Thursday, May 08, 2008

Computer Opera

You've all seen pictures projected on scrim at the opera house. This has been going on since Edison invented the light bulb and maybe longer. Now I have seen an opera where the entire set is a giant computer screen, like something Steve Jobs would use for a presentation. It was beyond my wildest imagination.

The opera is Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle, sung in Hungarian and presented by the Berkeley Opera. Wow! There's no pit in the Julia Morgan Theater, so the orchestra sat behind the computer screen and the two singers -- Paul Murray as Bluebeard and Kathleen Moss as Judith -- worked in front. They kept contact with the invisible conductor through video monitors.

I'm actually getting to love this opera, sort of Bartók's own Pictures at an Exhibition. The seven doors open one by one and Bartók's music aurally portrays each scene. The drama lay primarily in the computer art playing on the screen behind the singers. From the outside the castle presents as giant ice blocks. Inside we see the damp stone walls Judith describes. Then fabulous half realistic / half abstract pictures show us what is behind each door as the music progresses from torture chamber, to armory, to treasury, to garden, to sweepingly vast and deserted kingdom, to an ocean of tears, and finally to Bluebeard's past three wives. Created by Naomie Kremer from photographs and computer manipulation of images that bleed and transform before our eyes, rather like a kaleidescope, it was a film to match Bartók's wonderful music, a visual treat.

What does it all mean? Does Bluebeard kill her? Are the other three wives dead? Does the presence of blood everywhere indicate death? Is Judith just there out of curiosity, or does she really love him? Or is it merely a ménage à cinque. The ambiguity is not resolved.

I was less satisfied with the performance of Ravel's L'enfant et les sortilèges (The Child and the Spells: A Lyric Fantasy in Two Parts) which came after. The boy, sung by Misha Brooks, seemed to be having trouble controlling his voice. It may be starting to change.

The production is very complicated and didn't always hang together. It involved ballet, puppets, and singers who stood along the side of the theater while the dancers created the visual aspect. There were frogs, a squirrel, cats, a bat, a dragonfly and a giant mama. Mama scolds the boy who then throws a tantrum and tears up everything in sight. I suppose the two parts are the scene inside the playroom where boy makes mayhem and the later scene out of doors where the animals get their revenge.

Behind the dancers and puppets is the same computer screen where some of the action is played out and atmospheres are created. I felt the artistic vision was less complete and less satisfying than Bluebeard.

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