By Kyle MacMillan
CHICAGO — Considered by Jorge Luis Borges and others as a masterwork of Latin-American fiction, Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel (1940) has been favorably compared to Henry James’ ghostly novella, The Turn of the Screw. The latter proved to be fertile source material for Benjamin Britten’s spellbinding 1954 opera of the same title, so it’s understandable why someone might attempt a similar adaptation of Casares’ mysterious tale.
That someone turned out to be Stewart Copeland, the renowned co-founder and drummer of the iconic 1970s and ’80s English new-wave rock band The Police. He has had a major second career as a film and television composer, including scores for such movies as Wall Street (1987) and Very Bad Things (1998). In addition, he has written operas, ballets, and concert works.
Copeland spent three and a half years working on The Invention of Morel, the first commission in the 43-year history of the Chicago Opera Theater, which has long devoted itself to contemporary and offbeat works within the field. The resulting 90-minute chamber opera dropped with something of a thud Feb. 17 as the company presented the world premiere in the Studebaker Theater, a historic jewel-box venue in downtown Chicago that provided the ideal intimacy for this work.
The biggest problem was trying to figure out exactly what this opera is about or why we should care. There is nothing wrong with allowing a story to slowly reveal its secrets, much as Britten’s The Turn of the Screw does, but this opera does little to generate suspense and really get under the audience’s skin. Part of the fault lies with the somewhat leaden libretto, written by Copeland and director Jonathan Moore, and part of it lies with the music. In opera, the music has to enliven and enrich the story, evoking moods, delineating characters, and building a vivid, emotionally resonant world. While there is much to like about Copeland’s score, it stumbles in fulfilling these essential tasks.
Although opera presentations typically provide a synopsis, there was just a generalized set-up in the printed program, and the audience was left to try and piece together what was going on. In what seems to be the 1930s, an escaped fugitive, dressed in a torn, stained shirt and pants, has made his way to a strange island in the South China Sea, where he squats in what seems to be a kind of museum. He proceeds to recount his bizarre, sometimes grim tale, which involves rumors of flesh falling off people’s bones as though they had been exposed to radiation and the eventual discovery of an enigmatic machine.
Several weeks into his stay, the fugitive is surprised by the arrival of a group of upper-class tourists, and he falls in love with an alluring, Louise Brooks-like movie actress, Faustine, who comes to the same beach every day just before sunset. The only problem is that she doesn’t see him or even realize he is there, and he becomes resentful of her inattention and disdains her scientist beau, Morel.
In what is the opera’s big reveal, it turns out that these people don’t exist, at least not in physical reality. Instead, Morel, using his futuristic machine, has diabolically transferred them to a kind of recorded alternative reality, where they live on forever, unknowingly repeating the week that they have spent on the island. In the end, in a kind of Faustian bargain (notice the similarity to Faustine’s name), the fugitive gives up his fleshly existence and uses the machine to transport himself into this alternate reality, so that he can be alongside the object of his obsession, although it seems clear at the end that she still does not know he is there.
An old adage in journalism is show, don’t tell. But this opera tries to have it both ways. The fugitive is actually two characters who are labeled Fugitive and Narrator, and together they both tell and act out the story, sometimes even singing duets with each other. As fascinating an idea as that might be, it really doesn’t work. The narration comes off as overbearing, and the action is too thin and superficial. Even the director acknowledges the potential clumsiness of this approach, ending his program note with a request that the audience bear in mind these two characters are the same person — “Narrator in the ‘now’ watching and recalling himself, Fugitive in the ‘past.’”
The Fugitive is the only character the audience really gets to know in this opera, but in the end we don’t know much about him either, and it’s hard to generate any real sense of connection to him or empathy for him. The rest are just stick characters who come and go. At one point, there is a discussion about religion and science, which might have made sense in the novel, but here it doesn’t lead anywhere and just seems like an odd distraction. In the end, when the fugitive gives up his life to be with Faustine, a woman he knows really nothing about and who seems more like a fantastical construct, it’s an empty relationship that left this audience member feeling empty as well.
Baritone Andrew Wilkowske energizes the role of the Fugitive with non-stop physicality and intensity, capturing the character’s obsessive edginess and capably handling every vocal demand. Baritone Lee Gregory takes the role of the Narrator, and the two prove to be a convincing, well-matched pair. The rest of the eight-member cast make the most of their limited roles. Soprano Valerie Vinzant aptly conveys Faustine’s detached sexual appeal, handling the character’s high-pitched, spectre-like vocalizations and few lines with lilting ease, and tenor Nathan Granner turns in a confident, smooth-voiced portrayal of Morel.
The opera’s action takes place on and around a raised platform at the center of the stage, which when illuminated from below with green light suggests Morel’s pernicious, subterranean machine. Most of the opera’s settings and context are provided by projections designed by Adam Flemming that zoomed in and out. Behind the platform was a kind of grillwork, with arched openings, set at angle in harmony with five angled, short columns. But it was hard to see what these abstract elements, overseen by scenic designer Alan E. Muraoka, added to the production.
After working in movies and theater and creating five previous music-theater works, Copeland clearly knows how to advance a story and generate atmosphere, and he makes the most of the 16-piece pit orchestra. The biggest surprise here, considering his ties to The Police, is that there is not more of a rock vibe. Instead, the score opens with a spare, edgy, modernist sound with sliding, bent string effects, and it constantly evolves, sometimes possessing a cinematic feel, other times a 1930s jazzy spirit. If anything, given the darkness of much of this opera’s subject matter, the music could have been — and arguably should have been — grittier and more dissonant at times. The music was solidly conducted by Andreas Mitisek (Chicago Opera Theater’s artistic and general director).
Considering Copeland’s background as a drummer, a not surprising constant throughout was the insistent, multifaceted percussion provided by two players. For the most part, it added a welcome rhythmic dynamism to the score, but it sometimes became heavy-handed. A clear misstep was the occasional insertion — especially alongside the singing of the Fugitive and Narrator — of disembodied female voices to provide some kind of back-up. These off-stage voices did not gel with the singing on the stage and came across as oddly jarring.
The Invention of Morel brings together winning ingredients, including Casare’s fascinating novel as a starting point and the obvious talents of Copeland as a composer, and the Chicago Opera Theater deserves praise for taking the risk on its inaugural commission. But as whole, the ambitious undertaking falls short.
Kyle MacMillan recently marked his 25th anniversary as a music critic and reporter. After serving 11 years as fine arts critic for the Denver Post, he is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and writes for such national publications as Opera News and The Wall Street Journal.