|Eugene Brancoveanu in Machine. Photo by Sean Donnelly|
I've been looking forward to finally seeing a production at The Crucible for some time and last night I caught the dress rehearsal for Machine, a "fire opera" by composer Clark Suprynowicz and director/ first-time librettist Mark Streshinsky. The production incorporates many of the skills taught and practiced at the educational facility, which means fire spews from the set constantly- from the floor, from above, from the mouths of performers and the entire production has a Burning Man/steam punk vibe to it- imagine Nibleheim beneath the Thunderdome.
The opera, based on the short story "Deus Ex Machina" by Derek J. Goodman, is about William, whose father has disappeared, leaving behind a destitute wife, daughter and son. William is performed by the very talented baritone and former Adler Fellow Eugene Brancoveanu- an incredible coup for this production and a sign of the indefatigable singer's artistic curiosity. William takes a job at the Longitude Steel Press to provide for the family and ten years later wakes from an imposed stupor not comprehending what has become of him or his family, since he's spent it working mindlessly for the Machine.
The Machine, or at least its slaves, has three authority figures: Sonya, played by mezzo Valentina Osinski (longtime veteran of Bay Area opera companies); Redshirt, performed by tenor Joe Meyers; and Brigid, performed by rock singer Dawn McCarthy. The staging and libretto never quite make clear who the big boss is, as each seems to control a different sphere within the Steel Press. The clever, three-tiered set designed by Jean-Francois Revon has action taking place in almost every corner during the 65-minute show, and it's easy to miss things- do you want to follow the singers, watch things ignite, or admire the bodies of the performers? The choice is yours.
The musicians are placed on all three tiers. Led by Barnaby Palmer (formerly of San Francisco Lyric Opera), there are seven percussionists, two guitars, a bass, cello, accordion, and some computer-generated sounds, all of which at some point are buttressed by the low-humming of gas jets (or something). Amplified in a space obviously not acoustically-friendly to nuanced music, Suprynowicz's music ends up creating effect and mood rather than driving the work more than one would deisre in an opera, but it's clear he has some interesting music in the score, with many of the opera's first forty minutes or so reminding me at points of Berg and Janacek (Wozzeck and Katya Kabanova specifically, both of which contain themes not far from those found in Machine). Toward the last third, the music shifts to a more jazz-infused rock orientation, with no ill effect. Brancoveanu and Osinski can handle everything thrown their way with ease, and the same can be said for the smaller roles of Alexis Lane Jensen as William's mother and Ann-Kathryn Olsen as the sister once her microphone was adjusted.
There are many fine elements at work here- creative staging (though it all feels very Burning Man), some interesting music, and two fine performances. The story, a variant of one told many times before, is well-translated to the stage by everyone involved and one can easily discern the commitment and energy of the entire crew to make it all work. But not all of it works and there are a few things clogging up this Machine which keep it from being a complete success.
One problem is Brigid's vocal part, sung by "rock and roll singer" McCarthy. If that epithet makes you cringe a bit, hearing it will only be worse. The rock-style vocals don't blend in easily with the rest of the score and McCarthy doesn't bring enough to the part to make one wonder what someone with more vocal range and dramatic ability may have done with it, but as it is, the role veers toward camp. Meyers' Redshirt costume makes absolutely no sense in the production's visual aesthetic- he looks like he left his actual costume on a BART train on the way to the performance. Also, there are moments when the singers stop singing and just talk their lines, completely disrupting the flow of the what the audience is hearing.
These are relatively minor criticisms but I do have one major one and that's Streshinsky's libretto, which has a couple of moments in it where I couldn't believe the lines actually made it into the finished work. At one low point I felt somewhat embarrassed for Brancoveanu, who has the misfortune to have to sing about how surprised he is to have an erection in the presence of Sonya. Not that that's inappropriate to his character or the story (and Osinksi's character is certainly alluring in her black leather hot pants and boots), but it was handled so clumsily it was- well, just bad. I almost laughed, and I'm 99% sure it wasn't meant to be funny. The other problem with the libretto is it more often than not fights against Suprynowicz's score instead of working with it, though that may be the composer's problem and not the fault of the librettist.
There are seven performances coming up- check The Crucible's website for tickets and details, and I did see some on Goldstar. Oh, and the vending machine for drinks is broken- bring your own.