Funny how the next wave seems to resurrect age-old themes and archetypes. In spite of its high-tech scenario in a biomedical laboratory, Paul Dresher's contemporary opera "Power Failure" is yet another morality play on the "Paradise Lost" theme. And, for all its electronic hardware and omnipresent speakers, its musical idiom and structure paid unceasing homage to the basic conventions of Baroque opera.
For Friday night's Southern California debut of "Power Failure," Dresher and his Berkeley-based ensemble set up shop in the Spreckels Theatre, a suitably intimate setting for his four-character opera about a research scientist, Ruth Lehmann, who synthesizes a genetic cure-all for the diseases that plague humanity. Predictably, the amoral drug company CEO, Charles Smithson, attempts to suppress the discovery and sell it on a black market for the wealthy afflicted. In this traditional view of fallen humanity, the possibility for science to create "a heaven on Earth," as Rinde Eckert's terse but didactic libretto reiterates, is perverted by greed, and the scientist must destroy her miracle cure.
Because Dresher is a gifted melodist, his lyrical, graceful arias for each character were the work's sturdy pillars. His few ensembles, however, were less compelling, and the composer's inability to develop larger forms and more complex textures muted the opera's dramatic effect. A pulsing, essentially electronic instrumental basso continuo dominated Dresher's musical foreground, and, although he claims to eschew the minimalist label, this aspect of his score clearly had such a cast to it.
John Duykers' hefty, impressive tenor dominated the stage, as did his canny executive impersonation, a knowing fusion of Lee Iaccoca and Robert Schuller into a cunning, terminally smiling huckster of vapid moral uplift. Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Friedman projected an earnest scientist, although the musical impact of her role diminished as the opera progressed.
Eckert's proletarian night watchman--actually a gumshoe manque --benefited from his stentorian projection, equally affecting in both his baritone and falsetto ranges. However, his character seemed a bit too omniscient for his role in the plot. Perhaps the audience was overly conscious that his character was also the author's voice interpreting the piece as the opera unfolded--hardly a compliment to the listeners' perception.
Soprano Thomasa Eckert used her flexible, clear voice to etch the unfortunately modest emotional range of Judith Niles, Smithson's biographer and fantasized love interest. Michael Olich's geometric, metallic set, with its fluorescent lights and electronic graphics conjured the mood brilliantly, and the computer as high altar proved a telling symbol. Larry Neff's lighting underscored the opera's atomized, individualistic character depiction.
In authentic Baroque fashion, the composer directed his three other instrumentalists (they played from each side of the stage from boxes neatly annexed to the set) from the keyboard, although for the most part he was playing synthesizers instead of a harpsichord. Dresher also contributed several deft electric guitar solos, which helped quicken his overly static score.
Baroque opera seria flourished on a structural formula based on a string of brilliant solo arias, but Mozart came along and proved the undeniable dramatic strength of ensemble singing. Perhaps in writing "Pioneers," Dresher's sequel to "Power Failure," the young composer will take a tip from Mozart.