If Mary Shelley bumped into Libby Larsen at West EdgeOpera, at the final matinee of “Frankenstein,” what would she have said? “Good job, Girl. Another new vista. A moving monster and a compelling draw away from the axe Viktor Frankenstein had to grind?” Or, “What on earth are you talking about – my monster and his maker, a 21st century killer, even more, cold and bloodless?” No doubt, she would have asked a myriad of other questions. Examples? “This double of his, how does he amplify the perspective? Shackleton/Walton, how do you see him ultimately? Will our Promethean tendencies and our newest electronic gambits get further out of control?” But, she would have no doubt have been also intrigued to know that her famous novel inspired yet another rendition – one count gave over 100 films, stories, and retellings, including the famous one of Boris Karloff, and today’s National Theater’s Jonny Lee Miller and Benjamin Cumberbatch’s versions –in opera form. Now that was an achievement.
Unique Dramatic Invention
West Edge Opera’s production of Libby Larsen’s “Frankenstein” (1990), was a challenge the first time around. An angular, moment-to-moment suspension of challenges, in fact, musically, vocally and dramatically, which overall hung together, albeit differently from much of today’s operatic canon. A series of 14 scenes alternating from music alone, music and voice, of a varied palette, to occasional speech and vocal recitative-style song take us through the story. Thematically we traverse a wide gamut, with the manifold urge to create to the punishment and retribution for such hubris at the core of the story. Here again is the reminder that however far-reaching our desires to control self-mind-universe, we most likely will fail.
We get all that in a mere ninety minutes. Incoherence is only trompe d’oeil of this performance.
Larsen chooses good company, setting such a literary masterwork to music. Larsen’s work, like her literary ancestor’s, indicates that creation is creation is creation after all, gender be damned. She can compose music and adapt text as well as the next one.
Moments of Shelley’s story seem to have prompted some of Larsen’s sounds: “Bound for honor, bound for glory” in the Prologue, to “We don’t cry over experiments”, in Scene 2, to “Can we live with the truth?” Scene 3, “I took life from the sky”, to the Monster, “How do you repay me?”, in Scene 7. Yet, at other times, the music seems to have dictated the words – “I made him but I cannot love him”; “I made a mistake”; “I am alone”, his isolation more than allusion to Gustave von Aschenbach and Peter Grimes.
Musical Dramatic Creators
In the pit, maestro Jonathan Khuner conducts with distinction, mingling narrative and serial perspectives, and colliding melodic motifs with a wide variety of sounds to keep us interested even when some overly-long discussions dilute tension. Khuner brings alive through the panoply of well-dramatized voices, and orchestral motifs and color the allusions to Benjamin Britain, mainly “Billy Budd” and “Peter Grimes,” plus “Death in Venice” (actually on the agenda for West Edge’s 2018 Opera Festival).
Frankenstein, played by tenor, Sam Levine, carries the burden of the opera, both dramatically and vocally. His voice, his movement, his conviction, bring us through Frankenstein’s journey. His “twin” tenor, Ship Victor, played movingly by Daniel Curran, amplifies this, though it takes some time to figure out what he is doing there. The double view, an excellent vehicle to enhance consciousness, suggests that no one is wholly blind or “deaf” to any other, however passionate we are. But, only when the Monster comes to life does either Victor begin to take stock: “What did I make? I did it; what did I make? I did it.” We never know: what we wish can come true, and can, with such a Promethean reach, violate and destroy us.
The Monster, played by Gary Morgan, moves with almost superhuman dynamism, to say the least. Was he actually spawned by lightning? For much of his performance, Morgan’s Monster fascinates with his extraordinary range and dexterity of elbows and knees, ankles, and feet, head, and sometimes face. He spawns our own wonder over what our own creations may produce, were we able to reach that far. Still, by the penultimate death he commits, Morgan displays, brilliantly no doubt, what we have seen before, and, as such, repetition halts our reflection of what else there is to say, and where else might we go. Flexibility might be divine rather than monstrous, but even so, it is also remarkably human, particularly in Scene 9 when the Monster moves to a poignant and unsung melody, and projections of Plutarch’s “Lives,” Dante’s “Divine Comedy” and Blake’s “Tyger,” layered behind him, each help to amplify the point. Heart was definitely plucked like a violin at that moment.
Elizabeth, played by Chelsea Hollow, William, by Rowan Whitney, Justine, played by Veronica Jensen, and Henry Clerval, played by Ryan Bradford, performed their roles with clarity and precision, although in the women’s voices at times, Hollow’s for example, the music subsumed. Their roles, however, serve pattern more than a developed human dimension; no doubt Director Matthew Ozawa aimed for this to accent the terrible conflict between human and other dimensions of experience. Captain Robert Walton, Shackleton, played by Josh Quinn, illustrated this with his moving dramatic voice, highlighting the historical as well as the mythic struggle.
Larsen’s wish to use today’s technology was implemented by Jeremy Knight, Projection Designer, Set Designer Jean-François Revon and Lighting Designer Lucas Krech. Together they made excellent use of modern technological “toys” such as light sticks, à la “Star Wars,” boxes with dynamic neon light-stick frames stuffed with black and white balloons – as well as a large projection screen across the whole back of stage, with shifting clouds, a small-girl-doll in a Victorian costume, mimicking the Frankenstein experience from yet another angle. Red balloons, in the last quarter, brought blood back into the black and white reality created thus far. The projections, from opening heart, hand, eye, remain sometimes too fuzzy to weigh in as much as they were meant to and frustrated more than added weight; even the Victorian doll projection became too much to absorb as she mimicked some of Frankenstein’s own movements on stage.
From rats’ hearts to lightning to creation and destruction, Larsen’s “Frankenstein” leaves us with a lot to think about and West Edge’s production yet another sample of their original, daring and creative theatrical and musical work. In their 2018 season, we will, no doubt, savor more of the same.