Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Rita & The Robots: An Operatic Double Bill

The New Century Chamber Orchestra went operatic on Saturday at the Jewish Community Center with a concert of operatic bon-bons such as the Meditation from Massenet's Thais and the Intermezzo from Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana. The second half was a fully staged one-act Donizetti comic opera called Rita that has rarely been performed, probably because the three-character piece is a farcical romp about domestic violence (singers above are baritone Efrain Solis, tenor Thomas Glenn, and soprano Maria Valdes). Maybe on account of the One Billion Rising event the day before, but it was difficult to enjoy the piece, even though the music under music director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and the performers under the direction of Eugene Brancoveanu were all superb. I've long felt the same way about comic depictions of lovers hitting each other, from Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew to Zerlina's aria in Mozart's Don Giovanni, Batti, batti o bel Masetto where she pleads with her husband to beat her, to Jackie Gleason on The Honeymooners yelling, "To the moon, Alice!"

Much of this was made palatable in Rita by the charm of the performers, particularly Thomas Glenn above, who is reliably wonderful in just about every role in which he performs. In Rita, he was the tortured, henpecked second husband of the title character and he somehow managed to channel Stan Laurel into his movements so that the violence was more funny than disturbing.

The following afternoon at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, there was a live global broadcast of the Dallas Opera production of Tod Machover's recent opera, Death and The Powers.

The 90-minute, one-act opera is framed as a "ritual performance" by robots describing a moment on Earth when humanity ceased to exist and became part of "The System" instead. The old theatrical adage, "Never work with children or animals," should probably be amended to "...or robots" because they invariably steal the show, and this opera was no exception. Moving, stretching, glowing and singing, these robots also had most of the best music in the opera.

The drama enacted by human performers in the "ritual performance" are the final days of billionaire Simon Powers before he leaves the "meat" of his body and becomes a virtual mind.

Audience members were encouraged to download an Apple app on their mobile devices and tablets, where they could interact with rudimentary computer graphics which a few people described as reminding them of 1990s screensavers. What did look like magnificent fun was being in the new Dallas Opera House with its abstract chandelier above, a collection of moving, colored light tubes that became the representation of Powers in his virtual state.

The basic family drama was lightly lifted from The Tempest, including soprano Joelle Harvey above in an unfortunate blonde fright wig as daughter Miranda. As usual, Harvey was wonderful, as was the rest of the cast, particularly veteran baritone Robert Orth as Powers. Machover's music, enhanced with lots of electronics, was stronger in the orchestra and the concerted sections of the opera than the philosophical, often pretentious arias that the individual characters were given to sing.

The conductor was Nicole Paiement, who is a local San Francisco treasure spreading the wealth to Texas. She will be back in April to conduct her own company, Opera Parallele, in a double-bill of Weill's Mahagonny Songspiel and Poulenc's Les mamelles de Tirésias. Tenor Thomas Glenn will be featured in that production too.


sfphoneguy said...

Of the two, I found Death and the Powers much more interesting...on many levels. Opera is a reflection of the 'human condition', and curiosity about immortality has consistently been a subject of the arts. It was ironic that although us 'meat' humans agonize over the meaning of life, the robots in the opera seem more perplexed with the meaning of death - one of many concepts in the opera to tickle the mind. This was certainly a thought provoking work, and when people talk about the reinventing of opera, and how to encourage newer audiences, Death and the Powers is a great example of how to do just that Endless reruns of Tosca just won't cut it...

Axel Feldheim said...

Death & the Powers looks bizarre. Do the robots have voices & sing?

What a great gig for Nicole, though. I'm looking forward to Les mamelles for sure!

sfphoneguy said...

Hi Axel- Yes the robots did have voices and did sing - at the beginning and the end of the opera. At the beginning of the opera, the robots gather to start and observe a ritual reenactment of the time in the past when the humans stopped being corporeal, and entered the 'system'. The 'body' of the opera itself is the reenactment, and at the end of the opera the robots gather again to wind things up and have drinks and snacks. Just kidding about the drinks and snacks...