And opera needs works like “10 Days,” which treat the medium with affection and respect while shattering tropes throughout history. This adaptation of Nelly Bly’s nineteenth-century journalistic report of the same name questions the nature of madness—and who has the authority to identify it—in an art form that subjects its heroines to many of the same horrors Bly witnessed on Randall’s Island . where she was undercover and pretended to have a mental illness in order to be briefly institutionalized.
Orth’s score has its problems. The use of electronics can seem old-fashioned, and the musical shorthand for madness and fear – jittery phrasing, haunting choruses – borders on parodic and cliché. At its best, though, it captures a tension that has long made opera disturbing, the way a mad scene, for example, can be something of crushing beauty and breathtaking athleticism, but also of undeniable misogyny.
Because this is an opera that fluctuates between beauty and terror – seamlessly led by Daniela Candillari, who leads an ensemble of ten instrumentalists. The patients (members of the Opera Philadelphia Chorus, conducted by Elizabeth Braden) can sing the same hymn with serenity in one scene and with chaotic dissonance in the next, with little clue as to which is the truest rendition. The villain, Dr. Josiah Blackwell, played with haunting warmth by baritone Will Liverman, is given a gentle melody over an unstable waltz that shifts from 3/2 to 2/2 again and again.
Joanna Settle’s production at the Wilma Theater unfolds around an Andrew Lieberman unit, a cylinder cut into quadrants by two intersecting corridors, which begins to feel suitably unchanging and limited over the opera’s ninety minutes. In this space, Bly—the soprano Kiera Duffy, whose clear sound alarms the lyricism of her role—meets women who are less insane than their diagnosis, and a nurse (Lauren Pearl, an indelible presence with limited vocal material) who seems just as tormented as they are.
The most tragic of the patients is Lizzie (the mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis, who sings with a lush and moving elegance that would make her ideal for mid-20th century American opera). Her repetitive chatter comes logically into focus with a long, crushing aria about her daughter’s death. You come to the frustrating realization that Lizzie, like the Chinese woman who explains her common sense in a language no one else can understand, or like Bly herself, doesn’t belong there. She’s just sad.
In a score of dance-beat non sequiturs and eclecticism, her aria was a testament to the power of a direct pleading, flowing melody – the kind of music you get from more traditional fare like Verdi’s ‘Boccanegra’, which premiered at the Academy. music on Friday evenings.