Philip Venables’s first opera, 4.48 Psychosis, was enthusiastically received at its 2016 premiere in London, and New York audiences were no less welcoming earlier this year at the Prototype Festival, where it had its U.S. premiere. Based on Sarah Kane’s trenchant and final play, which is about her depression, the opera had a winning foundation: the play itself served not just as creative stimulation, though clearly it provided that, but also, with minor trimming, as the opera’s text. Venables’s latest opera, Denis & Katya,seen at its world premiere by Opera Philadelphia on September 18, was not so fortunate. For it, Venables teamed up once more with the director Ted Huffman (from 4.48 Psychosis) to produce a work about the two eponymous Russian fifteen-year-olds from the provincial city of Pskov who, as was reported at the time, faced parental opposition to their relationship and holed themselves up in a rural cabin. After they were tracked down by Katya’s parents, Denis shot Katya’s mother in the hip with an air gun; an armed standoff with the police followed that left the couple dead. The police maintained it was suicide.
The incident attracted particular attention because the two streamed their three-day ordeal on the internet. Perhaps that is why the libretto fashioned by Huffman eschewed anything so conventional as having Denis and Katya portrayed by a pair of singers in favor of what he calls a “docu-drama,” with a text assembled from the distressed verbatim accounts of people close to the event—a friend, a teenager, a journalist, teachers—and spoken or sung by just two singers, a mezzo-soprano and a baritone. But the words often seemed randomly put together, negating the sense of narrative thrust, although the opera did build to a climax that was confirmed by a long period of silence after a Medic reported that someone yelled “bring stretchers.” Typically, we were told about events rather than witnessing them, which had a distancing effect.
As for what really happened to Denis and Katya, the libretto takes no position, apparently because in an era of fake news one can look to one’s own imagination for an answer. And for a tech-oriented subject, Denis & Katya is visually a low-tech affair. The film that the couple apparently generated is constantly mentioned but never seen. Nor are there meaningful images in its place. At the end there is a projection of the Russian countryside as viewed from a moving train, which was nice but didn’t tell you much. Andrew Lieberman’s decor consists essentially of a bare rectangular space, within which Huffman directed the two singers smoothly enough.
As for the music, one wished there were more of it. Performing forces were slender—just the two singers and four cellos, plus modest electronics. In contrast to 4.48 Psychosis, which had half a dozen female voices and a dozen instrumentalists, Venables seemed constricted by what he could do. Much was spoken, especially at the start, so that singing moments such as the teachers’ well-accented duet were particularly welcome. In a nod to 4.48 Psychosis, text was sometimes projected, but it was accompanied only by generic electronic beeps instead of more interesting instrumental effects. At times, oddly, when one singer sang, the other delivered a spoken paraphrase of what was sung, though this made sense when the singing turned to Russian and the spoken version became a translation. Although the shift to Russian had a further distancing effect, it supplied a jolt of operatic life when the baritone, Theo Hoffman, sang irately as a friend of the couple. Siena Licht Miller did well too, but her voice suffered more from the pervasive amplification. Most of the instrumental support was atmospheric, but near the end, as a kind of requiem that recalled a similar moment in 4.48 Psychosis, the cellos played a haunting, Baroque-like piece over a ground bass. It was the most affecting moment of Denis & Katya, but not enough to save it.