PHILADELPHIA — There’s the tried and true: the high notes in “Lucia di Lammermoor.” There’s the new: an opera about Alzheimer’s. And then there’s the Happening, during which men and woman in red shirts and shiny black boots scooped up audience members one by one, chair and all, on a kind of handcart and trundled them off to a new vantage point in a room that offered videos, live painting, dancing and the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo in a red costume that made him look like a giant Easter egg. Opera in Philadelphia really can claim to offer something for everyone.
Last season, Opera Philadelphia attempted to reinvent itself with a new, season-opening festival, called O, which aimed to spread opera throughout the city. It was a resounding success and a hard act to follow. This year’s iteration, through Sept. 30, seems more modest: It’s only five productions (amounting to a year’s season for some companies) in the space of 10 days. The moving chairs at Roth Costanzo’s Happening were a good metaphor for the festival as a whole: No matter where you’re sitting, you’re not going to be able to take it all in.
So I missed “Sky on Swings,” Lembit Beecher’s Alzheimer’s opera starring the beloved veteran mezzo Frederica von Stade. I didn’t see Patricia Racette in “Ne quittez pas,” an adaptation of Poulenc’s one-woman telephone opera “La voix humaine,” or “Queens of the Night,” a three-part cabaret series featuring powerhouse contralto Stephanie Blythe singing male parts with drag queens.
What I saw contrasted the traditional — “Lucia di Lammermoor” at the gilt-encrusted Academy of Music, in a production that’s going on to Vienna — and the new: Roth Costanzo’s “Glass Handel,” an ebullient cotton-
candy edifice linking the worlds of fashion, art, dance and music, involving figures as diverse as painter George Condo, Calvin Klein creative director Raf Simons, choreographer Justin Peck, directors James Ivory and Tilda Swinton, and the 23 people who did the manual labor of moving the audience members.
In this “Lucia,” the French director Laurent Pelly attempted to move Donizetti into the 21st century — not by actually transposing the action, which was set in the late 19th century, but by stripping away the layers of folklore and romance novel that adhere to bel canto opera like a varnish, and placing it in a black-and-white landscape of snow and stone.
Told as realism, without the element of romantic fantasy, the story of a woman driven insane by her brother’s ham-handed treatment becomes almost unbearably bleak. It’s one thing to watch the Mad Scene from “Lucia,” and another to watch someone appearing actually to have a nervous breakdown on stage. But this was Pelly’s whole point, as he kept probing the contrast between daydream and reality — as when the tortured lover Edgardo, the tenor, took his leave of the equally tortured Lucia in the middle of their Act I duet, leaving her to conjure up a fantasy version of him for the more tender part of the scene. And for the great Mad Scene, the stage was set for the soprano’s grand entrance, with the cast grouped around an open door and a red swathe of fabric leading downstage for her dramatic progress — only to have Brenda Rae’s Lucia run on from the side of the stage, thwarting their expectations.
Rae herself was incandescent, creating a three-dimensional character whose fluid coloratura mirrored the passionate meanderings of her mind. In the mad scene, this was underscored by the use of the glass harmonica Donizetti originally intended, which has the shivery sound of a finger on a wine glass, rather than the more commonly used flute: an effective reflection of an altered mental state.
Also a standout was Christian Van Horn as the well-meaning stalwart Raimondo. Michael Spyres has the shape and sound of a wonderful Edgardo, but he was stymied by constriction on his upper notes, and when Pelly had the cast freeze, physically, at pivotal moments like the famous Sextet, Spyres’s sound and intensity paled as well. Overall, the result was a “Lucia” that was musically competent (led well by Corrado Rovaris in the pit) and very, very dark; but that offered food for thought.
“Glass Handel,” at the Barnes Foundation, couldn’t have been more different: a pure, joyous spectacle showing a host of people at the top of their games. The whole thing was masterminded and animated by Roth Costanzo with the goal of reaching beyond the world of classical music. The result was an hour of pure entertainment whose only real aim was to dazzle and beguile.
If “Lucia” has evolved from colorful fantasy to bleakness, the Happening has followed the opposite trajectory: what used to be a gritty avant-garde event has become a bonbon for the well-heeled elite. “Glass Handel” — which will be reprised in New York in November — sparkled with wealth and color, executed at the highest level money can buy, from the costumes to the nine music videos, one for each musical selection. It also re-created the over-the-top spirit that Handel opera had when it was new and represented the height of theatrical spectacle and engagement. And it was musically excellent, making a strong case for Philip Glass as Handel’s dramatic equal, with two chamber orchestras, one for each composer, and Roth Costanzo’s rich, intense voice the thing that linked the whole evening together. True to his forbears, Roth Costanzo, in the middle of all the dancing and painting and movement, ended up being the one thing that dominated your attention.
Festival O18 continues through Sept. 30 in Philadelphia.