Philly Opera’s “10 Days” compellingly explores the notion of “madness”

Fri Sep 22, 2023 at 2:01 pm
By Alex Baker

Kiera Duffy stars as Nellie Bly in Rene Orth’s 10 Days in a Madhouse at Opera Philadelphia. Photo: Dominic M. Mercier

Opera Philadelphia’s 2023 festival opened Thursday night at the Wilma Theatre with the world premiere of 10 Days in a Madhouse. With music by Rene Orth and a libretto by Hannah Moscovitch,  the work is based on a series of articles and book by journalist Nellie Bly. In 1887 Bly feigned insanity in order to report on conditions in the notorious asylum on Randall’s Island in New York’s East River. This classic piece of muckraking journalism shone a light on the cruelty of these institutions and resulted in increased scrutiny that eventually led to better conditions and more humane treatment for the mentally ill.

Musical representation of madness is of course a perennial device in opera and 10 Days both engages with and subverts that tradition. The opera employs a reverse chronological structure, opening on Bly’s final day in the asylum where we find her succumbing to the “madness” around her. Working back through Bly’s preceding 10 days, the story slowly erodes this initial impression, finding, as Bly did in her reporting, that many of the inmates are perfectly sane (indeed some have been confined simply because they don’t speak English). Ultimately, the opera shows this is not really a story about insanity at all, but the institutional coercion and neglect enabled by the idea of “madness.”

Turning Bly’s no-frills reportage into an opera is a daunting task, and Moscovitch’s libretto invents a considerable amount of new material to varying degrees of success. Bly finds herself increasingly losing her sense of reality over the course of her 10 days in the asylum, reveals that she is a reporter, and begs for release (unlike the real Bly who guarded her identity until she left). The libretto also creates a villain, the malevolent Dr. Josiah Blackwell, who smugly patronizes Nellie and presides over a poetic sort of treatment involving waltzes that seems to exacerbate Nellie’s growing disconnect. While these devices seem necessary to realize the overall structure, they often felt a bit clumsy dramatically and overly reliant on familiar asylum tropes.

A strong cast did much to maintain the interest here. Kiera Duffy, so memorable in Opera Philadelphia’s extraordinary presentation of Missy Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves several seasons back, brought her precise, gleaming soprano and dramatic intensity to the role of Nellie. Duffy’s acting chops were particularly evident in her handling of the heroine’s reverse journey from despair to sanity.

Raehann Bryce-Davis and Kiera Duffy in 10 Days in a Madhouse. Photo: Dominic M. Mercier

Mezzo Raehann Bryce-Davis realized one of the libretto’s more successful new creations—Lizzie, an inmate who has lost her child and been placed in the asylum for little more than excessive grief. Her thrilling vocal range was put to shattering use in an extended scene describing her story and arrival at the asylum that represented some of the best vocal writing in the piece.

Dr. Blackwell’s smarmy charisma was well served by Will Liverman’s velvet baritone, though the character did not provide many opportunities for deeper exploration. Lauren Pearl was a largely silent presence as a representative of the cruel nursing staff, but was effective in several moments of physical performance and a scene where she vainly attempts to corral the inmates into singing a hymn.

Orth’s engaging score, skillfully handled by conductor Daniela Candillari, embellishes the chamber orchestra with a drum kit, piano, and various electronic effects. The relentless representation of “madness” in the score employs those electronic elements,  with the rasping drone of the strings, and ghostly offstage “voices.” A particular highlight were the sequences that incorporated haunting moments for a chorus of the women inmates, beautifully sung by the extended cast. 

In the biggest departure from traditional orchestration, a thumping electronic dance beat was incorporated in some of the most animated moments, which evoked a sense of panic, but also felt oddly dated, like industrial film music from a gritty 1990s film on the subject.

The staging, directed by Joanna Settle, successfully realized the bleakness of the asylum, contrasting exhausted crowds of inmates against violent physical outbursts. In Andrew Lieberman’s set design, action is played out against the black blank walls of a large cylinder dominating the stage with the orchestra cleverly placed on top. The set offers limited glimpses into interior period hallways, heightening the characters’ sense of exclusion from society. Lieberman’s dramatic lighting effectively placed the action in both the chilly yard of the asylum and the almost menacingly warm interiors for Nellie’s fraught encounters with Dr. Blackwell.

10 Days in a Madhouse runs through September 30 at the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia.

Photo: Dominic M. Mercier

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