SANTA FE — The most ballyhooed item in this summer’s Santa Fe Opera festival has been The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, a musical setting of episodes from the life (and death) of the co-founder of Apple, Inc.
The hype has produced nay-sayers, of course, and I must admit to approaching the work with the full expectation of disliking it. It was a surprise, then, when skepticism turned to grudging acceptance and, finally, outright admiration.
This is an engrossing story about a brilliant, though difficult, pioneer whose innovations have had a worldwide effect. The text, by librettist Mark Campbell, is impressively enhanced by the music of Mason Bates, a master of blending traditional and digital sounds to create an appealing auditory environment.
One early criticism of the opera is that it polishes the reputation of Jobs, turning a jerk (in Jobs’ critics’ view) into a quasi humanitarian. But the opera is no hagiography. There is enough nastiness in its portrayal to give the impression that Jobs had his unpleasant and even cruel side.
(Santa Fe’s printed program cautions that although the opera “is inspired by the life and creative spirit of Steve Jobs,” it “does not purport to depict actual events as they occurred or statements, beliefs or opinions of the persons depicted.” It also says the work “has not been authorized or endorsed by Apple Inc., the estate or family of Steve Jobs or by any persons depicted therein.”)
Santa Fe has assembled a magnificent cast for the opera. It is dominated by Edward Parks in the title role; his sturdy baritone is a strong asset, and from a distance he even physically resembles Jobs.
Another powerfully appealing figure is lyric bass Wei Wu as Kobun Chino Otogawa, Jobs’ Buddhist guru. Also serving honorably, among others, are mezzo Sasha Cooke as Jobs’ wife Laurene, soprano Jessica E. Jones as his girlfriend Chrisann and tenor Garrett Sorenson as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.
Michael Christie conducts an impressive array of sound-makers, some electronic, some not (it’s amusing that among the latter is an old-timey but effective instrument, a quite prominent acoustic guitar).
The opera, done without intermission, consists of 18 brief scenes taking up about an hour and a half of playing time. Times and settings are jumbled — a potential source of confusion.
The opera is in English, of course, though Santa Fe is also projecting English as well as Spanish in its back-of-the-seat subtitle system. The cast’s diction is clear enough that reading the words is rarely necessary.
Santa Fe is producing four other operas this summer. They are Johann Strauss Jr.’s Die Fledermaus, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel and Handel’s Alcina.
The most successful of the four is Lucia di Lammermoor. It has a strong cast led by a spectacular Lucia, soprano Brenda Rae, backed by a first-rate team including tenor Mario Chang (Edgardo), baritone Zachary Nelson (Enrico) and tenor Stephen Martin (Normanno).
It is mostly a traditional Lucia, though it veers a couple of times from standard practice. For one thing, it employs a glass harmonica in the mad scene and elsewhere (Donizetti himself sanctioned this). For another, at the end, the ghost of Lucia rises up to greet Edgardo as he enters Heaven.
Die Fledermaus and Alcina are both disappointing. There are musical pleasures to be had in both productions, but in both cases the directors (Ned Canty in Fledermaus, David Alden in Alcina) have discarded musical values in favor of directorial excess. This is especially the case with Alcina, which is puzzling to start with and even more so in Alden’s hands.
There’s a bit of excess in The Golden Cockerel as well, but its goofiness is charming enough, its music appealing enough, and its designs colorful enough that one tends to make allowances.
Dallas will get a chance to hear the rooster crow on some as-yet-unannounced date; the Dallas Opera is co-producing Rimsky-Korsakov’s Cockerel with Santa Fe. Dallas’ music director, Emmanuel Villaume, was an impressive musical captain in the performance I heard.