PHILADELPHIA — They jump from parapets; they sniff poisoned violets. They’re shot by real bullets after they’ve been promised blanks; they’re shot by friends in duels. They’re stabbed by others; they stab themselves. They ride horses into fire; they dance ’til they drop.
The profligacy of operatic demise is the subject of Joseph Keckler’s “Let Me Die,” a performance piece that premiered on Saturday evening at Opera Philadelphia’s season-opening O19 festival and that explores how this art form is endlessly opposed to survival.
To the parade of grisly methods Mr. Keckler describes and enacts, O19 — which continues through Sept. 29 — offers three more: incineration by thunderbolt, in Handel’s “Semele”; dehydration after being freed from inside a giant orange, in Prokofiev’s “The Love for Three Oranges”; and shooting, possibly by Russian security forces, in Philip Venables and Ted Huffman’s new “Denis & Katya.”
Possibly, because it is still unclear whether Denis Muravyov and Katya Vlasova — teenage lovers who holed up with weapons in a cabin in 2016, and live-streamed on Periscope the final hours of their standoff with the police — were killed or committed suicide.
Created with Ksenia Ravvina and directed by Mr. Huffman, who also wrote the libretto, “Denis & Katya” is an immersion in this awful ambiguity; the new piece is as memorably tense and stark as “4.48 Psychosis,” Mr. Venables and Mr. Huffman’s brutal operatic study of mental illness. On a bare playing space surrounded on three sides by a low bench, with a cellist at each of the four corners of the stage, “Denis & Katya,” seen Sunday evening, uses two singers (Siena Licht Miller and Theo Hoffman) to weave together the accounts of six people near the tragic situation: a friend of the couple’s, one of their teachers, a neighbor, a journalist, a fellow student, a medic.
Each of these characters has a distinct relationship between speech and singing, Russian and English. The teacher’s melancholy, conversational lines, for example, are sung by both singers simultaneously, in English, while the neighbor’s strident music is sung by Ms. Miller in Russian, with Mr. Hoffman’s spoken English translation following behind, like a comet’s trail. The cello quartet sometimes produces an unsteady drone, sometimes spare counterpoint, sometimes strands of folk song.
Then there are spoken, unaccompanied passages in which Ms. Miller and Mr. Hoffman describe, plainly, the Periscope footage created by the young couple. Projected on a back wall are the transcripts of messaging chats, seemingly between Mr. Venables and Mr. Huffman, discussing the ethics of aspects of the opera, like whether they need permission from the 17-year-old friend’s parents to quote him, and whether the staging should include the video Denis and Katya made.
The result of all these elements is an uneasily poignant reflection on storytelling, on the possibilities and limitations of our understanding — especially across space and language in the fragmentary era of social media.
At just over an hour, with just six performers, it’s an intimate, haunting triumph. In this, Opera Philadelphia’s third year since reconfiguring its season to concentrate its offerings in a September burst, the company has shown itself ever more the New York-area heir to the old New York City Opera’s legacy. The annual O festival focuses on repertory that the Metropolitan Opera largely (and often smartly) avoids; stages those operas clearly yet cleverly; fosters contemporary work, including a healthy diet of premieres; and casts talented young singers, including lots of Americans.
City Opera’s longtime success in Baroque works is echoed in the sensitively, sumptuously sung and played “Semele.” Its stage crammed with heavy strips of hanging fabric, and costumes that resemble the one-formless-style-fits-all aesthetic of bridesmaids’ dresses, James Darrah’s production does not quite conjure the cosmic openness of one of Handel’s most vivid, voluptuous works, a dreamscape of endless desire.
No, the sensuality is in the music-making, with Gary Thor Wedow leading a performance that had both silkiness and propulsion. In the title role of Jove’s beautiful mistress, who dooms herself by seeking immortality, the soprano Amanda Forsythe sang on Saturday afternoon with breezy lucidity, shaping a character more lonesome and pensive than superficial or vain.
As both a jealous Juno and a heartsick Ino, the mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack married mellow tone with intense presence, while, as Jove, the tenor Alek Shrader had a voice lovely in declamation, if too fragile for long-arching melodies. The bass Alex Rosen was richly resonant in two smaller roles, and Sarah Shafer — her soprano bright but with warmly mild edges — was witty as Iris, Juno’s daffy attendant.
Mr. Darrah did smartly incorporate dancers into much of the action, lending a sense of flowing movement to what can often feel to modern audiences like static Handelian stage action. And the chorus was lively and precise, as it was in a very different style for “The Love for Three Oranges” on Sunday afternoon. An over-the-top satire of operatic quest narratives and would-be coups d’état, Prokofiev’s opera shoots ripe parodies of Romanticism through with sardonic punchiness and zany chaos.
Its score was treated with effective restraint and even elegance by Opera Philadelphia’s music director, Corrado Rovaris. Alessandro Talevi’s whimsical production — complete with shadow play, stages within stages, and a ribbon-obsessed cook who is, yes, also a chicken — likewise captured the surreal farce without leaving a sugary hangover.
The introductory portion of “Let Me Die” — in which Mr. Keckler describes his lifelong interest in the omnipresence of operatic expiration, and performs some examples in sonorous baritone and airy falsetto — is not without deadpan charm, though many of the dry jokes didn’t quite land on Saturday evening. Then a trio of singers — two women, one man — perform a long parade of death fragments, staged with shaggy disjointedness.
“What if we give the people what they came for, right away, over and over again?” Mr. Keckler asked in his talk, summarizing the concept of “Let Me Die.” The answer, it turns out, is not much. His mortality mélange was neither profound nor particularly entertaining.
He added that he had considered a Marina Abramovic-style endurance spectacle, performing — solo — a continuous mash-up of deaths, but then he “realized that’s not my thing.” I wish it had been; Mr. Keckler is, of course, entitled to express himself as he chooses, but that road not traveled seems potentially more risky, moving and funny than the dreary death he ended up with.
The festival continues through Sunday in Philadelphia; operaphila.org.