The Machine Stops

This year’s UoT Opera student composed opera sets a libretto by Michael Patrick Albano based on a 1909 story by EM Forster.  It’s a dystopian sci-fi story and OK as these things go though one suspects it felt a whole lot more original in 1909.  Basically, humanity is living underground in pods with limited face to face interaction.  Life is mediated by “The Machine” which increasingly has become an object of veneration as well as utility.  The principal characters are Vashti, a believer, and her rebellious son Kuno who is prone to make illegal excursions to the planet surface where, he realises, there are still people living.  It’s a bit like Logan’s Run but not as sexy.  The Relationship between the two breaks down over their belief systems until The Machine goes belly up at which point there is a reconciliation before everyone dies.  Along the way there’s a fair bit of heavy handed philosophising by the narrator and chorus.

machinestops

The piece consists of eight scenes with composition divided up between three composers; Robert Taylor, Patrick McGaw and Steven Webb.  They are three distinct voices but the piece still seems fairly coherent.  I really liked Webb’s contribution which was kind of John Adams like; some jazz influences, some fairly dramatic minimalism.  McGraw’s music was more obviously lyrical, also with some jazz influence while Taylor’s was more abstract sounding rather like a soundtrack for an SF film.  An interesting mix.

The stand out performances were from the two leading characters; Victoria Marshall playing Vashti and Max van Wyck as Kuno.  Both have good voices and sang with authority and some real beauty.  They were also convincing actors.  The supporting roles were OK and the chorus, which included most of my favourite UoT singers, was effective, though as they sang mostly from the deep MacMillan pit, a bit distant. Terrific playing from the nine piece band and the whole thing pulled together nicely by Sandra Horst.

Maybe the best thing about this show though were the set and lighting designs (James Bolton and Gavin McDonald) and the way Albano used them to convey the atmosphere of very different spaces; the “pods”, an airship, the planet surface etc.  It was slick, atmospheric and effective.(*)

All in all, a pretty good advertisement for this part of the UoT program; one of very few (maybe only one) that regularly stages student composed opera.

*More than can be said for the MacMillan Theatre heating which went belly up long before The Machine.  It was freezing!

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