‘(R)evolution’-ary Opera About Steve Jobs Arrives On CD

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Mason Bates/Mark Campbell: The (R)evolution Of Steve Jobs. Edward Parks (baritone), Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano), Kelly Markgraf (baritone), Wei Wu (bass), Garrett Sorenson (tenor), Jessica E. Jones (soprano), Mariya Kaganskaya (mezzo-soprano), Santa Fe Opera Orchestra, Michael Christie (conductor)
PentaTone PTC 5186 690, 2 SACDs, 2018. Time 94:15.

By Richard S. Ginell

DIGITAL REVIEW — One of the biggest immediate successes of the 2017 music season was the world premiere of Mason BatesThe (R)evolution Of Steve Jobs, an  opera based on the life of one of the digital era’s most celebrated and confounding figures. Aside from a few prominent dissenters, the critics were mostly sympathetic, and audiences at the Santa Fe Opera, site of the premiere, were clearly thrilled. All six scheduled performances were sold out, and when they added a seventh, that sold out too. Indiana University Bloomington’s Jacobs School of Music will put it on Sep. 14, 15, 21, and 22, then Seattle Opera gets it in Feb. 2019, and San Francisco Opera the following season.

Meanwhile, an audio-only recording made during the opera’s Santa Fe run has just come out as part of the Dutch PentaTone label’s valuable, fast-growing series of new and recent American operas. Isn’t it ironic that an opera about Jobs — whose groundbreaking corporation, Apple Inc., almost singlehandedly sent the CD into a death spiral with its iPod, iTunes store, iPhone, Apple Music, cloud-based storage, etc. — would be represented on supposedly obsolete polycarbonate discs, and in an audiophile format (SACD) that lost out in the marketplace long before? Of course, it is also available on streaming and download services, including those of Apple, which had no role in, and gave no approval of, the creation of the opera.

Bates seamlessly combines the orchestra with electronica.
(Mike Minehan)

The obvious question is whether or not this one-act opera holds up without the razzle-dazzle visual elements of the original production, which I saw. The good news is that it mostly does. Bates’ blend of a symphony orchestra with pitchless electronica laced with pop-folk-like acoustic guitar filigrees comes off even more smoothly at home than it did in the theater. The harmonies are attractive and the scoring never overbearing, and the music in the tech business scenes has a thrumming life force that captures its frantic time and place.

The hopping around in time among several incidents, real and imagined, from Jobs’ life is as seamlessly tied together as the goulash of timbres in Bates’ score. The touching prologue, in which Paul Jobs gives his 10-year-old son Steve his first workbench that he built for him, still produces goosebumps, thanks to Bates’ affectionate musical setting. Mark Campbell’s libretto, with its outbreaks of snark, irreverence (especially in the segments with Jobs’ wryly humorous “guru” Kōbun Chino Otogawa) and compassion, portrays a Jobs whose driven perfectionism and difficult personality alienate everyone until he is redeemed by the love of a good woman.

Yet there are a few aspects of the Jobs opera that are diminished without the production to help it along. For instance, I miss the dazzling multi-screen visuals of the scene in which Jobs introduces his new computer in a smartphone that fits into your pocket, one never mentioned by brand name in order to avoid legal tangles. For a home listener who did not see the production live, it might be difficult to get a sense of the energy of this scene.

Edward Parks works hard as Steve Jobs. (Dario Acosta, Santa Fe Opera)

The cast comes off as mostly serviceable on disc, the most impressive voice being the warm, plush mezzo-soprano of Sasha Cooke as Jobs’ wife Laurene. As is usually the case these days in opera, the vocal writing is mostly recitative; Jobs’ conception of computers as musical instruments at the end of Disc One, sung by the hard-working baritone Edward Parks, is just about the only “aria” that can be excerpted. Composers today aren’t afraid of melody, it’s just harder to come up with a good fresh one that stays in the memory.

The engineering makes more use of the surround-sound capabilities of SACD than is customary on classical recordings, with the electronic swoops and shadings from Bates’ laptop enveloping the listener more seductively than in plain old stereo or even at the Santa Fe Opera House. If you have surround equipment, crank up the rear channels. And hope that someone puts out a Blu-ray or DVD of the Seattle or San Francisco production someday.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America. He also contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America.

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