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Review: ‘Elizabeth Cree’ at Opera Philadelphia

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The British statesman Winston Churchill coined the expression, “It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” He was speaking of the Soviet Union. The quotation, however, also could be applied to Elizabeth Cree, the murder-mystery opera which had its world premiere Thursday night, launching Opera Philadelphia’s O17 Festival of five productions within a ten-day period.

Daniela Mack. Photo by Steven Pisano.

Daniela Mack. Photo by Steven Pisano.

This is the fictional story of a woman who is on trial for poisoning her husband in 1880, at a time when a serial killer is murdering and dismembering innocent victims in their London neighborhood. Mrs. Cree is an actress and singer, which gives opportunity for catchy music-hall numbers composed by Kevin Puts.

Elizabeth Cree is the third opera by the team of Puts and librettist Mark Campbell, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning Silent Night in 2011 and the well-received The Manchurian Candidate in 2015.

This new opera keeps us guessing about who’s guilty of what, and is full of surprises. We may think we know where it’s heading — or are we intentionally being misled? Elizabeth Cree is filled with grisly violence, although the bloody slashings are shown behind a scrim, intermingled with the comic relief of the music-hall scenes.

Elizabeth Cree is set in a time of economic inequality and alienation, a disturbing world of dark alleyways and impenetrable fog, populated with historical figures including radical thinker Karl Marx, novelist George Gissing, and popular theater star Dan Leno (a precursor of Charlie Chaplin). All of them gather in the Reading Room of the British Museum where they discuss the urgent necessity for reform, while a police inspector targets these celebrities as possible suspects in the murders.

(Marx famously wrote, “What is one murder here or there compared with the historical process?”)

Joseph Gaines and Ensemble. Photo by Steven Pisano.

Joseph Gaines and Ensemble. Photo by Steven Pisano.

The exceedingly talented cast is headed by mezzo Daniela Mack, whose previous work in Handel at Santa Fe barely prepared me for this star turn. She dominates the action with her dramatic intensity and soaring voice. Tenor Joseph Gaines is spectacular as the music-hall comedian, a triple-threat with his acting, dancing and singing. Baritone Troy Cook uses his resonant voice superbly as the husband John Cree. Daniel Belcher, Matt Boehler, Deanna Breiwick, Jason Ferrante, Jonathan McCullough, Maren Montalbano, Melissa Parks, Thomas Shivone and Daniel Taylor complete the versatile cast.

Puts’s orchestral writing supplies colorful mood — and horror — while his vocal writing is melodically singable. The characters are given grand solo opportunities. When we see a work labeled as a “chamber opera” we imagine delicate orchestration, primarily with soft strings. Puts’s score for 16 players, however, is deliciously variegated. The orchestral sound has rich and colorful texture, with good use of snarling brass. Corrado Rovaris conducted the riveting performance.

David Schweizer (with years of experience for Joseph Papp and Lincoln Center) directs the 28 scenes with fluidity, moving rapidly among courtroom, police station, music hall, the streets of London and the British Museum. Set and costumes were designed by David Zinn, choreography is by Jesse Robb, and the crucial projections are by Alexander V. Nichols.

After the real murderer or murderers are revealed, you may wonder if there’s a reason to see the opera a second or third time. Indeed there is. After all, we go back to Rigoletto even when we know who’s in that body bag. Elizabeth Cree is worth repeated viewings for its vivid characters, ingenious development and gripping music.

Running Time: 95 minutes, with no intermission.

Daniela Mack and Troy Cook. Photo by Steven Pisano.

Troy Cook and Daniela Mack. Photo by Steven Pisano.

Elizabeth Cree plays through Saturday, September 23, 2017, and is presented by Opera Philadelphia at the Perelman Theater of the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts – 300 South Broad Street in Philadelphia, PA. Tickets may be purchased online.

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