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Resurrecting Opera

MIT Professor’s Latest Opera Features ClichÉ Story, Superb Score

By Bence P. Olveczky

staff writer

Opera often seems like an anachronistic endeavor consisting of outdated and irrelevant stagings of long-gone composers’ works. Thankfully, the Boston Lyric Opera bucks the antique opera trend by presenting Resurrection, a piece by a composer who is very much alive -- MIT Professor Tod Machover of the Program in Media Arts and Sciences. This overdue effort by the BLO illustrates in an entertaining two and a half hours how the contemporary and the classical can blend into a harmonious and melodious mix.

Machover, who heads his own research program at the Media Lab, is widely recognized for his innovative approach to music and instrumentation. His two previous operas, Valis and Brain Opera, were both written for electronic instruments and expanded the term “opera” in new and interesting ways. Resurrection, an opera based on a 19th century novel by Leo Tolstoy, is a more traditional piece that is classical in both its orchestration and its theme.

Resurrection tells the story of Prince Nekhlyudov, who is called to serve as a juror in the murder trial of one of his previous “conquests,” the prostitute Maslova. When Maslova is wrongly convicted and sent to Siberia, Prince Nekhlyudov’s reawakened guilt compels him to give up everything and follow her.

Unfortunately Tolstoy’s spirit is lacking in the opera, which becomes a somewhat moralizing retelling of the novel’s storyline.The first of two acts includes snapshots of the trial interspersed with flashbacks from the young prince’s flirtations with Maslova.The trial is the starting point for the true theme of the opera - the spiritual and moral “resurrection” of an aristocrat faced with the emptiness of his complacent and decadent lifestyle.

Through the Prince’s spiritual journey Machover wants to show that it is possible to strive for betterment and change, even in a morally corrupt society. But changes, he suggests, must happen “one by one,” through showing compassion and love toward those around us. These are noble ideas indeed, but to invigorate such moral truths with meaning and relevance requires an artistic genius on par with Tolstoy’s. In its absence, the message, however profound and well-meant, comes across as just another clichÉ.

The libretto,written by Laura Harrington from the Department of Music and Theater Arts, lacks the lyricism, depth, and subtlety of Tolstoy’s novel, making the introductory scenes seem more banal than catalytic. Particularly unfortunate is a rape scene in the middle of the first act. Sex never works well on stage, and Prince Nekhlyudov's vulgar and violent seduction of Maslova is certainly no exception.

Machover’s talents as an opera composer are evident in the tailoring of the music to dramatic changes in atmosphere and mood. The melodious, expressive music superbly follows the main characters’ spiritual evolution. The feeling the music evokes is always heartfelt, never obvious or trivial.

The singers in BLO’s production are mostly up to par, with the leading ladies as the stars of the evening. Mezzo-soprano Christine Abraham (Maslova) steals the show with her powerful and emotionally radiant voice. Kerri Marcinko is perfect for the role as Princess Missy Korchagin, the Prince’s intended bride. Her somewhat squeaky soprano is just what this caricature of an upper-class seductress needs.

Less compelling are the male singers, and the weakest link is probably Carleton Chambers in his role as Prince Nekhlyudov. He certainly looks the part, being both young and handsome, but his baritone is weak and unsteady and fails to infuse the role with the gravity it so clearly needs.

Christopher Larkin’s secure and passionate musical direction blends the electronics with the traditional instruments in a seamless and natural way, making the orchestra sound acoustic and much larger than it actually is. Machover’s stated aim of using electronics to enhance and expand the musical experience offered by a traditional orchestra is fully realized here.

The artistic direction, on the other hand, is a mixed bag. The stage is framed throughout the performance by an I-beam structure functioning as a stylized proscenium arch. Its only apparent role its to make the already small Shubert Theater stage even smaller. Designer Erhard Rom mixes his rather abstract approach with plenty of realism, especially in the first act, when another symbolic I-beam construction in the shape of a tilted cross opens up to reveal a realistically painted backdrop of a forest. In the second act, which takes place in Siberia, the esthetic flair of the production is more subdued and also more consistent.

Lean Major’s stage direction, seemingly coarse and commonplace in the somewhat fragmented first act, also becomes more compelling in the second act. Especially poignant is Maslova’s lullaby in the middle of the second act, hauntingly performed by Christine Abraham on a stage that effectively evokes the coldness and desolation of the Siberian landscape.

All in all, “Resurrection” is a valiant and ambitious effort. While it may fall short of the creators’ original intentions, it is an entertaining and thought-provoking production that testifies to the fact that contemporary opera is alive and well, and thriving here at MIT.

Resurrection plays at the Shubert Theatre through November 20. Tickets are $31-151; halfprice tickets are available for MIT faculty and staff with valid ID. Selected seats are available to students for $15.