Wednesday, March 01, 2017

"Just a Cast Away, an Island Lost at Sea...": Even with Police References Merely in My Head, Stewart Copeland's 'Invention of Morel' Opera Proves Quite Arresting -- Chicago Opera Review

Theater / Opera Review

The Invention of Morel
a world premiere opera
Music by Stewart Copeland
Libretto by Stewart Copeland & Jonathan Moore
Directed by Jonathan Moore
Chicago Opera Theater
at the Studebaker Theater, Chicago
February 18, 24, 26 (run ended)

A few years ago, I wrote a thesis-like (though not nearly that long) blog post about what I dubbed "Associative Learning," and its seeming erosion.

In it, I theorized about how, when I had to do school reports back in the early 1980s, the acts of riding my bike through town to the public library, stopping for lunch and at the local record store, meandering through two floors of the library to the encyclopedia shelves and perusing World Book and Encyclopedia Britannica well beyond the subject at hand, undoubtedly introduced me to things in ways that much more targeted & precise internet-based research may not as readily prompt kids today to broaden their horizons.

Though I don't have kids of my own and haven't been able to regularly monitor the accuracy of my hypothesis, I still believe it to have validity.

Yet, rather than thinking myself an internet or technology Luddite, I realize the infinite possibilities the web has to empower flights of curiosity.

The trick is finding the impetus for inspiration.

Which brings me to a review of a world premiere opera called The Invention of Morel, whose brief Chicago run ended with the performance I saw. As a work co-commissioned by Chicago Opera Theater and Long Beach Opera, it will supposedly be staged in Long Beach, California next March.

So although I thought the opera in was largely terrific, this review won't provide much acute benefit to anyone. I don't even see specific dates announced for the Long Beach Opera, so it's not like you can even plan a Spring 2018 California trek just yet.

Hence, while I will give a rundown of the opera as best I can, and why I enjoyed it, I think the associative learning backstory is also worth sharing.

For decades, but again somewhat acutely over the past few weeks, I have been fascinated by old movie theaters, with the extant ones around Chicagoland largely now serving as performing arts venues.

Some internet exploring, on the excellent Cinema Treasures website and elsewhere--including the hypnotic Historic Aerials site--brought me to this article about grand renovations to the Studebaker Theater in the Fine Arts Building.

I was familiar with the Fine Arts Building, at 410 S. Michigan in Chicago, having had cinemas showing art-house movies during my lifetime, but not for years.

So it was fascinating to learn of resurrection of the Studebaker Theater--the building itself was built to sell & service Studebaker carriages in the late 19th century--and it was only through the theater's website that I came across The Invention of Morel.

My initial interest was in finding anything on the Studebaker's event calendar that might give me
reason to visit the theater, but learning about the opera itself was intriguing.

As I've written too many times to reiterate in depth here, I appreciate opera to the point of having formerly been a Lyric Opera of Chicago subscriber, and still try to get to 1-3 operas per year, but don't emotionally ingest the art form enough to call myself an opera buff.

Thus, a brand new, 90-minute opera, sung in English and written by Stewart Copeland of The Police--a defunct rock band I really like--seemed especially appealing.

I almost bought a ticket right then and there, about 3 weeks ago, but thought that I should see if A) ticket discounts would be offered on HotTix, Goldstar or TodayTix; B) the first performance got a good review; and C) the winter weather in Chicago wouldn't be too challenging.

There were no discounts offered for the first performance on February 18, but through Goldstar the Feb. 24 & 26 shows were nicely priced. And even after the Chicago Tribune's esteemed classical music critic John von Rhein gave The Invention of Morel 4 stars (out of 4), I was able to snag a nice balcony seat for just $29 + fees.

Though not quite the 65 degree weather last week saw in Chicago--followed three days later by 20 degree weather--Sunday was fairly mild.

I got downtown in time to enjoy a nice waffle at BeeZzee Fresh Food on Wabash and make my way to the Fine Arts Building, still plenty early.

With permission, I took an elevator to the top floor and walked down the entire beautiful building; so lovely--and unseen by me previously--that I'll dedicate an upcoming blog post simply to photos of it. True to the name, tenants include violin makers, various studios, a sheet music seller and bookstore, etc. This in itself would have made for a worthy excursion. 

Then at 2pm, I attended a pre-opera talk by Chicago Opera Theater artistic director--and the opera's conductor--Andreas Mitisek, along with the co-librettist and director Jonathan Moore, who has an impressive list of credits, mostly in his native England. (If Stewart Copeland was on hand, I was never aware.)

This was quite insightful and--along with von Rhein's review and other background info--really helped prepare me for what I was about to see.

Previously unbeknownst to me, The Invention of Morel, written by Argentinean Adolfo Bioy Casares in 1940, remains one of the most famed and beloved novels in Latin America.

It, and therefore the opera, concerns itself with a fugitive arriving on a seemingly deserted island, only to discover a number of well-heeled tourists already there and acting rather mysteriously.

One of these is a beautiful woman named Faustine--yes, like Faust, though not overtly devilish--with whom the fugitive becomes smitten, even more so as she resists his advances. (Author Bioy Casares based Faustine on American silent film star Louise Brooks, with whom he was smitten from afar.)

You should read the book if you wish to know all of what unfolds, but per the title, an inventor named Morel is central, with a rather beguiling device that the fugitive ultimately discovers.

As Moore helpfully explained beforehand, he and Copeland decided to deviate from the book slightly by adding a Narrator (Lee Gregory), who largely sings the narrative as a recollection of events, while the Fugitive (Andrew Wilkowske) observes what happens as he encounters it. Both characters represent the same person and shadow each other throughout.

The singing is in operatic voices, which while artistically remarkable--and top tier here as far as I could tell--still didn't allow the whole thing to connect with me like great musical theater does.

And despite the rather brief running time, I can deny there were some points where my attention--and eyelids--began to flutter.

But the propulsive, rhythm heavy score by Copeland--long one of my favorite drummers--became truly exciting and scintillating, especially toward the end.

I had learned that this was the fifth opera Copeland has written, and following his success with the Police--who initially broke up in 1986 before a 2007-08 reunion tour--he has written numerous film scores.

So I certainly wasn't expecting to hear Police songs or familiar refrains, nor was this--unlike Sting's recent The Last Ship musical--meant to be an autobiographical affair. (Moore explained that Copeland's daughter had recommended The Invention of Morel adaptation.)

But due to associative strains merely within my own brain, given the fugitive's arrival on a supposedly deserted island--which one can see enacted in an Invention of Morel virtual reality app created in conjunction with the opera--I couldn't help but conjure up Police gems like "Message in a Bottle" and "So Lonely."

And as the fugitive watches and pursues the beautiful Faustine (Valerie Vinzant, clearly lovely even from the Studebaker balcony sans forgotten binoculars), my mind went to "Every Breath You Take" and "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da."

Perhaps I haven't done the best job of detailing why, but I really enjoyed The Invention of Morel at face value.

And with Mitisek and Moore holding a post-show Q&A--that still let me get home in plenty of time for the Oscars--I liked the entire experience, and everything associated with it, even more.

1 comment:

Ken said...

I have a feeling the internet actually enables a lot more associative learning than in the past.