As chaos coalesced in the decoratively polychromatic Emerson Paramount last night, slam, bang, pow, wow, kaboom went the sound and Licht(enstein) of Cerise Lim Jacob’s Cosmic Cowboy in a Bayreuth meets Hayden Planetarium mashup of myth, madness and quotidian. Animated lip-synching cartoon superheroes who doppelganged the principal singers and dancers (galumphing to physicalize the thoughts of the singers on stage), appeared too cute by half at times, but maybe that was the comic book-cosmic point.
Composer Elena Ruehr showed us a great new groove. Her strongly useful music responded with expansive drama and complete seriousness to Jacobs’s libretto: ripped from sci-fi, awoken with current events, borrowed from Sumerian mythology, and rife with her patented metaphysical musings. The show grabbed us and never let go, provisioning the theater with striking planetarium projections replete with fantasy gods and goddesses, doubling animated chipmunk superheroes, a libretto channeling virtual verismo, and an irresistible and accessible, mellifluously modal score larded with a Tristan and Isolde love duet, Purcellian and Bartokian choral numbers as well as dramatically underlined murderous rage. But at the heart of the opera virtually nonstop emphatic and stentorian singing kept us riveted. Indeed, the universe creator and savior Tia, as dramatically sung by Carami Hilaire, unleashed from the magic fires of chaos a Brunhilde for our times.
But how are we meant to take the grab-bag tale? It certainly wasn’t played for laughs, but the dialogue and premises of continuous creation and destruction left us wondering, ‘Do we wince, cry, or shake our heads?’ Is it Jacobs’s Ouroboros all over again? In various guises characters spill their seed, gestate multitudes, and destroy same while the sometimes human and at other times Godlike characters disputed among one another, and in the last act with corporate colonizers and terraformers of Mars. The title character, an automaton male soprano does an Olympia number while engaging in a poignant love duet with the mother of the universe. After three acts of creation, love and mayhem, Marduk casts his fatal net, but Tia has stolen his scepter. The High Noon Gary Cooper duel concludes as Cooper and Tia ride off triumphant into a comet. The complete synopsis is HERE.
I would never have guessed that Elena Ruehr wrote the score. She told us how she hearkened back to her teens when she did Debussian modulations in a rock band as the stoned guitarist lost his way. She wrote lyrical parlando lines for the singers that somehow elevated the monotony of the words. And the various soliloquous arias, duets and ensemble pieces kept the action tense and exciting, rarely relaxing, except for the excerptable love duet and the delicious arioso for the “Touch me mother” dance with human and robot arm. But more was going on musically beneath the lyrically modal surface. Complex rhythms and interplay of colors provided as much interest from the compact forces as larger pit bands often convey. Angry and forceful music for these superheros and villains contrasted with innocent children’s yearnings and corporate banality. From the Juventas New Music Ensemble in the pit, the ubiquitous timpani part cast its strokes of fate into a sonic net strung up by the episodic but essential contributions from the electric harpsichord, which hearkened back to the dry recitative support from the equally baroque Baroque period. Three brass players bolstered as needed. The scrawny one-on-a-part strings struggled to emerge from the pit.
Conductor Tian Hui Ng showed a clear beat with his stick and nuanced shaping with an eloquent left arm and hand. Ruehr professed deep appreciation of his work.
The principal singers all showed mastery. Carami Hillaire as Tia/Tiamat sang with brilliant force and conviction almost continuously. Her archrival Tylar Putnam (Marduk/Commander) held his ground with a polished baritonal projection of tone and character. With a perfectly focused male soprano voice and appropriately amusing attitude, Daniel Moody introduced the memorable automaton Quingu/Cooper. Some minor amplification of singers shifted the sonic perception a few times.
Writ large across the entire proscenium arch, Gregg Emetaz’s spinning, surging projections to Pirate Epstein’s computer graphics showed great technical skill in telling the history of the universe. Where else would the Mayflower morph into a cyber spaceship and oil derricks lead to futuristic constructs?
Stage director Sam Helfrich saw to the expert massing of the various contingents of the large cast while also blending the images on the scrim seamlessly with the performers. Derek Van Heel managed to light the live action without obliterating the projections.
Google Glass virtual reality boxes provided for the chaos depiction proved a tough plaything for most of us, nor did we want to use our phones during the show to read the synopsis. In the absence of printed guides, and considering all of the sophisticated projection equipment available, it would have been helpful to offer scene descriptions of the convoluted tale as well as super titling the libretto.
The run continues tonight and tomorrow. Let’s hope the voices can last.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer