Stewart Copeland’s The Invention of Morel an intriguing world premiere

Armitage Concert Hall
Old Town School of Folk Music
Chicago, IL
February 17, 2017

A Conversation with Stewart Copeland, Jonathan Moore, and Andreas Mitisek
Chicago Opera Theater
Studebaker Theater
Chicago, IL
February 26, 2017

Copeland: The Invention of Morel

Andrew Wilkowske, Fugitive
Lee Gregory, Narrator
Valerie Vinzant, Faustine
Kimberly E. Jones, Dora
Nathan Granner, Morel

Andreas Mitisek, conductor
Fulcrum Point New Music Project
Jonathan Moore, director
Alan Muraoka, scenic designer

While general director of Andreas Mitisek has announced his departure from Chicago Opera Theater at the end of this season, he isn’t one not to end on a high note: staging a world premiere, in collaboration with rock and roll drummer turned opera composer Stewart Copeland and librettist Jonathan Moore.  The Invention of Morel takes its inspiration from the 1940 sci-fi novella by Adolfo Bioy Casares, contemporary and Argentine compatriot of Borges.  The surreal and fantastical nature of the source material doesn’t make for an obvious transition to opera, but the talented creative team took great pains to ensure that operatic treatment would serve the work well

The night before the premiere, an engaging Q&A with Copeland, Moore, and Mitisek was held at the Old Town School of Folk Music (a short clip can be viewed here).  A charismatic and articulate interlocutor, Copeland certainly exuded the larger-than-life persona of a bona fide rock star.  He spoke of the particular joy he had in the opportunity to write long-form compositions given their heightened expressive capabilities as compared to the standard three-minute pop song, and the greater possibility of the end product withstanding the test of time – humorously noting that his rock colleagues, Mick Jagger among them, hardly expected their songs to persist as long as they have.

Stewart Copeland at the Old Town School of Folk Music

Copeland first had success in symphonic music writing ballet and film scores, soon to be approached by the Cleveland Opera for his inaugural operatic effort – Holy Blood and Crescent Moon, dating from 1989.  Morel is his fifth opera, and Copeland was self-assured in his continued development as an opera composer, and was genuinely grateful the project was being embraced by COT.  In characteristic good humor, he suggested that each of his recent Chicago appearances have been a step up from the previous – as if The Police Reunion Tour at Wrigley Field in 2007 and performing his film score for Ben Hur with the Chicago Symphony in 2014 were mere warmups for working with COT.

Jonathan Moore was quite the raconteur in his inimitable British wit, speaking of the challenges inherent in translating the novella to a libretto suitable to the operatic stage, and his long affinity for music encouraged by his grandfather, a noted Irish fiddle player.  He further spoke enthusiastically of the experience of working with Copeland and Mitisek; the three of them on stage seemingly had the natural rapport of old friends.

Valerie Vinzant (Faustine) and Andrew Wilkowske (Fugitive), photo credit Liz Lauren

The venue of choice for Morel was the intimate Studebaker Theater, beautifully restored to its former glory – and quite recently so – in the Fine Arts Building, itself an architectural gem.  When the house lights went off, one expected the opera to commence, but instead the captive audience was served with a promotional video for COT – a worthy cause to be sure, but I wish they would have avoided soliciting during the essential moment of anticipation before the music begins.  A small matter, though, and the music followed in due course, opening with a bevy of string glissandos to immediately invoke an otherworldly, surreal atmosphere.  As one would expect from the ex-drummer of The Police, the score – conducted by Mitisek and convincingly performed by the 16 member Fulcrum Point New Music Project – was dominated by the percussion, and almost unrelentingly so.

While the music had its fill of rhythmic drive, it was more than mere pastiche or a symphonic mash-up of rock and roll tropes, and in a nod towards eclecticism there were sections suggesting samba and jazz.  In rock musicians who have turned to classical idioms, there is often the perplexing trend of an artist cutting-edge in their comfort zone suddenly becoming cautiously parochial, for instance, Roger Waters’ disappointingly conservative opera Ça ira or Billy Joel’s rather formulaic Fantasies and Delusions for solo piano.  I would not say this of Morel¸ however, in spite of this and Copeland’s obvious commitment to the project, the music was perhaps the weakest link, lacking any truly memorable melodies.

The plot, though not without a certain allure, was cumbersome and sometimes difficult to follow.  It dealt with a Narrator reminiscing about his younger self (the Fugitive) happening upon an island.  There, he encounters a group of tourists and is immediately enamored with a certain Faustine.  But, the scientist Morel has subjected the visitors to his titular invention, namely, a device that allows them to exist in a perpetually-looping reality, but at the cost of their lives.  As the Fugitive and Faustine effectively exist in mutually exclusive dimensions, they cannot communicate and she isn’t even aware of his presence.

The Fugitive and Narrator were played by Andrew Wilkowske and Lee Gregory respectively – dressed the same and physically resembling one another, they often echoed each other’s lines.  Both had powerful vocal presences, and their dualism suggested the work’s central dichotomies, a reflection on past and present, on science and religion.  Valerie Vinzant was effective in her sensuous portrayal of Faustine, and commanded the wide tessitura of the part with aplomb.

Alan Muraoka’s set was serviceable in its minimalism, an immutable edifice that was cast in a different light with regards to the video projections designed by Adam Flemming.  While I didn’t leave the Studebaker convinced I had just witnessed a new operatic masterpiece, Morel is nonetheless a welcome addition to the repertoire, and certainly a highpoint for Mitisek to conclude his tenure at Chicago Opera Theater.