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Review | A reporter feigned madness to expose abuse. Now it’s an unnerving opera.

PHILADELPHIA — On Thursday night, Opera Philadelphia opened its Festival O23 with the world premiere opera “10 Days in a Madhouse” from composer Rene Orth with a libretto by playwright Hannah Moscovitch. The festival, which runs through Oct. 1, also includes a main-stage production of Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” and tenor Karim Sulayman’s “Unholy Wars” as well as recitals at the Academy of Vocal Arts and Curtis Institute of Music.

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Orth’s opera tells the story of journalist Nellie Bly, who, in 1887, penned an exposé on inhumane conditions at an all-female asylum on Blackwell’s Island in New York City (now Roosevelt Island). To do this, Bly feigned madness to gain entry as a patient.

“10 Days” is a short work that attempts (and accomplishes) quite a bit in its time-smudging 90 minutes. But perhaps what it does most effectively — especially in the context of an opera festival in 2023 — is offer a not-too-tacit critique of the whole ballgame. After all, madness as a prerequisite to entry into a world of unrelenting mistreatment isn’t exactly exclusive to 19th-century asylums. It sounds a lot like the world of opera.

The operatic canon represents a long lineage of women pushed well beyond the verge of a nervous breakdown. Entire techniques are devoted to operatically falling apart. A diva seemingly must submit to a man’s idea of a woman’s dysfunction to have her moment. Whether we’re talking the blood-soaked bride of “Lucia di Lammermoor” (“Il dolce suono … Spargi d’amaro pianto”), or Ophélie’s gentle unraveling in “Hamlet” (“A vos jeux, mes amis …”) or every Elektra ever, the overplayed archetype of the madwoman sits at this opera’s core and stands in its crosshairs.

Even the text of the libretto seems weary of the trope. “Some cry quietly to themselves. Some are eerily still, and don’t blink as much as they should,” reads one stage direction describing the residents of the asylum. “You know: mad.”

But “10 Days” also questions the nature of madness — what it is, who suffers from it, what makes up a “cure.” To tell Bly’s story (and turn some psychological screws of their own), Orth and Moscovitch indulge their own respective devices.

For Moscovitch, it’s an inversion of the tale’s chronology. We begin at the end of Bly’s stay and work toward her arrival.

For Orth, it’s bifurcating the score into two distinct “sound worlds” that gradually grow less distinct: There’s a constant push-and-pull between the sound of an intimate chamber orchestra — with all its familiar contours and comforts — and an unpredictable palette of stark electronics, designed to suggest the terrain beyond sanity. Meanwhile, the haunting voices of a chorus of nine other patients facilitates a dreamlike blur between the two worlds.

Taken together, these intertwined techniques are unnervingly effective, situating the entire opera on what feels like a precipice. The composure of the libretto’s language, for instance, seems to gradually recollect itself from near-complete collapse as we move toward a more stable (and naive) Nellie, sung with incisive precision by soprano Kiera Duffy.

Likewise, the music introduces itself as a twist of confusions and intrusions and gradually gathers itself. Under the baton of Daniela Candillari, the ensemble swerved from lush, harmonically rich embraces of memory into disconcerting panic attacks of sound effects — diving strings, nervous pianos, uneasy coils of clarinet and flute.

And as the acoustic instruments veered toward unnatural sounds, the electronics in turn aspired toward the visceral: The loud thuds of sub-bass delineating the passing days in the asylum registered in your ribs, while pin-thin tinnitus tones made the room feel freshly concussed. Strained hymns sung by the patients felt like frayed tethers to their respective pasts. More than one waltz was derailed by disruptive outbursts of dubstep. Your wits in this opera are not yours to keep.

Much of the credit goes to the singers, who have their work cut out for them as actors, armed with Moscovitch’s libretto of looping questions (“What time is the boat?”), repeated demands (“Let me out!”) and single syllables — mezzo soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis coaxed unfathomable depth from what amounts on the page to a monosyllabic murmur (“Wha wha wha wha wha …”)

Duffy made an arresting Nellie, the scaffolding of her stability reassembling itself as we move back in time. (To that end, she even managed the tricky task of acting like she was acting like she was mad.) Orth might have given us more to hear of Nellie’s life outside of the asylum and before her assignment, which might have opened an opportunity to showcase Duffy’s tone over her dexterity, and raised the stakes of her captivity.

Nellie’s companion patient in the asylum, Bryce-Davis’s broken Lizzie, was my favorite turn of the night. She’s an actress in her eyes, effortlessly evocative and unflinchingly convincing as a mourning mother. Her Day 3 aria — in which she recounts the loss of her daughter — was all the more painful for the lucidity it grants to her grief.

Baritone Will Liverman was endearingly unlikeable as the lurking, gaslighting Dr. Josiah Blackwell, whose ground-scraping growls lilted into patronizing falsettos whenever he had something particularly sinister or disingenuous to say. And the Canadian/American soprano Lauren Pearl made a strong, charismatic showing as the asylum’s head nurse, now and then emerging in the hallway cradling a crackling gramophone — one of the more ingenious experiments of sound design in the score.

Designer Andrew Lieberman’s set was both minimal and vaguely cranial — an opaque cylinder center stage, cleaved through by one of the asylum’s dreary hallways and topped like a shock of hair by Candillari’s 12-piece ensemble. Somehow, director Joanna Settle lent this single corridor the beckoning depth of a labyrinth, its path to nowhere pulling us toward it like a drain. (This show would gain a much-needed sense dimensionality on a stage equipped to revolve on a carousel.)

With “10 Days,” Orth, who recently completed a three-year tenure as Opera Philadelphia’s composer in residence, has created an opera of unexpected immediacy.

Though the role of the madwoman has long been central to the operatic imagination, the conditions and attitudes faced by Nellie Bly — dismissal, doubt, bias and abuse — remain pervasive realities for woman confronting trauma today. Bly’s room without a view grants a jarring perspective, and we have Orth to thank for handing us the keys.

10 Days in a Madhouse Through Sept. 30 as part of Opera Philadelphia’s Festival O23. operaphila.org.

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