Theater Mirror
Sheila Barth
March 29, 2011

If you missed American Repertory Theater (ART) and MIT’s FAST Arts Festival one-act, 90-minute production of “Death and the Powers:The Robots’ Opera,” I hope it returns, for your sake. You won’t see the likes of it again. Writers Tod Machover, Robert Pinsky and Randy Weiner, with ART Artistic Director-Director Diane Paulus have struck theatrical gold with this innovative, futuristic opera that makes every minute on stage breathtaking.

This groundbreaking piece that made its North American premiere last week at the Cutler Majestic Theatre at Emerson College in Boston, drew excited crowds with its amazing technology, animated set, chorus of blinking, moving operabots and wiry sculptured chandelier, along with a cast of superlative singers. It celebrated its world premiere at Opera de Monte Carlo last September.

The phenomenal Boston Modern Orchestra Project, conducted by Gil Rose, provides superb accompaniment to James Maddalenda as billionaire Simon Powers; Emily Albrink as his wife, Evvy; Sara Heaton as his teen-age daughter, Miranda, and Hal Cazalet as Simon’s “post-organic” aide, Nicholas; and the rest of the cast. Sung in English but electronically enhanced with bleeps, blinks, echo chambers, and other technological wonders, the opera captivates. However, Pinsky’s libretto is strained at times, with awkward words that undermine this clever sci-fi production.

The plot explores death and the hereafter, centered around an internationally powerful billionaire who’s about to die from heart problems. He figures by giving up his corporeal state of being - his matter - and preserving his mind through the “System” that’s controlled by human organic power, he’ll live forever- i.e mind over the weaknesses and failures of matter. Creators call the phenomenon a “disembodied performance”. In this flashback, Simon’s metamorphosis and communications are a blinding blaze of sound, color and light. After a two-day wait, Simon’s voice and energy bleeps and blares through. He triumphantly proclaims he’s free of pain and suffering, but still has “lots of bucks and can sign checks”.

He tries to convince Miranda, Evvy, and his golem-aide, Nicholas, 23, a badly injured child whom Simon previously rescued, and emerged as a combination of man and machine, muscles, mind, and metal.

Indirectly, Simon decries Ted Williams’ attempt at suspended animation by freezing and decapitating his corpse. In a moving scene, Simon and his grieving wife, Evvy, who’s irreconcilable about his loss, share a romantic, loving duet. “Touch me,” she cries repeatedly, as a wiry chandelier descends, scooping around her, embracing her. Miranda, too, longs for the loving embrace of a mother or human touch and is reluctant to leave her human form, despite humanity’s growing wretchedness, poverty, death and destruction created by her father’s refusal to formulate a rescue plan. In a stirring aria, Simon returns once more in human form, to convince Miranda to join him.

When a delegation of the Administration, the United Nations and the United Way call on Simon, he mischievously recites poetry in German and English. He advises Miranda to give up the “meat” (her body), and that humanity should cease and desist from eating sugar and fat. While nutritionists may agree with Simon, his advice during a global crisis seems ludicrous. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe we should merely enjoy the spectacle of crescendoes of brilliant lights and beautiful voices, moving robots that nod and bleep, gridded walls emblazoned with myriads of pulsating images and hues that enmesh an impressive musical score.