Last night, as chaos melted into Emerson Paramount’s polychrome decoration, slam, bang, pow, wow, kaboom rang out and light by Cherry Lim Jacob’s cosmic cowboy in a Bayreuth meets Hayden Planetarium mashup of myth, madness and everyday life. Lip-synced cartoon anime superheroes who double the main singers and dancers (gallumping to materialize the thoughts of the singers on stage), sometimes looked halfway too cute, but maybe that was the comic’s cosmic point.
Composer Elena Ruehr showed us a great new groove. Its very purposeful music responded with expansive drama and complete earnestness to Jacobs’s libretto: pulled from science fiction, roused by current events, borrowed from Sumerian mythology and full of its patent metaphysical musings. The show gripped us and never let go, supplying the theater with gripping planetarium projections filled with fantastical gods and goddesses, dubbing animated chipmunk superheroes, a libretto channeling virtual verism, and an irresistibly accessible score, melodiously modal larded with a Tristan and Iseult love duet, Purcellian and Bartokian choral numbers as well as a dramatically underlined murderous rage. But at the heart of the opera, an almost uninterrupted emphatic and stentorian chant kept us in suspense. Indeed, the creator and savior of universes Tia, played in a dramatic way by Carami Hilaire, released from the magic fires of chaos a Brunhilde for our time.
But how are we supposed to take the catch-all tale? It certainly wasn’t played for laughs, but the dialogue and premise of continuous creation and destruction had us wondering, “Are we cringing, crying, or shaking our heads?” Is it Jacobs’ Ouroboros once again? In various guises, the characters spread their seed, wreaking havoc upon multitudes and destroying them as the sometimes human and sometimes divine characters argued with each other, and in the final act with the corporate colonizers and terraformers of Mars. The main character, an automaton male soprano performs an Olympia number while engaging in a poignant love duet with the mother of the universe. After three acts of creation, love and chaos, Marduk casts his fatal net, but Tia has stolen his scepter. The High Noon Gary Cooper duel ends as Cooper and Tia ride off triumphant into a comet. The full synopsis is HERE.
I never would have guessed that Elena Ruehr wrote the score. She told us how she rediscovered her adolescence when she did Debussian modulations in a rock band while the stoned guitarist wandered off. She wrote lyrical parlando lines for singers that somehow lifted the monotony of the words. And the various soliloquy tunes, duets and ensemble pieces kept the action tense and exciting, rarely relaxing except for the extracted love duet and the delightful arioso for the “Touch me mother” dance with human arm and robot. But more was happening musically below the lyrically modal surface. The complex rhythms and interplay of colors have drawn as much interest from compact forces as large groups of pits often convey. The angry, high-energy music of these superheroes and villains contrasted with the aspirations of innocent children and the banality of corporations. From the Juventas New Music Ensemble in the pit, the omnipresent timpani party launched its blows of fate in a sonic net stretched by the episodic but essential contributions of the electric harpsichord, which recalled the dry recitative support of the equally baroque Baroque period. Three brass reinforced as needed. The one-on-one skinny strings struggled to get out of the pit.
Conductor Tian Hui Ng showed a clear rhythm with his baton and a nuanced form with an eloquent left arm and hand. Ruehr professed a deep appreciation for his work.
The lead singers all demonstrated mastery. Carami Hillaire as Tia/Tiamat sang with brilliant force and conviction almost continuously. His great rival Tylar Putnam (Marduk/Commander) held his ground with a polished baritone projection of tone and character. With a perfectly focused male soprano voice and appropriately fun demeanor, Daniel Moody introduced the memorable Quingu/Cooper automaton. A minor amplification of the singers changed the sound perception a few times.
Written large across the entire proscenium vault, Gregg Emetaz’s spinning projections on Pirate Epstein’s computer graphics showed great technical skill in telling the story of the universe. Where else would the Mayflower transform into a cyber spaceship and oil derricks lead to futuristic constructions?
Director Sam Helfrich ensured the expert mass of the various major cast contingents while seamlessly blending the images on the canvas with the performer. Derek Van Heel managed to illuminate the live action without obliterating the projections.
The Google Glass VR boxes provided for the Chaos depiction proved a difficult toy for most of us, and we also didn’t want to use our phones during the show to read the synopsis. In the absence of printed guides and given all the sophisticated projection equipment available, it would have been useful to offer descriptions of scenes from the convoluted tale as well as surtitle the booklet.
The race continues tonight and tomorrow. Hopefully the voices can last.
Lee Eiseman is the editor of the Spy