Three operas, three brave attempts to define the beast; you cannot fault Tod Machover for trying. His first opera was an electronic fantasy based on the Philip K. Dick sci-fi classic “Valis”; his second, a “brain opera” enlisting interaction between the listener and computer gadgetry. Now comes “Resurrection, ” a setting of Leo Tolstoy’s dense, speculative novel on the redemption of souls , calling for — and receiving with remarkable success — musical treatment along traditional Romantic operatic lines.
Tolstoy is said to have detested opera as an encumbrance to words; previous treatments of “Resurrection,” including a lurid misrepresentation by Franco Alfano that reduces Tolstoy’s moralisms to soap opera, justify his distaste.
For the 45-year-old New York-born Machover, librettists Laura Harrington and Braham Murray have provided a more honorable, literate treatment of Tolstoy’s basically actionless probing of guilt and salvation. Machover, in turn, has given their words a richly intelligent setting, gritty at times but soaring, intensely lyrical at others, faltering only in some rather gooey final moments as Prince Dmitry, “resurrected” from his profligate existence, sees Katerina, the woman he had once wronged, achieving her own “resurrection” in a Siberian prison, and walks off alone over Simon Higlett’s eye-dazzling snowscape into lighting designer Chris Parry’s Technicolor sunset.
Up to now, Machover’s fame has been fashioned from his electronic inventions, currently as head of musical matters at M.I.T.’s media laboratory. Perhaps his creation of a full-scale opera on a Tolstoy novel — scored for traditional orchestra with only a smidge of electronic touch-up here and there, managing with sure musical insights the novel’s tense, dark emotions — may strike his cutting-edge confreres as a backsliding. But it has added to the paltry store of worthwhile new operas a work of great attractiveness and power.
In mounting the work as its 24th world premiere in the 28 years of general manager David Gockley’s leadership, Houston has again polished its laurels as a dynamic force in the treacherous realm of modern opera. Peopled largely with splendid young singers drawn from the company’s extensive apprenticeship program , including baritone Scott Hendricks and mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as the “resurrected” pair, and under the strong baton of the company’s newly appointed music director Patrick Summers, “Resurrection” sounds a convincing note of belief that opera just might have a future.