PHILADELPHIA – Frederica von Stade sat on a table singing, her face filled with fear and wonder, her character unsure where she was going and where she had been.
Nearly a half-century after her professional debut, the 73-year-old teamed with fellow mezzo Marietta Simpson for a mesmerizing performance Thursday night in the world premiere of “Sky on Swings,” Lembit Beecher’s joyful and disturbing chamber opera about two women deteriorating from Alzheimer’s disease.
Commissioned by Opera Philadelphia for the first night of its season-opening O18 festival, the 78-minute work debuted on the eve of World Alzheimer’s Day. It explores the cognitive decline of Danny (von Stade) and Martha (the 59-year-old Simpson), whose disease is more progressed.
In the third chamber opera by the 37-year-old Beecher and librettist Hannah Moscovitch after “I Have No Stories to Tell You” and “Sophia’s Forest,” jarring keyboard notes and pizzicato in the 11-piece orchestra punctuate melodic singing to create a disorienting intensity.
“There was a feeling that the orchestral music in the piece needed to be about disintegration or degeneration in some way,” Beecher said Friday.
Moscovitch’s libretto explores the place of the elderly in a society with longer life spans, much like Alan Bennett’s “Allelujah!” which opened at London’s Bridge Theatre in July. But while Bennett sets his play in the specific locale of a Yorkshire hospital and has sharp political commentary about cuts to Britain’s National Health Service, Moscovitch focuses “Sky” on the collapsing minds of the two principal characters in their individual homes and a nonspecific facility.
Danny’s son Ira (tenor Daniel Taylor) and Martha’s daughter Winnie (soprano Sharleen Joynt) depict the frustrations of caregivers, and a chorus of four elders adds pathos by voicing diminishment in clinical and practical terms.
After Danny is unable to remember where she parked her car, Ira asks her to repeat 10 nouns. Shattered when she realizes that she is impaired, Danny bemoans her inability to recall appointments, yet touchingly reveals: “I remember pop’s shaving cream/ I remember the smell of his face/ I remember the way you looked when you were born Ira/ And my first house/ And my first kiss.”
“It transcends sanity to a certain extent,” von Stade said. “It’s what’s so marvelous about human nature, that even with this debilitating disease there are still great human touches that shine in spite of it.”
Director Joanna Settle has Danny and Martha sing as if to themselves and to all, much like a Shakespearean soliloquy. There wasn’t a murmur in the crowd at the Kimmel Center’s 550-seat Perelman Theater.
“To experience the silences from the audiences was very, very impactful,” Simpson said.
Von Stade, who debuted in 1970 at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, had two aunts die of Alzheimer’s.
“I find it very emotional to do it, especially I think at my advanced age,” she said. “It’s very pertinent.”
Andrew Lieberman’s minimalist sets dominated by whites and greys include a line of twisted neon and a projected shadow that morph from words to squiggles and back. Choral passages turn into mumbles, and character phrases become disjointed.
“Memorizing text for someone who’s losing their mind — trying to find a pattern where there’s not an obvious pattern, that is difficult,” Simpson said.
There are four more performances through Sept. 29.