Not that there isn't musical variety from scene to scene, from sequences of vigorous rhythmic assertiveness to passages of hypnotic lyricism (as when Powers's wife — soprano Emily Albrink — enters humming). Powers's entrance into the System — almost the inverse of the "death" of HAL the computer in Kubrick's 2001 — is unforgettable. Even stronger, both musically and dramatically, is the gripping final confrontation between Powers (Maddalena back in his real body after a long stretch of off-stage singing) and Miranda (soprano Sara Heaton), which ends with piercing irresolution when she thinks she prefers death to leaving her body behind.
The weakest section is the long satirical sequence in which gray-suited representatives of the United Nations (baritone David Kravitz), the United Way (countertenor Douglas Dodson), and the Administration (bass Tom McNichols) demand an interview with Powers. (They don't know he's died.) A major musical miscalculation is Machover's new setting of "Urlicht" ("primal light"), the German poem about humanity's pain and great need that Mahler set so sublimely in his Resurrection Symphony; he still has no competition. Weaker still, though not musically, is the embarrassing scene in which Paulus has the "World's Miseries" come clawing (silently) across the stage like the chorus of Les Miz.
Celebrated British production designer Alex McDowell (Minority Report, Fight Club) has created a sleekly striking set that includes a voluptuous chandelier (a kind of electronic Venus flytrap) and three rotating walls with changing lights (Donald Holder, lighting designer) that look like bookshelves and which the nimble Cazalet can climb. (I got a little tired of it well before the opera ended.) Choreographer Karole Armitage, once one of Merce Cunningham's most characterful dancers, created some amusing dances for both humans and robots. And the extended technical team (far too many to list) is surely phenomenal.
Some of Death and the Powers is truly stirring. But many of its 90 intermissionless minutes dragged, and I left the theater less exhilarated than slightly dispirited. The opera might be tighter — and more immediate — by minimizing, or even cutting, the prologue and epilogue with the robots, and by drastically abbreviating the UN and World Miseries stuff. And I wish most of the singing weren't amplified, or at least were more evenly amplified. Maybe the Majestic just needs a better sound system.
C.P.E. LOVE Sir Roger Norrington conducted the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in a program devoted to J.S. Bach’s second son.
The Boston Early Music Festival offered us a rare opportunity to hear an entire program of music by Bach's second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel (a/k/a C.P.E.) Bach, who makes a fascinating bridge between his father and the classicism of Haydn and Mozart. Sir Roger Norrington brought the magnificent strings of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and strong soloists in two concertos: Steven Devine, harpsichord, and Richard Lester, cello. The slow movements of these concertos were glorious, as inventive as C.P.E.'s other movements but with a greater sense of direction, more inspired musical lines, and a profound inwardness. The four symphonies on either side of these concertos varied in interest, despite C.P.E.'s startling twists of tone (even within a single movement), and serious, sometimes bizarre playfulness. Too much of this music runs on its odd samplings of stock phrases. One movement reminded me of Mozart's satirical A Musical Joke, except that Mozart's jokes were better, and he knew he was joking. Still, a refreshing change from programming as usual.