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Sara Heaton as Miranda [Photo:]
23 Mar 2011

Machover, Death and the Powers

This is an opera written with a cannon and a feather. There is sensory overload—an overload of sensory overload: lights that shine into your face in the manner of an ophthalmologist scanning your retina; eerie, too-loud sounds that invade you from every direction; dancing patterns of light that may resolve into huge words or huge faces; a great chandelier-harp that sometimes descends to be played, a strumming like the sounds of the sirens in Plato’s parable of the concentric crystalline spheres.

Tod Machover: Death and the Powers

Simon Powers: James Maddalena; Evvy: Emily Albrink, Patricia Risley (Monaco Premiere); Miranda: Sara Heaton, Joélle Harvey (Monaco Premiere); Nicholas: Hal Cazalet. The United Way: Doug Dodson, Frank Kelley (Monaco Premiere); The United Nations: David Kravitz; The Administration: Tom McNichols, Daniel Cole (September 2009 Workshop). Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Conductor: Gil Rose. Principal Keyboard: John McDonald. Second Keyboard: Linda Osborn-Blaschke, Simone Ovsey (September 2009 Workshop). Director: Diane Paulus. Production Designer: Alex Mcdowell. Choreographer: Karole Armitage. MIT Media Lab.

Above: Sara Heaton as Miranda [Click here for photo gallery.]


But there are also moments of fragile lyricism, pretty melodies that sing of the old values of love and touch. The opera vacillates between the loud future of silicon and solenoid, and the quietly humane past.

Machover.gifTod Machover

Like certain other short operas, such as Rachmaninov’s Francesca da Rimini, this is an opera in the past tense: the prologue shows us robots in a post-organic world, trying to puzzle out the meaning of the nonsensical word death. (There is something too cute about these robots, who look like the sly agile desk lamps in the old Pixar animation, and who sound like the apotheosis of R2D2.) The robots put on a skit—the opera itself—about the transformation of the human into the post-human: a billionaire named Simon Powers decides to abandon his dying body and place his consciousness, his identity, into The System, a motile all-encompassing electrical structure that is slowly replacing a dematerializing world. In this quest he is aided by Nicholas, a young assistant with a prosthetic arm, and resisted, at least partly, by his third wife Evvie and his daughter Miranda.

The name Miranda of course brings to mind Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and makes us wonder whether Powers is just another name for Prospero. In Dryden’s adaptation of The Tempest, Prospero never forswears magic and retains his mastery over the elements; and Simon Powers is a magician who keeps his power, although he may be a wizard lost in his own labyrinth. Nicholas, who dances and prances around the stage, and climbs up the grid of lights, is his affable Ariel.

Robert Pinsky’s text is more clumsy that one would expect from a distinguished poet, full of lame puns and overextended parallels: he keeps hitting you over the head with quotations from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” (a poem about an old man who muses on his possible transfiguration into a mechanical bird) and with plugs for poetry itself as something Important to the Human Soul. But the text does have the virtue of a certain moral ambiguity: it would have been easy to deplore the robots and to uphold the grand old human world of tears and joy; but Pinsky refuses this easy simple conflict, and makes The System a seductive place with at least partially real delights, and makes the human world a place of evil as well as good. At one point the delegates from the United Way, the United Nations, and the United States (the last a superb bass, Tom McNichols, maybe the best singer in the cast) visit the virtualized Simon to plead with him not to ruin the global economy. But these are not figures of pathos, but officious fools, somewhat like the Jews in Strauss’s Salome. And when the starving multitudes thrust themselves onto the stage toward the end of the opera, they seem like a bloodthirsty mob about to tear Miranda limb from limb. Only Miranda and Evvie place the warm world of sorrow and devotion in a favorable light; and Evvie, at least, herself decides to enter The System. In his interesting program note, Pinsky implicitly compares his text to “a robot that performs the work of meaning and emotion…the robots [in the opera] are in a sense returning the favor of creation”; and intelligence and sensitivity of robots constitute an important theme here.

Machover_robots_comp_lg.gifRendering of Operabots interacting with each other

It is an odd opera in that there is little romantic love, and little conflict beyond the cerebral pondering of robot vs. human cerebration. In this way it resembles Das Rheingold, another opera with little romantic love, and a good deal of thinking about the values of the wet old healthy elemental world vs. the values of a futuristic society built by robots (or, as Wagner called them, giants). In the scene where Simon gloats over his successful assimilation into The System, Machover bases the music on a triumphalist Naturthema not out of place in Wagner; and the sustained roar of certain episodes near the end might call to mind another great moment of sensory overload, the final bars of Das Rheingold.

The singing was satisfactory and evidently accurate, but unremarkable. James Maddalena, the Simon, was not in excellent voice, but his forceful baritone made for a potent stage presence—Alberich the billionaire, invisible in his Tarnhelm but dominating the world.

Daniel Albright

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