Philadelphia Opera returns to live concerts with a curious double bill

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Exactly 720 days had passed since the Philadelphia Opera House last performed for a live audience – indoors – when audiences filled 1,100 seats that chilly Friday for a double bill of less than familiar works during concerts at the Kimmel Center.

The listeners must have been hungry for it. The Cycle of Elegiac Songs by George Walker Lilac (which won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize, a first for a black composer) and Stravinsky’s opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex are better known than heard, but were given full resources with a 93 orchestra (much larger than could fit in any local orchestra pit) under the direction of music director Corrado Rovaris.

It was truly a thoughtful person’s return to traditional performance: Lilac deals with the death of Abraham Lincoln and Oedipus takes place in the middle of the plague.

It wasn’t the feel-good evening of popular tunes that the Philadelphia Opera had last summer at the Mann Center with Lawrence Brownlee and Michael Spyres. Also, the more in-depth performances that accompany the staged opera were not on the cards for this concert presentation (which will be repeated at 2 p.m. Sunday). Both Walker and Stravinsky have singular musical demands that even the most ingenious performers cannot embrace with limited rehearsal time.

Walker’s Lilac appears to be straightforward with sensitive and deft vocal lines shaped around Walt Whitman’s famous “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”, showing the composer distilling the wide range of musical influences he has worked with over his long creative life. But that’s not to say the intricacies of its subtle word tweaks immediately reveal themselves. Soprano soloist Tiffany Townsend produced a charming and sincere sound but had not yet found an optimal enunciation. Plus, the orchestral writing is often a cloud of harmonic ambiguity and inconclusive endings that remind you how true heartache has no end. You got it from Rovaris, although that impression would have been stronger if the musicians had had the chance to live longer with the piece.

Was the choice to perform Oedipus — which begins with the city of Thebes besieged by the plague — a coincidence? Chief executive/president David Devan said he scheduled the work months ago, anticipating COVID would be almost gone. Turns out the astringent opening of the room felt like salt in the wounds, but only momentarily.

The biggest problem is the 1927 coin itself. The composer scrupulously wanted to avoid any trace of vulgarity, and perhaps as a result Stravinsky’s vocal writing is stilted and his dramaturgy based on Sophocles has an eccentric formality, with blocks of his chorale here and strange solos of wandering bassoon there. In Greek tradition, many plot points are not so much dramatized on stage as they are tied together in narration. Luckily, Charlotte Blake Alston brought her fierce charisma to her own English version in the story of a king who realizes he’s killed his father and married his mother.

Although the larger ensemble moments took an epic turn at the end, many other passages aimed to be musically correct rather than projecting the intent behind the notes. But if there’s one element that consistently measured the emotional temperature of the room, it was the writing of the timpani, as interpreted by Martha Hitchins. Whether conveying rapid heartbeats or distant thunder, Hitchins’ sonic and tactile variation was a continuous commentary as clear and eloquent in its own way as Alston’s.

In the Latin title role, tenor William Burden (a Philadelphia regular who’s always great to hear) delivered a cutting-edge performance, finding pathos amid Stravinsky’s dramatic distance, but also delivering the kind of demanding rhetoric which reminds you that Oedipus was indeed a king. His wife Jocasta has more sympathetic music (it seems to be from a different opera) with lush-voiced Rehanna Thelwell making the most of it. Jonathan Lemalu was a beacon of dramatic confidence as Tiresius.

Was Stravinsky’s choral writing designed to be sung with clinical clarity or dramatic momentum? Both would be ideal, but momentum was what the Philadelphia Opera Chorus knows how to deliver – and it did. The masks can be blamed for the muddy textures, but in an eerily prescient footnote, the masks are what the composer apparently intended for some of the singers. Again, composers don’t always know what’s best for them. And like the blinded Oedipus, Stravinsky often seemed to grope in the dark on this piece. Let’s have some feel-good tunes. Soon.

Tickets for the 2 p.m. performance on Sunday at the Kimmel Center cost between $20 and $209. Information: www.operaphila.org or 215-732-8400.

A live broadcast of the Friday concert is available until February 20 at https://www.operaphila.tv/featured-category/videos/oedipus-rex-lilacs

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