Going to Long Beach Opera is always a gamble. Unlike more traditional opera companies, which tend to stage popular classic operas, Long Beach Opera prefers to take chances on adventurous and arty modern experiments that don’t always take flight.
For every LBO presentation that resonates as an unqualified artistic success, such as composer Tobin Stokes and librettist Heather Raffo’s unsettling 2016 Iraq War contemplation Fallujah and David Lang and Mac Wellman’s imaginatively staged, enigmatic 2014 mood piece The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, there have been occasional misfires, including a muddled 2015 interpretation of Philip Glass and Allen Ginsberg’s bombastic Hydrogen Jukebox.
Count LBO’s production of The Invention of Morel among the interesting failures and unsuccessful experiments. Co-commissioned by Chicago Opera Theater and Long Beach Opera, the new opera, which was composed by The Police drummer Stewart Copeland with an English-language libretto by Jonathan Moore, received its local premiere Saturday night, March 17, at the Beverly O'Neill Theater in Long Beach. The opera is based on Adolfo Bioy Casares’ 1940 science-fiction novel La invención de Morel, which centers on a fugitive’s obsession with a group of tourists on a remote island, particularly a charismatic woman named Faustine (portrayed by soprano Jamie Chamberlin).
Decked out formally in costume designer Jenny Mannis’ tuxedos and elegant, 1920s-style flapper cocktail dresses, the tourists have been invited to the island by a scientist named Morel (played by tenor Nathan Granner with debonair aplomb). The tourists dance, party and flirt with one another as the fugitive-narrator (depicted by two vocalists, Andrew Wilkowske and Lee Gregory, who represent the fugitive’s past and future selves) observes them enviously.
Despite Morel’s apparent bonhomie, he’s actually using his guests as the subjects of a ghastly experiment in which he destroys their bodies but preserves their souls forever in a series of photographic recordings. Alan E. Muraoka’s set includes an illuminated white plastic stage that occasionally opens up to reveal levers, a small wading pool and an unfolding table. Simple background images of the island are projected onto a large screen by projection designer Adam Flemming. With such minimal staging, it’s up to the lyrics and music to communicate the dread and mystery in Casares’ novel.
Unfortunately, Moore’s thin libretto and Copeland’s uninspired, patchy music evoke little of the surreal, atemporal atmosphere of the novel. The decision to transform the nameless fugitive into a two-headed character via a duo of sound-alike, look-alike vocalists is more annoying than clever, and Moore’s flat, didactic lyrical style makes it hard to relate to the fugitive and the other characters as individual human beings.
“Clearly, these strangers are play-acting,” the fugitive remarks at one point. When Morel laments, “It’s a shame that we’re not in tune,” he could be unwittingly describing the emotional disconnect of the overall production.
The fugitive is immediately smitten by Faustine, but Moore’s libretto never demonstrates psychologically why her character is so maddeningly captivating, beyond the fact that she’s styled to look like Louise Brooks in a cute black bob, high heels and a vintage dark-blue one-piece bathing suit. Nonetheless, Chamberlin is frequently astonishing. Her supple, flexible voice radiates powerfully throughout the murky proceedings, and her soaring tone is the most inviting element of the production, even if Copeland rarely gives that voice a memorable tune to hold on to.
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Similarly, an underused Suzan Hanson — who has embodied so many iconic roles in past Long Beach Opera productions, including her beguiling, heartbreaking one-woman performance as the suicidal phone caller in a 2016 presentation of Francis Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine — adds some necessary verve and personality to the otherwise vapid socialite character Dora.
Given that Copeland’s early claim to fame was playing drums in The Police, it’s perhaps no surprise that much of his operatic music here is heavily percussive. But there are times when LBO artistic director/conductor Andreas Mitisek allows the drums to overwhelm the rest of the 16-person ensemble. For one extended section, a percussionist’s metronome-like counting of time on hi-hat cymbals — a relatively minor component of the overall score — actually drowns out the wan melodies of the string and wind instruments.
When the opera culminates with a climactic, forceful surge of all the instruments at once, it ends up sounding cacophonous rather than melodically resolved or musically satisfying. Morel’s tropical party on this island of lost souls is finally over, but Copeland’s compositions ultimately retain none of the immortal qualities of the mad scientist's infernal photographs.