Marietta Simpson and Frederica von Stade become each other’s past.

Opera Philadelphia’s great work begins, and it would be hard to imagine a more apt and poignant metaphor for the ambitious O18 Festival than the world premiere of Lembit Beecher and Hannah Moscovitch’s Sky on Swings. 

O18 means to celebrate a still-vibrant historic form, even as it pushes into new territory. Sky, a harrowing but not hopeless study of two families struggling with the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, is itself a new work with a bittersweet sense of the past.

More touchingly, the opera brings together two formidable, beloved artists now nearing the close of their careers: Frederica von Stade and Marietta Simpson. Both remain powerful stage performers with voices that astonish for their ages.

Still, the passage of time is audible—also fascinatingly different for the two. Simpson’s chest voice is awesomely plangent, and at low volume the upper register is lovely, but the voice won’t take much pressure. Von Stade’s mezzo retains (at age 73!) its beautiful color and remarkable steadiness throughout a considerable range, but when she sings quietly, there’s less sap in the sound.

This too resonates with the opera’s theme: aging is universal, but everyone experiences it differently. Both von Stade and Simpson, by the way, are exceptionally compelling actors—if anything, better than ever. It’s nice to know that age can actually enrich some of our skill sets!

But really, the most astonishing metaphor is the score. From the moment Sky on Swings begins, there’s an electric sensation of how vividly music represents the experience of Alzheimer’s. Though there are stretches of lyrical reflection, including two gorgeous scenes for von Stade and Simpson together, these mostly evoke fading memories.

More often, an agitated open-endedness can be heard in this very contemporary sound world. A downward sliding motif ends many phrases, and often fragments of melody are heard in disparate instruments (piano, harp) as though wending their way through the orchestra without ever quite joining it. Conductor Geoffrey McDonald and the orchestra deliver these textures with superb clarity.

An edgy angularity shows up in some of the vocal music too, as well as in the text. A particularly effective section finds Simpson repeating words that don’t quite add up to full thoughts.

Moscovitch’s libretto is very much of a piece with Beecher’s musical world. She writes in elliptical images with occasional flashes of clarity (as when von Stade shouts in frustration, “I’m still able, at this point, to understand what’s happening to me / And that’s a crock of shit.”).

The story itself is simple but powerful. Two women and their children deal with the daily frustrations and declines, as well as the occasional brief reprieves, that come with Alzheimer’s. Martha (Simpson) has a fairly advanced case; Danny (von Stade) has only recently been diagnosed. Martha’s daughter is all too aware of her own limited patience. (She’s played here by Sharlene Joynt, a soprano with exquisitely poised soft high notes—definitely a singer to watch).

Danny’s son, Ira (touchingly played by tenor Daniel Taylor) can barely keep it together. Danny and Martha live together in a facility, but Andrew Lieberman’s austere set and Joanna Settle’s spare direction emphasize the sense of isolation even when others are around.

To their credit, Beecher and Moscovitch do nothing to sugarcoat the awfulness of Alzheimer’s. But they also acknowledge, without sentimentalizing it, that our remaining time here can still be worthwhile. Martha believes she knows Danny from an earlier time; although the libretto implies that this is likely a false memory, it also doesn’t really matter—the two women, in these dark days, have become each other’s past.

I admired Sky on Swings enormously, and I think it’s a monumental achievement for Opera Philadelphia. On a more personal note, I’d have to say I wasn’t always as moved by it as I expected to be. The brilliance of Beecher’s score is, for me, a mostly intellectual achievement. There’s a kind of clinical distance in that brilliance.

Yet even I succumbed to the final image of Simpson and von Stade together, a moment that is immensely moving on two levels—as a piece of storytelling, and as a living tribute to two major artists.

Quite a way to get this party started!

For the second year in a row, Opera Philadelphia will boldly go where few if any companies have gone before. Between September 20 and 30, Festival 018 brings (by my count) 11 consecutive days and nine events that cover the broad spectrum of opera, and in some cases push the definition into new territory. There are traditional works (Lucia di Lammermoor) and world premieres (Sky on Swings by Lembit Beecher, whose evocative I Have No Stories to Tell You was a hit at last year’s O-Fest); famous names (including Frederica Von Stade, Stephanie Blythe, Marietta Simpson, and Patricia Racette) and young artists about to make their mark; and a mix of Philly venues, traditional and unexpected. You can find more information about the O Festival on their website.

Photos: Steven Pisano (Simpson and von Stade) Dominic M. Mercier (group).