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‘Sky on Swings,’ the Alzheimer’s opera, opens O18 festival with a winner

Marietta Simpson and Frederica von Stade deliver some of the most compelling work of their long careers. Sharleen Joynt of "The Bachelor" fame sings the disjunct vocal lines confidently, and often with luster.

Marietta Simpson (left) as Martha and Frederica von Stade as Danny in "Sky on Swings"
Marietta Simpson (left) as Martha and Frederica von Stade as Danny in "Sky on Swings"Read moreSteven Pisano

Gallows humor felt appropriate while walking into the premiere of Sky on Swings, an opera about Alzheimer's disease that opened Opera Philadelphia's O18 Festival at the Perelman Theater on Thursday. After all, an opera that dramatizes the tragedy of Alzheimer's could be unbearable, even when starring two of the more winning singers in the business, Frederica von Stade and Marietta Simpson. "Let's see what our futures might look like," I said to some colleagues.

Well, Sky on Swings wasn't easy. But it was theatrically true and artistically distinguished.

Art on this level may be sobering, but this degree of accomplishment is never depressing, especially in a production — designed by Andrew Lieberman, directed by Joanna Settle, and conducted by Geoffrey McDonald — that felt fully realized on every level.

Even when it veered into the abstract, nearly everything felt honest about this story of two women in an Alzheimer's ward, forging a relationship when there might seem that there's nothing left to forge.

The set, for one, created a white netherworld with billowing curtains and wiggly neon that's hard to explain but was close to ideal for an opera that partly takes place inside a deteriorating brain.  A hollow-sounding backdrop of computer-generated sounds was like echoes from an empty stairwell. The title, Sky on Swings, is itself low on literal meaning but somehow makes allusive sense.

Atmosphere aside, librettist Hannah Moscovitch used traditional dramatic devices, but used them well, with the irate children of these two women forming a solid dramatic counterpoint.

An abstract Greek chorus of singers was heard in tight, almost doo-wop harmony, but singing in sentences that they never completed. The libretto has beautifully crystallized lines, plus humor. When one memory-impaired patient asks where she is, the deadpan reply is "America."

Moscovitch and composer Lembit Beecher appear to be young for taking on such a layered and loaded subject as Alzheimer's. But the opera is ultimately a love story between two women, and one that conveys their mentally impaired circumstances through sheer intuitive instinct.

Beecher, especially, seemed to be operating with sure instincts. With an 11-piece orchestra plus electronically generated sound, he broke down the orchestra into nearly every conceivable pairing, utilizing them in ways that were anything but obvious.

Though Beecher hasn't yet achieved a signature sound, his musical invention is astonishing here, with the small exception of the drawn-out pacing of the ending.

His musical-dramatic intentions were always clear, though the musical world of Sky on Swings was never stable. Even the music for the children was fragmented by their exasperation — the other side of the Alzheimer's story.

The vocal writing for Sharleen Joynt, who plays Simpson's daughter, is perhaps the most challenging of the opera. Though opera fans are likely to be suspicious about singers with a past in reality TV (hers was The Bachelor), she wrapped her voice around disjunct vocal lines confidently, and often with luster. Daniel Taylor, who plays von Stade's son, represented a more prosaic voice of reason, and admirably stopped short of being boorish.

Unquestionably, Simpson and von Stade delivered some of the most compelling work of their long careers.

Much of Simpson's has been in oratorio, and the more formal elocution that comes with that world made her words resound with meaning. The usually plaintive voice of von Stade spewed out street language as if it were first nature.

At no point were vocal limitations apparent among these veteran singers because the total package of words, voice, and characterization was unerring. There's an old theatrical saying that when actors cry onstage, the audience does not. This was not true for Sky on Swings.