OPERA NEWS - Death and the Powers
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Machover: Death and the Powers

DVD Button Risley, Harvey; Cazalet, Orth, Kelley, Kravitz, McNichols; The Miseries, Chorus of Operabots, Dallas Opera, Paiement. Production: Eggert. The Dallas Opera 88295-20400 (Blu-ray), 96 mins., subtitles

Recordings Death and the Powers Cover 1215

Critics Choice Button 1015 IT SOUNDS LIKE A "ROBOTS' OPERA"—in part. Tod Machover’s score has a stylistic sci-fi fingerprint that’s both disorienting and recognizable, a cool, distinctive fusion of serialism, electronics, musique concrète and jazz. At times emotionally forceful, the music sometimes seems to emanate from the blinking, gleaming metallic stage set—a huge, seething machine that can transform humans into a more durable, virtual form. This rare musical and visual synergy compensates for the plot’s overfamiliar Nietzschean/Faustian/Wagnerian echoes.

Robert Pinsky’s superliterary libretto is set in a posthuman future. Abstract-looking robots gather to celebrate the long-ago founding of this new order by American tycoon and inventor Simon Powers, a neo-Wotan aiming to defy death. Powers is shown in flashbacks, engineering his metamorphosis into a part of an eternal “system” while interacting with family members. These characters include his “favorite, present and final” wife, Evvy; a teenage daughter, Miranda (an appropriately Shakespearean name); and Nicholas, Powers’s devoted assistant and ward—part bionic, part human—who combines elements of Wagner’s Siegfried and Loge.

These three roles are more emotional and more vocal in conception than that of the superman himself, whose lengthy solos seem encumbered by too many of Pinsky’s elaborate puns, paradoxes, literary jokes and allusions (to Yeats, Goethe, etc.). Baritone Robert Orth, in this production, savors and projects the prodigious role with assurance, but director Andrew Eggert’s view of the character overplays arrogant cynicism (which James Maddalena, an earlier Powers, did not). Even Powers’s scenes with great impact—such as the suspenseful transition from choral and instrumental cacophony to the resurrection of his own voice after his transformation—rely mostly on sights, noises and speech. 

Yet Machover’s range is impressive, starting with the beeps and blips of Nicholas’s manic gadgetry, which inspire antic brilliance from tenor Hal Cazalet. Evvy’s operatically intense interactions with her disembodied husband (both a mad scene and a sex scene) are a marvel of glamour and poignancy thanks to mezzo Patricia Risley. There’s also a beautifully textured duet between the two women. The climax of the work is the confrontation between father and daughter, as Miranda rejects the “system,” in a lyrical, incandescent aria of humanistic defiance (not without echoes of Samuel Barber). Soprano Joëlle Harvey is a revelation here, deploying a superbly focused timbre with ideal dramatic immediacy.

This Dallas Opera production has the precision and commitment of a Houston space mission, marking advances over the original 2010 staging in Monte Carlo. Like the best parts of the music, the pliant, mobile sets (by Alex McDowell) and stage direction can be spellbinding. The filming is so fluid and multidirectional that you forget it’s confined to a theater stage. The camera lens occasionally distorts to maximize dramatic alienation, twisting faces and tinting whole scenes an eerie blue. Conductor Nicole Paiement maintains admirable balance, proving herself, like Machover, a techie with heart.  —David J. Baker 

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