The new Stewart Copeland-Jonathan Moore opera “The Invention of Morel” from the mavericks at Long Beach Opera comes with a boatload of issues to ponder. Here are just a few: Is unrequited love worth dying for? Does science know what’s good for us? Is eternal life desirable?
The opera’s characters have at the questions in a howling fury that left at least one listener Saturday night feeling as if he had been in a shipwreck himself.
“The Invention of Morel,” which has a short run at the Beverly O’Neill Theatre, is a Long Beach Opera co-commission with LBO artistic and general director Andreas Mitisek’s former company Chicago Opera Theatre, which presented the world premiere in February 2017.
The piece is based on the novel “La Invención de Morel” by Adolfo Bioy Casares, and there is an autobiographical element in that the unrequited love element of the piece was inspired by Bioy Casares’ crush on film star Louise Brooks.
The opera’s Fugitive from something-or-other lands on a remote Pacific island, where he spies upon and comments about a bunch of frolicking tourists decked out in 1920s Jazz Age costumes. In stage director and librettist Moore’s concept, we are supposedly in the 1960s, but other than some tacit reminders of “Gilligan’s Island” (the socialites, the Professor, the Movie Star), the time frame isn’t that apparent.
The Fugitive develops an overwhelming desire for one of the tourists, Faustine, who is completely oblivious to him. She is under the sway of Morel, who has invented a machine that is supposed to grant an immortality of sorts to those on the island.
Issues are raised, debated and declaimed, often at the top of the cast’s lungs. The synopsis in the program is deliberately sparse, and I won’t spoil the denouement of the plot; it will be clear enough in the theater. But I will say this: Nothing fundamentally changes in the end.
Copeland, of course, made his initial splash as the drummer for the mega-popular rock group the Police and has since branched out into composing music for film, TV, video games and opera. This is Copeland’s fifth opera (he is also credited as co-librettist), and he has his chops in place. The 87-minute score has the feel and flow of opera spiked by occasional pastiches of rhumbas or ’20s jazz and a minimum of rock.
What this score doesn’t have much of is dynamic contrast, or ideas that pop out and stay in the mind upon a first hearing. Scored for a 16-piece band that often sounds as if ballooned into something 10 times its size, the music hectored the audience persistently, often at odds with the contours of the vocal lines.
When Morel addresses the society folk about his machine, Copeland does relax and applies subtler strokes, but before long he’s at it again, eventually arriving at peaks of barren pomposity.
At the Chicago premiere, the ensemble was in the pit, and conductor Mitisek reportedly had trouble keeping the volume down in order for the singers to be heard. In the O’Neill, Mitisek’s ensemble played from the wings to our left, which solved the balance problem but created the doubled-down effect of a high-powered production in a room too intimate and dry to handle it. Thank goodness for supertitles that made sense of the sometimes-tangled streams of words.
The role of the Fugitive (Andrew Wilkowske) was doubled by a doppelganger Narrator (Lee Gregory), and it was appropriate that their strong baritones were a virtual match. Jamie Chamberlin mostly sang quavery wordless vocalises as the mysterious Faustine, and tenor Nathan Granner exuded the self-satisfaction of Morel. Suzan Hanson nearly walked off with the show whenever she appeared as the socialite Dora.
Video designer Adam Flemming provided projections that included sunsets on the shoreline, the jungle, a faded mansion and the gears of the machine. All of this was set behind a tilted structure presumably representing something amiss on this island. Among other things.
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‘The Invention of Morel’
Where: Beverly O’Neill Theatre, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $49-$150 (subject to change)
Information: (562) 470-7464, www.longbeachopera.org
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes (no intermission)
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