PHILADELPHIA FREEDOM

Living in New York, I admit to a bias against other cities: why visit (fill in city name) to see theater/opera/art/architecture when we’ve got it all here? But one must go where the action is, and the U.S. premiere of Hans Werner Henze’s latest opera and an exhibition of artworks by Marc Chagall and others weren’t on the docket in Manhattan, so I hopped on a Boltbus (the best travel bargain for New Yorkers to go to nearby cities cheaply and quickly) and headed to Philadelphia.

First stop was the third largest art museum in the country, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which, in addition to a rich collection of Impressionists (even with the Impressionist-rich Barnes Foundation a few miles away…for now) and impressive American paintings, has other wonders galore. In the museum’s Perelman Building is the superb Paris Through the Window: Marc Chagall and His Circle through July 10.

Comprising paintings, drawings and sculptures, the exhibit discerningly puts the accomplishments of Chagall (whose seminal Paris Through the Window, the crux of the exhibit, comes from Manhattan’s Guggenheim Museum), Jacques Lipchitz, Amedeo Modigliani, Chaim Soutine and others into the crucial cultural context of early 20th century Paris. The rich, primary colors of Chagall’s work has a playfulness that masks the tragic seriousness underneath, as his powerful Resurrection of Lazarus and emotional In The Night (an homage to his beloved wife) prove.

After a morning of art, I went to the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts for the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s final production this season: the U.S. premiere of Henze’s one-act Phaedra. Like his last U.S. premiere (Venus and Adonis, which I saw in Santa Fe in 2000), Phaedra is a hybrid, but whereas Venus was a dance-opera, this is an opera-oratorio. Clocking in at 75 minutes, Phaedra has the epic sweep of the myth its based on but also the conciseness and stripped-down drama of a master at the top of his form.

Although the music is easier on the orchestra than the singers (Corrado Rovaris conducted the formidable ensemble), the compelling vocal quartet was led by standout Tamara Mumford, who as Phaedra showed off an incredibly sensual stage presence to go with a magnificent mezzo voice. In New York, we usually see her in supporting roles at the Met; she surely deserves a starring vehicle of her own here. The Kimmel Center’s intimate Perelman Theater was perfect for Robert B. Driver’s intelligent staging of Henze’s difficult, commanding work, whetting appetites for more Henze in Philadelphia next season, when his classic, lush-sounding Elegy For Young Lovers will be presented.

I’ll be back.