in: Reviews

March 19, 2011

Machover’s Complex, Not Complicated Robots’ Opera

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“Tod Machover’s Death and the Powers: the Robots’ Opera” reads the cover page of the program. One assumes that in opera the composer gets top billing. Yet when this ninety-minute non-stop show was over, most memorable are the triangle-headed robots, wiry Nicholas the golem, the trio of suited, bespectacled gentlemen from the Committee, and the eye-catching modernity of the lighting and set design.

When the lights went out at the Cutler Majestic Theatre on Friday, March 18, for the American premiere of this “groundbreaking” opera first performed in Monaco last year, it appeared that we were truly in for a mixed media blockbuster event. A low frequency, low decibel electronic groan sounding well before starting time now became a higher series of tinkles of machine-like utterances. From the assembled group, four robots, sleek abstract ones, took center stage. The sounds of the rollers and the sights of their flat glassy triangles as heads in the opera’s prologue continued to entertain as well as build excitement and expectation.

Rapid-fire images simultaneously projected magically in midair over the stage recounted the life of Simon Powers. All of a sudden — light! Bright, blinding white light from each side of the stage had the audience shielding their eyes. Three large panels with rows of lights in neon hues blinked. Uneasy coolness coexisted with irresistible, inviting attraction. Later, these panels formed a perpendicular line across the stage creating a viewing angle as if made by a Hollywood cameraman.

One of the most expressive moments where music and imagery became one and thoroughly contemporary was when softly skittered keyboard and mallet sounds were played as teardrops of light streamed down the panels. Another moment of newness — or at least of contemporaneousness — came with Nicholas dancing in quick quirky movements synced to the rhythms a machine might have computed. If only this had lasted longer!

From mythology to cryogenics, time and again we have heard the story of humankind’s search for immortality. Here, the libretto and story by Robert Pinsky (the latter co-written with Randy Weiner), poked a little fun and moralized too much. The story was easy to follow, perhaps a bit too easy. Why not more dialogue and presence for the oddly endearing robots (“The Robots’ Opera”) that didn’t have all that much to say or do? Toward opera’s end, a hoard of the poor and hungry poured onto stage somewhat out of the blue, literally, as the panels shifted again, exposing a vast vacant sky. These fifty or so raggedly dressed walk-ons swarmed upon Miranda, the symbol of humanity. Intensely dramatic, their intrusion seemed to me the story’s failure to work out a truly convincing solution to theatrical momentum and climax.

Tenor Hal Cazalet as Nicholas acted, danced, looked and sang stupendously; he, almost single-handedly, transported the sold-out theater through time-space. Soprano Sara Heaton, as Miranda, seemed to shift from a younger to an older daughter, but when she was on, her role as daughter to Simon Powers came alive, her voice beautifully human. James Maddalena never really had a chance to take off in his role as Simon, the key figure entering the System.

Baritone David Kravitz, bass Tom McNichols, and the fabulous countertenor Douglas Dodson lifted the seven-scene show to the top in their appearance as The Committee: The United Nations, The Administration and The United Way emblazoned, respectively, on their grey-suited backs. Here, music, words, choreography and their performance viscerally and artistically walloped punch after punch: “We demand an answer! Answer! Answer! Answer!” they repeatedly shouted in chorus.

The show does bring something new to the stage. Overall, its simplicity, directness, and “current-ness,” while not exactly groundbreaking, made for a fun and entertaining night at the opera — despite “meat” versus “light.” Machover is to be congratulated for his major effort. His recitative styled vocal lines are not something one could leave the theater humming. His blended continuum of electronic and orchestral design mostly sustained an elusive undercurrent: now you hear it, now you don’t.

The production was developed by the MIT Media Lab in partnership with the A.R.T. and will be repeated March 20, 22 and 25.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in  Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. www.notescape.net

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