Death and the Powers

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Machover
LABELS: The Dallas Opera Company
ALBUM TITLE: Death and the Powers
WORKS: Death and the Powers
PERFORMER: Harvey, Hal Cazalet; The Dallas Opera Company Orchestra and Chorus/Nicole Paiement; dir. Diane Paulus (US, 2014)
CATALOGUE NO: Blu-ray: ISBN: 8-88295 20400-2

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Tod Machover’s Death and the Powers is a curious mixture of the visionary and the antiquated. Created in collaboration with the MIT Media Lab, this innovative ‘robot opera’ blends live performance with on-stage robotics and a colossal video wall. The premise is intriguing: an assembly of robots perform a ritual drama through a ‘memory download’ of their once-mortal forms, who tell a tale of human sensibility versus machinic objectivity. We learn that some time ago billionaire entrepreneur Simon Powers set about renouncing his human self to become immersed in The System: a technological advancement that will allow Powers a kind of faceless immortality. Powers’s daughter, Miranda, struggles with the moral implications of Powers’s complex desire for both omnipotence and surrender, pleading that her father uphold humankind’s connection to ‘the body of death’.

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Yet despite a deft libretto by Robert Pinsky and a fine cast, both opera and production feel unexpectedly outmoded on occasion, an issue further exposed by the work’s futuristic ambitions. While Machover’s score for 19-piece orchestra features the arresting sonorities of a 21st-century Messiaen, the soundworld of the actual robots is a synthesizer cliché. At times the narrative feels clunky and overwrought and the physical robots themselves are curiously trundling, a problem not aided by the disc’s somewhat jarring use of ‘robot-eye-view’ shots. There are, however, strong lead performances, with Patricia Risley (Evvy) and Joélle Harvey (Miranda) bringing notable command and sensitivity to their challenging roles. The scope and ambition of the opera is also highly commendable, in both the production’s more successful technical innovation and the work’s urge to grapple with the big questions of this ‘post-human’ age. The disc is largely well-shot, with sound and image crystal clear on the Blu-ray edition: if only the opera’s vision was as finely tuned. Kate Wakeling