Rocker successful at Chicago Opera Theater

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

What: “The Invention of Morel”
Where: The Studebaker Theater, 410 S.
Michigan Ave.
When: Through Feb. 26
Contact: chicagooperatheater.org

A mad scientist on a remote island entertains a handful of elites so taken with their own importance they don’t think to ask what’s going on in those coconut trees until it’s too late. 

It sounds horribly clichéd, but Argentine writer Adolfo Bioy Casares makes it a darn good yarn, if the opera based on his work is any indicator.

“The Invention of Morel” is the first-ever commission by Chicago Opera Theater, and while not everyone would turn first to a rock star, COT did. Stewart Copeland, who has written music in various genres, is most famous for being the drummer with the band The Police. The libretto is by Copeland and British actor, writer and director Jonathan Moore.

It is a story of love and obsession, God versus science, and the nature of reality. There is a terrible twist revealed only at the end which is both intriguing and horrifying.

Copeland’s music is tense and nervous, at time obvious but at other times engagingly contemporary and fresh. It is performed by a 16-piece orchestra made up primarily of members of the Fulcrum Point New Music Project. Under the baton of COT’s general director Andreas Mitisek, the sound is vigorous, pulsating, and dramatic.

The cast is made up of Morel, his five tourists, and a Fugitive who is portrayed by two singers: one is the Fugitive himself and the other, his alter ego, is the Narrator. Only at the end do we understand why this is so.

The sung lines vary from pedestrian to compelling, and Copeland’s weakness is that he settles too easily for single vocal lines. The Fugitive and the Narrator often sing together and nearly always in unison. I think Copland made the wrong choice not to have most of these duets give the two singers different musical lines. 

And what a lost opportunity: Copeland might composed his own version of a 21st century sextet with Morel and his elites. I mean a serious piece of music with six singers which isn’t a series of dull, declarative statements. Because that’s the biggest problem with “Morel,” at times it’s a long collection of statements, with often-clunky text.

Nonetheless, this opera is ultimately a success, with its many strengths overcoming the sporadic weaknesses.

The 90-minute opera (performed without an intermission) moves briskly, carefully unveiling the mystery. It is well cast with singers who are clearly committed to the piece.

Baritones Andrew Wilkowske and Lee Gregory, as the Fugitive and the Narrator, each sing with force and passion. Tenor Nathan Granner is a convincingly creepy mad scientist, his Morel controlling the elites who are powerless to stop him from completing his nefarious task.

Soprano Kimberly E. Jones is marvelous as a slinky and seductive chanteuse, and bass-baritone David Govertsen is a rock-steady presence as a political leader. Tenor Scott Brunscheen does a fine job as an egotistical architect. The only disappointment is mezzo-soprano Barbara Landis who is a caricature of a duchess, awkward and wobbly.

Soprano Valerie Vinzant is pure gold as the mysterious and alluring Faustine. She’s runway-model gorgeous and sings beautiful little lines which entice both Morel and the Fugitive, not to mention the audience. She is the lynchpin of the opera and she up to the job.

The opera is directed with flair by librettist Moore, who employs the unit set perfectly. COT has experimented several times in recent years with video projections, with mixed results. But in “Morel,” the video is first-rate, an example to be held up to other companies wanting to enhance the visual power of opera.

Stewart Copeland has created a new opera with lots of power and punch. You should see it.