pairing of two works (one Baroque, one contemporary), is a haunting new opera by Lembit Beecher, which receives its world premiere here in O17.  The title is ironic—I Have No More Stories to Tell You is, in fact, full of disquieting story fragments, drawn from lived experience as well as terrified reliving. Set in the present, war dominates the lives of three character, most of all Sorrell, a female soldier now back at home and suffering from PTSD. At night, she lies in bed—though her husband tries to help her, she is largely beyond comfort. 

Beecher’s strange but beautiful sound world is especially effective in setting mood and atmosphere, but the vocal writing is also satisfying; Hannah Moscovitch’s elliptical libretto manages to capture a natural sense of contemporary speech, and at the same time function on a more poetic, metaphorical level. The three principals here—mezzo-soprano Cecilia Hall, baritone Craig Verm, and tenor Samuel Levine—are exceptional singers and actors.

So why is the umbrella evening not completely satisfying?

Some of the problem lies with No More Stories, which despite its short length takes a while to get going. But the bigger issues are related to the pairing (with Monteverdi’s Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda) and the venue (the Philadelphia Museum of Art).

Both are good ideas—it’s wonderful to see Opera Philadelphia use O17 to connect with other Philadelphia cultural institutions. And the musical/theatrical mix with Monteverdi is fascinating (Beecher sharpens the connection by using a Baroque instrumental ensemble, and both works feature the same singers). It’s also terrific to see and hear the Tancredi e Clorinda in PMA’s fantastic recreated Medieval cloister.

But in the end, though there are smart thematic links between the two works, they don’t really connect, especially as seen here, in a visually arresting but abstract production that despite some trappings of war, put me more in mind of Romeo and Juliet. Beautiful though the cloister is, sight lines are a problem for the audience.

As great as it is for Opera Philadelphia to use the Museum, the latter really isn’t a performance venue. The logistics here mean a less-than-ideal playing area (No More Stories uses the Great Stair Hall, which initially looks marvelous, but proves more awkward when the action begins), and tedious, mood-killing delays between works.

Next time I see War Stories—and I hope there is a next time, especially for Beecher’s piece—I hope it’s in an equally atmospheric, but more flexible space. What about the Philadelphia Armory?