by Steven Pisano
(All photos by Steven Pisano.)
PHILADELPHIA, PA - "Elizabeth Cree," the new chamber opera by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell playing through Saturday at Opera Philadelphia, is the rare opera that feels way too short. I wanted it to fill the stage for at least an hour longer. Everything about this production is top-rate.
Based upon the lurid Peter Ackroyd novel, The Trial of Elizabeth Cree, the story revolves around the trial of a fictional music hall performer for the murder of her husband, John Cree (Troy Cook), a playwright and critic. When John first introduces himself - as a critic - to Elizabeth one night following a performance, she immediately tells him, "I forgive you."
In the murky darkness of the opening scene, we see a shrouded body twisting on a noose in the rafters, so we know how Elizabeth's story will end. But there are lots of other murders too, and who committed them - or why - is less clear.
Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack is the powerhouse lead. Whether singing an aria of her own or just standing there silently while others sing to her, Mack commands attention in a performance that is likely to lead to larger stages. (Indeed, it already has.) Alternately dressed as an ingenue, as a man who prowls London in the night, or as a proper Victorian wife in a splendid home with servants, Mack handles all the different aspects of the mercurial Elizabeth with complete mastery.
But as good as Mack is---and she is very, very good---the opera is stolen by Joseph Gaines as music hall star Dan Leno, who was a real-life, and still beloved, star from the Victorian era in England. Gaines sings, he acts, he dances. Indeed, whenever Gaines is on stage, everything else revolves around him.
All of the supporting performers are also interesting in their own right. Particularly noteworthy are Daniel Belcher as Inspector Kildare from Scotland Yard, who leads the police investigation into the grisly murders, and Deanna Breiwick as Aveline Mortimer, an erratic music hall performer who works in the Cree household as a sassy maid, and is even offered up by Elizabeth to her husband as sexual candy when she refuses to consummate their marriage.
Some of the characters in this story are fictional, but others are very real historical persons. Among the possible witnesses or suspects in the murder investigation are Thomas Shivone as the political theorist Karl Marx (who tells the inspector that his name is spelled with a K, not a C), and Johnathan McCullough as the novelist George Gissing, both of whom are known denizens of the Reading Room at the British Museum, which the inspector has linked as a possible connection to the Jack-the-Ripper-type killer called the Limehouse Golem.
In a prolonged sequence recounting many of the murders, we see John Cree sitting at his writing desk in the night, supposedly writing in his diary ("I feel a murder coming on"), sometimes growing animated, other times recounting morosely, as he describes the murders of prostitutes and even an entire family including children, supposedly to honor the anniversary of a similar mass murder decades earlier known as the Ratcliffe Highway murders. On a screen filling the stage, victims are bludgeoned in the head or disemboweled with a knife (the murderer is shown lovingly lifting out their intestines).
The well-paced music by Puts is never showy or self-conscious and perfectly suits the moment throughout, whether it is a music hall number by Dan Leno playing the pirate Bluebeard's maid, or Elizabeth conferring with a priest before she is hung by the neck to die. And Campbell's libretto always stays on mark: serious or frivolous, revealing or concealing, as each song may need.
Some lines of the complex plot did not get fully realized, due to the opera's relatively brief length. But, with a production this good, with a full cast of such superb performances, I don't think anyone would have complained if they were made to stick around a bit longer.
Tickets are still available at the box office or here.
More photos can be found here.