This one-hour whirlwind of a chamber opera lashes Kamala Sankaram’s intriguing but accessible music together with a chillingly fun futuristic-steampunk sensibility. The result is an occasionally bewildering but thoroughly rewarding piece performed by a sparkling cast in a crackerjack production.
Clever videos show alternate-world news broadcasts and commercials (like one for dirt), helping to set the tone of the world we’re in, namely the New Federation of Northern States. Surprising projections and lighting effects play up the stunning costumes (by Jacci Jaye) worn by the spirited, multitasking cast – who are, in turn, aided at key moments by enthusiastic audience participation. If that was a breathless sentence, it’s meant to suggest the barrelling feel of the production.
The performers all play instruments as well as sing and act their roles in the simple tale, which concerns a young diet-pill heiress (Ms. Sankaram) who dies mysteriously after discovering a shocking company secret. Was she murdered, and if so, by whom? (Or did she take her own life, unable to bear the pressure of the secret?) Urged on by the colorful Bailiff (a gloriously wound-up Jerry Miller), the audience is called upon to render judgement. It all transpires under the scary-silly gaze of a computerized magistrate, projected as a robotic head on a screen and sung with auto-tuned Mr. Roboto majesty by Eric Brenner.
Unlike most of the cast, Ms. Sankaram, in the title role, is a real opera singer. But her creamy soprano fits neatly among the impressively varied skills of her cast, whose live playing realizes the composer’s innovative orchestration. With violin, cello, electric guitar, reeds, and recorded backing tracks, later joined by Ms. Sankaram’s accordion, the very full sound now and then stomps over the refreshingly straightforward libretto (by Ms. Sankaram with Rob Reese). Not all the voices are very powerful. But one can usually make out the words. (Although, without subtitles, the production suffers a bit from the intelligibility issues encountered by any opera, even an English-language one like this.)
Drawing on rock, tango, movie-thriller music, Baroque opera, hip-hop, and more, the score is consistently engaging and exciting, sometimes thrilling. Will violinist Rima Fand, who plays Miranda’s mother, one of the suspects, manage to sing her prestissimo lines without stumbling over them, while simultaneously playing the same fast melody on her instrument? Will a phone conversation between Miranda’s voice and her lover’s (Drew Fleming) lyrical guitar lines hold together in the lilting tempo they must maintain? The score is full of surprising touches: the sagging chord that accompanies the portentous line “the man who would later kill her”; the plain-vanilla but dramatically hollered blues scales; and the over-the-top glam-rock howls of the virtual magistrate, to name a few.
Three years in development, Miranda has achieved a fine polish. Its one flaw is the vagueness of the actual story; missing or mis-hearing lines here and there, one is left unsure whether one has missed important plot points. But in the end that detracted very little from this jury member’s appreciation for and enjoyment of the fine work that makes this such an exciting production. Miranda runs through January 21 at HERE.
Photo by Christopher Lovenguth