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Tolstoy Resonates in ‘Resurrection’

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Among his many titles at the Media Lab at M.I.T., Tod Machover is head of Opera of the Future. And that is exactly where he belongs.

A dozen years ago, he wrote the first important American cyber-opera, “VALIS.” Based on the science-fiction novel by Philip K. Dick, it is an exciting and original blend of new technology and music rooted in complexity, but vivid and immediate as rock. It is an opera that gets inside a listener’s head to demonstrate what an inexplicable place that happens to be.

Since then Machover has kept on messing with the operatic brain. He created a nutty opera as ghoulish magic act for Penn and Teller to perform in their Las Vegas act. In 1986 at Lincoln Center, he produced the interactive “Brain Opera” in which an audience wanders through an electronic magic castle making sounds on odd electronic instruments that are then transformed into a performance.

However, Machover’s new opera, “Resurrection,” which was given its world premiere by the Houston Grand Opera on Friday night, is the work of a cyberartist who has found in Tolstoy’s last novel a route back to the future.

The story concerns a callous prince, Nekhlyudov, who seduces his aunt’s young ward, Katerina Maslova. Her subsequent pregnancy leads to disgrace and prostitution, and 10 years later she is unjustly convicted of murdering a client and sent to Siberia. By chance, Nekhlyudov serves on the jury, which begins his quest for repentance from Maslova that leads to a spiritual reawakening. Tolstoy, viewing society, government and the Church as soulless, preached that individuals must take it upon themselves to improve the world.

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Certainly Tolstoy’s Russia of 1899 in “Resurrection” resonates now in our own fin de siecle. It was impossible Friday night not to connect the horrific forced march of Siberian prisoners on the Wortham Theater stage with pictures from Kosovo.

And yet what a curious experience it is to witness a new “Russian” grand opera from America’s most wired composer. There are electronics involved, but they are principally used for subtle enhancement of the orchestra, and the opera itself is mostly true to Tolstoy. Laura Harrington’s libretto is a prosaic sketch of the novel. The realistic production, directed by Braham Murray and designed by Simon Higlett, could be mistaken for a lost Tchaikovsky opera. And Machover’s score includes such traditional Russian musical elements as a May Day dance, love duets, introspective arias, a lullaby and a prisoners’ march.

Machover has a gift for making music that is direct and complicated at the same time, for mixing popular and arcane elements. In the past, he would often tease us with a captivating tune we never can quite fully grasp through a riot of bouncing rhythms and a carnival of special effects.

The music of “Resurrection,” though, succumbs more to convention. The busy first act crosscuts the trial with flashbacks and follows Nekhlyudov from his socializing to his epiphany in a prison scene, and the score is consistently hectic. The vocal writing often dazzles with grand melismatic flourishes; jazz tumults through the brutish seduction scene; a gripping rhythmic pulse catapults the act through ever-changing meters. But the music has to do too much in too little time, its breathless pace emphasizing rather than overcoming banal words. On stage, moreover, little tells, except for a stunning freeze-frame effect in the prison scene.

The second act takes place in Siberia and here Machover’s music, slow and atmospheric, begins to haunt. Here, too, the performers began to make an impression. This is the 24th new opera that Houston has created, and its resources are admirable. Baritone Scott Hendricks (Nekhlyudov) was plucked from the company’s Opera Studio training program and mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato (Maslova) is a former member. Both initially struggled to command stage and score but bloomed thrillingly as the course of Nekhlyudov’s obsessive love unfolded. Yet another former Opera Studio singer, Raymond Very, was commanding as the political prisoner, Peter Simonson, whom Maslova chooses over Nekhlyudov. A capable large cast, a well-trained chorus and alert conducting from the company’s music director, Patrick Summers, overcame most of the first-night jitters.

Still, Hendricks did admit at a press conference Saturday to being so overwhelmed with emotion he forgot to sing his final note, a booming high F. Maybe he just didn’t want to. The ending cloys, with a call for a new day that seemed almost like something from Soviet art, as Nekhlyudov says he must take the first step wherever it leads.

Actually first steps are often the easiest; it’s the next steps that are hard, and “Resurrection” is ultimately a step back for Machover. But perhaps that will prove the preparation for a subsequent leap forward. His next opera is to be “Twelve Looney Tones,” a look at Schoenberg in the heart of pop culture, Hollywood.


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