By Bryson David Hoff
New works of theatre are a bigger challenge to stage in all aspects: the script is untested, the cast and crew must create the production elements completely from scratch and the audience has no entry point with which to connect to the piece.
This is especially true in the case of opera, which is such a repertoire-based genre that even the most avid opera fans can easily go an entire lifetime without ever seeing a world premiere. Luckily for Chicago audiences, Chicago Opera Theater’s new co-commission with Long Beach Opera, The Invention of Morel presents just such an opportunity.
Based on the novel by Argentinean author Adolfo Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel tells the story of an unnamed man (baritone Andrew Wilkowske) who, on the run from an unspecified crime that he nevertheless insists he didn’t commit, escapes Calcutta and takes refuge on a deserted island in the South China Sea. There he is surprised to discover he shares the island with a small group of upper class jet-setters, including the beautiful Faustine (soprano Valerie Vinzant), with whom the protagonist is instantly and obsessively infatuated. However, no matter what he does, neither she nor any of the others in her group seem to physically perceive that he is there. Over the course of the evening, both the fugitive and the audience discover that all of this is due to the machinations of the mad scientist Dr. Morel (tenor Nathan Granner), whom the protagonist grows to resemble more and more as his desperation grows.
The cast is made up universally of strong singers with generally sharp acting instincts. However, the newness of the music definitely showed in some imprecision on cutoffs and some imprecision in phrasing during moments that may not have gotten as much rehearsal time as others. These are minor flaws, however, and can easily be forgiven in a piece like this that is more emotive and less hung up on aesthetic concerns. There is, for instance, not a single true aria in the entire span of composer and founding Police member Stewart Copeland’s score. Instead, it favors a more organic, Wagnerian melding of recitative and song which works well to keep the plot moving at a nice pace.
The music itself, conducted by Andreas Mitisek, is an appropriate setting for Casares’s post-modern novel, not atonal, but with a healthy amount of dissonance that cues the listener in early on the fact that this is a story with a lot of ambiguity to it. Director Jonathan Moore’s decision to utilize projections (designed by Adam Flemming) illustrating the often-expositional dialogue further serves to emphasize the distance between actual objects and events and the manner in which they are described to the audience.
The whole story is, notably, related purely through the diary of a future version of the fugitive (baritone Lee Gregory). The narrator’s omission of details like the exact circumstances that led to his fleeing Calcutta and the fact that one of the few details he does provide on his past is that he was once a regular at a bordello that housed exclusively blind women makes him a fundamentally shady figure, even as he invites the viewer to sympathize with his situation.
If there is one flaw to be found in the piece of a whole, however, it is that, the way the opera is staged in its current incarnation, this ambiguity is left entirely for the audience to parse out on its own. If an observer has not been engaging with the material, it is very easy to accept the narrator at face value, which would make the ending of the story especially jarring once the major transgressions start occurring. For the engaged audience, this shouldn’t be a problem, but for those whose attention has already not been captured, it will only serve to compound their problems with the piece.
This is probably an overstated issue, however, as pacing is usually the primary barrier for audience engagement in opera, which at a breezy 90 minutes is less likely to be an issue for this production. In all, despite some superficial issues, The Invention of Morel is an estimable new work sure to provide much basis for discussion over a post show dinner or round of drinks and well worth seeing.
Chicago Opera Theatre presents “The Invention of Morel” on February 24 and 26 at the Studebaker Theater, 410 S Michigan Ave, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.