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06 Aug 2017

Santa Fe: Entertaining If Not Exactly (R)evolutionary

You know what I loved best about Santa Fe Opera’s world premiere The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs?

Alcina at the Santa Fe Opera

A review by James Sohre

Above: Edward Parks as Steve Jobs, Sasha Cooke as Laurene Powell Jobs [All photos copyright Ken Howard]


I love how it captured the public imagination. I love how SFO’s dynamic Marketing and Press teams created a palpable sense of an “event.” I love that ticket demand was so high that an additional performance had to be scheduled. And this for a brand new piece of lyric theatre! This was not a sure fire Carmen or Butterfly. Audiences were clamoring to attend an opera they did not yet know. Kudos to all concerned for developing and creating a public for this exciting new composition.

Librettist Mark Campbell is on the credit line of so many new operas that I sometimes think there are two of him. With Jobs he once again crafts a witty, lean and mean script that presents the life of one of the most influential personages in recent history in a narrative that is more mosaic than linear progression. Mr. Campbell’s words are an effective springboard for composer Mason Bates to create some richly varied musical impressions.

Mr. Bates seems to have learned from Bernstein, Glass, Adams, Corigliano and Boulez (among others) and distilled those influences to find his own distinctive voice to inform this wonderfully accessible opus. The orchestral writing is especially apt, and I liked the (rather gentle) nod to electronic, synthesized sound palettes. Mason’s vocal writing was always competent, often memorable, if not quite as distinctive as his orchestral achievements. That said, there are a couple of arias that are bound to make their way on the concert and audition platform, and several instrumental bridges are calling out to be knit into a flavorful orchestral suite.

It was Bates’ (and our) great good fortune to have Michael Christie on the podium to make such a potent case for this important creation. Maestro Christie is a champion of new works, and he led his forces in a taut, sometimes fierce reading that found dramatic excitement in sharp, layered rhythmic effects and brass stings. He segued seamlessly into floated lyrical moments of serene repose, as well as facilitated sweeping statements building to a satisfying climax. He also maintained a carefully calculated arc to the 90-minute, 20-scene performance, investing the whole with a sustained theatrical energy.

I wish the singers had not been amplified. Or since they were, I wish that Rick Jacobsohn and Brian Loach’s sound design had had more brilliance. When opera singers perform acoustically, there is a visceral connection with the audience, a need to create a vocal “presence” that rings out in the house. On this evening, I felt the amplification proved an impediment to Jobs making its full effect.

No one was hindered more by this than Edward Parks in the title role. Mr. Parks has such excellent credentials, and he is possessed of such a charming presence, that it seems clear that he must “have the goods.” His pleasant baritone offered some moments of urgent (amplified) beauty but too often he seemed too conversational, too underpowered, as if a boy had been sent to do a Jobs man. This should have been a star-making part. Taking his microphone away might be a start to liberating Edward to re-energize his delivery.

It takes the show about 65 minutes to give the resplendent Sasha Cooke something meaningful to sing as Laurene Powell Jobs, his second wife. But once we get to her big scenes, Ms. Cooke scores with a sensitive and passionate contribution; her sensitive, limpid mezzo caressing phrases with a haunting beauty. Wei Wu’s gentle, sympathetic baritone and sweet demeanor proved a winning match for Steve’s spiritual mentor Kobun Chino Otogawa. The role of partner Steve Wozniak (Woz) has many of the more animated passages in the piece, and Garrett Sorenson’s laser-focused, substantial tenor was up to the highflying demands as he blusters and fumes with brio. Apprentice Jessica E. Jones portrayed the girlfriend Chrisann Brennan with an engaging characterization which she gifted with a gleaming, poised soprano. Kelly Margraf intoned his few lines as Steve’s father with an assured baritone.

The direction and design are so interdependent it is hard to know which might have come first. Victoria “Vita” Tzykun has devised an imminently useful modular set of eight white moving walls upon which 59 Productions projected a constantly morphing kaleidoscope of colorful images. Tellingly, such computer-generated scenery would not have been possible without the technology advances by Mr. Jobs and the like. Completing the high tech look, Japhy Weideman’s magical lighting design commendably augments the projections without interfering with them. Changeable colored “rods” of light hover in rows above the setting and frame the sides of the action, completing the look.

Giving the flexibility of these components, director Kevin Newbury and choreographer Chloe Treat have staged the action within an inch of its life. Susanne Sheston’s excellent chorus not only sang with gusto and precision, but also moved furniture and set pieces about with practiced precision. I wish that the composer had found a way to include a big choral number that befitted this highly talented ensemble.

I deliberately did not research the title character’s life beyond the big chunks I already knew. Word on the street is that Jobs was a difficult taskmaster and unrelenting jerk. Messrs. Campbell and Bates arguably present a more measured and balanced operatic hero who, despite a complicated, contentious career, begins and ends with the promise of a higher purpose. Whether this is a wholly accurate interpretation or dramatic fabrication, the boys didn’t set out to do a documentary. They have succeeded in crafting a captivating piece of lyric theatre that resulted in a popular and energizing “informance” about a fascinating, iconic genius.

James Sohre

Cast and production information:

Paul Jobs: Kelly Markgraf; Steve Jobs: Edward Parks; Laurene Powell Jobs: Sasha Cooke; Kobun Chino Otogawa: Wei Wu; Teacher: Mariya Kaganskaya; Steve Wozniak (“Woz”): Garrett Sorenson; Chrisann Brennan: Jessica E. Jones; Young Steve Jobs: Asher Corbin; Conductor: Michael Christie; Director: Kevin Newbury; Set Design: Victoria “Vita” Tzykun; Costume Design: Paul Carey; Lighting Design: Japhy Weideman; Projection Design: 59 Productions; Sound Design: Rick Jacobsohn, Brian Loach; Choreography: Chloe Treat; Chorus Master: Susanne Sheston

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