O17, Opera Philadelphia’s Fall Festival, was launched last night in the stylish and acoustically-warm Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center. Over the course of its twelve days, the city will stage 31 performances across a variety of venues. Does opera have a future? Can opera reach new non-traditional audiences? Can new works inspire the cult loyalty that the old classics so effortlessly possess? The Fall Festival is Philadelphia’s answer to those questions, and the overall tone, evident in the General Director, David Devan’s excitable gala-night speech, was that it was doing just that.

Troy Cook (John Cree) © Steven Pisano for Opera Philadelphia
Troy Cook (John Cree)
© Steven Pisano for Opera Philadelphia

Tonight was a Philadelphia première, in the staging of a twisted Victorian penny-dreadful, Elizabeth Cree, based on Peter Acroyd’s novel of the same name. It was engaging as a breathtakingly tabloid piece, and thought-provoking too, inviting a reflection upon the connections between the first era obsessed with media sensationalism and our own, even more saturated in its addiction to News.

Daniela Mack was a dazzlingly vibrant Elizabeth, her angry mezzo-soprano coloratura indicating her character’s imbalance from the first. Her voice dominated the theatre with ease, just as her persona dominated the action, inveigling her way into the musical hall, into ‘respectable’ marriage complete with trailing purple bustle, into murder. Her end was truly maniacal. Who is Elizabeth anyway? For that we had to wait till the end. Meanwhile, Troy Cook was the seemingly respectable Victorian gentleman John Cree who was the diary-writing psychopath behind the Limehouse butchery. His rich baritone chillingly sung his victims – projected on screen behind in shadowy forms – to death. The most ghastly, that of the children, was left (thankfully) unsung.

Joseph Gaines (Dan Leno) and Daniela Mack (Elizabeth Cree) © Steven Pisano for Opera Philadelphia
Joseph Gaines (Dan Leno) and Daniela Mack (Elizabeth Cree)
© Steven Pisano for Opera Philadelphia

Tenor Joseph Gaines, as the music-hall comic Dan Leno, was every inch his camped-up real life inspiration, from his Cockney maid persona with braids jutting out from the side of his head to his po-faced corralling of the troupe, when conversation became vulgar, into morally ‘higher ground’ (a refrain so funny in its mealy-mouthed respectability, as to give rise to a loud chuckle each time it came around). Leno got to present to the audience what message they were meant to take home, a message which basically went something like this: Life is often crazy and evil, but there’s always a laugh to be had, and anyway, everything can be re-run on stage for the benefit of the audience, so ‘here we go again’.

Daniela Mack (Elizabeth Cree) and Troy Cook (John Cree) © Steven Pisano for Opera Philadelphia
Daniela Mack (Elizabeth Cree) and Troy Cook (John Cree)
© Steven Pisano for Opera Philadelphia

There were strong moments in the choral responses to both comic and murderous action; the chorus were meant to represent us, the audience (of theatre? of life?), on whose judgement actors, writers and thinkers depend. Their horrified unisons, the cacophony of their distress, repeated ad nauseam. Indeed, here we go again – from the inert body of Elizabeth hanging on the rope as we entered the theatre to the musical-hall version of the Cree’s macabre antics at the end, the cycle of the judgement of publicity formed a disturbing whole. Is the chorus of horror also a chorus of legitimation? Are we possibly entertained by it all, even the Limehouse Golem? We are never far from newspapers or posters, informing and ‘advertising’ events;  David Zinn’s clever set design insured that.

Nor are we far, for that matter, from the Library. Real-life characters such as Karl Marx and George Gissing (a Victorian novelist), seemingly absorbed in their books in the Reading Room of the British Museum, are also, in their way, seeking an audience. The common thread between psychopathic murderer and Communist ideologue is, without doubt, publicity. All is done for notoriety. John Cree comments that one of the murders made for a “delightful spread in The Police Gazette”. The ‘air itself’ as the collective whole sings towards the end is ‘one vast library’. Words, words, words.

Melissa Parks (Doris) © Steven Pisano for Opera Philadelphia
Melissa Parks (Doris)
© Steven Pisano for Opera Philadelphia

With 28 scenes in its one Act, this is busy choreography, and busy music. Kevin Puts' score matches the thriller content in its energetic soundscape and in its fast-paced constant pulse, kept regular under the baton of Corrado Rovaris. Mark Campbell’s libretto is verbose; articulation was clear, and when remembered, Cockney.

Spoiler alert: the denoument is an extraordinary inversion where Elizabeth herself, on the eve of her execution for the poisoning of her husband John confesses to a ) being a man b) being the Limehouse murderer her(him)self and c) to writing her husband’s ‘murderous’ diary so as to incriminate him. The upheaval might have been a reach too far for some; I overheard one attendee saying ‘I gave up trying to work it out, so I put it down to Melodrama’. And that precisely was the point, for given the insatiable desire for notoriety, who is to say whether or not Elizabeth is faking her last confession? Is it all a publicity stunt? Why stage anything less?