An Opera by Tod Machover


Critical Commentary from World Premiere Performances
at Houston Grand Opera


There is much that is admirable in [Resurrection], especially in the sonoroties emanating from the pit. The composer, who has made a specialty of electronically generated sounds, also proved a fine orchestrator, and produced ravishing combinations of the two media. His vocal writing was interesting, too...Abundant lyricism...Braham Murray's apt direction was well supported by Simon Higlett's set and costume designs and Chris Parry's lighting. Patrick Summers, the company's music director, conducted, making the most of that roiling activity in the pit. Scott Hendricks and, especially, Joyce DiDonato were effective in the lead roles...On the strength of enterprising music and drama, the work deserves another life.

James Oestreich, The New York Times, 4/28/99


Machover's music inventively combines aspects of classical and rock music, of video and computer technology. He's been involved with M.I.T.'s famous Media Lab since 1985, and before that was a director of Pierre Boulez's experimental music institute in Paris. But he also had a serious classical education at the hands of two major - and very different - American composers, Elliott Carter and Roger Sessions. So maybe it shouldn't be as surprising as it seems that Machover's latest project is a traditional opera based on a 19th century Russian novel. Leo Tolstoy's "Resurrection" is a very great book, a frontal assault on judicial and penal systems, on moral numbness and inhumanity, and the possibility of individual redemption...The score to Resurrection is Machover's richest and most varied. From minimalism and rock, he's learned to create pounding, pulsating rhythms that build to ferocious climaxes. And he has his own genius for soaring melody and dazzling color and texture. The solo trumpet crying out in the Seduction Scene is harrowing. Electronic keyboards put an almost inaudible halo around the vocal line and provide an eerie chill to the Siberian landscape. The melodies have a subtle, Russian melisma. In the most haunting moment in the opera, Katusha - played by the outstanding young mezzo-soprano, Joyce DiDonato - sings an electronically amplified, yet heartbreakingly simple lullaby to the child of one of the chained prisoners. Baritone Scott Hendricks makes a vivid hero, caught between egoism and altruism. Tenor Raymond Very is stirring as a brutally flogged prisoner in love with Katusha. Houston Grand Opera music director Patrick Summers conducts with dramatic urgency. The chorus, with a lot to do, is excellent...including a moving Prisoners March...Machover is an idealist; like Tolstoy, he wants to change the way we act in the world ...Resurrection is a serious and powerful work, a milestone for Tod Machover, and a noble achievement of the Houston Grand Opera.

Lloyd Schwartz, National Public Radio "Fresh Air" and Boston Phoenix, 5/3/99


Resurrection [is] 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 his words; previous treatments of Resurrection, including a lurid misrepresentation by Franco Alfano that reduces Tolstoy's moralizings 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...Up to now, Machover's fame has been fashioned from his electronic inventions as head of musical matters at M.I.T.'s Media Laboratory - including the interactive "cyber-cello" he built for Yo-Yo Ma. 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. Whatever, it's a work of genuine originality, remarkably skillful in the vocal writing, its music imaginatively tinged with a light wash of Mussorgsky here, and Prokofiev there. It adds to the paltry store of worthwhile new operas a work of great attractiveness and power. Resurrection sounds the convincing note of belief that opera just might have a future.

Alan Rich, LA Weekly & MSN Classical Music Website, 5/3/99


Tod Machover 's opera Resurrection turns out to be one of the more traditional new operas to appear recently, boasting a tonal-sounding score, skillful and unusually melodic writing for voice, and a linear story based on a novel by Tolstoy. Mr. Machover and his librettist, Laura Harrington, played down the political in favor of the personal, and focused their opera on the relationship between Nekhlyudov (Scott Hendricks) and Maslova (Joyce DiDonato) and their respective "resurrections." The plot exposition of Act I is handled cleverly: The trial is interspersed with swift flashbacks to Nekhlyudov's earlier encounters with Maslova. This first scene is also musically one of the most successful in the piece. It begins, startlingly, with a reference to the opening of Bach's "St. Matthew Passion," but continues with a level of rhythmic complexity and constant change that sounds more like Steve Reich. The speed and urgency of the trial portions of the scene segue smoothly into a folksy Russian dance for the protagonists' first meeting, then into a rhapsodic love duet, and finally into brassy viciousness for the rape. Scene 2 is different: This portrait of Nekhlyudov's fiancee, Missy (Kerri Marcinko), and her aristocratic family is more like a comic opera by Rossini, with Ms. Marcinko flawlessly delivering the sparkling coloratura roulades that emphasize Missy's shallowness and lack of sympathy with Nekhlyudov's new ideals. Act II, which takes place in Siberia, is constructed from incidents taken from different parts of the novel. Nekhlyudov follows Maslova to Siberia, where she is redeemed by association with the political prisoners, and decides to marry one of them, even after her pardon is secured. Mr. Machover clearly had fun constructing the opening half-hour-long scene, which features a heavy, bass-accented march for the transported prisoners, interspersed with incidents dramatizing the cruelty of their plight...The electronic aspects of the score were more apparent in Act II. Maslova's haunting lullaby, "O that I were where I would be," was accompanied exclusively and quite beautifully by eerie, manufactured sounds. The ominous prelude to the flogging also got an otherworldly character from electronics, and the flogging itself, off-the-beat like the guillotine in Poulenc's "Dialogues of the Carmelites," was computer-generated. After the premiere, Mr. Machover commented that the computerized keyboards operate at almost all times in the score, and that their primary function is to emphasize certain orchestral gestures without calling attention to themselves. The result was an orchestra that not only sounded acoustic, but larger than it was. Another intriguing element was the excellent balance between pit and stage. Singers were never drowned out, due in part to the sensitive work by conductor Patrick Summers, but also to the use of some electronic rather than acoustic doubling of voices. The production, designed by Simon Higlett (sets and costumes) and Chris Parry (lighting) and directed by Braham Murray, who also contributed to the libretto, coped efficiently with the multiple scenes for the flashbacks of Act I. It also provided a bright, snowy landscape for Siberia, and used handsome, period-style costumes to suggest the opulent, thoughtless lives of the aristocrats and the degradation of the prisoners.

Heidi Waleson, Wall Street Journal, 5/4/99


Faithful to its policy of premieres, the Houston Grand Opera has done things on a grand scale for the world premiere - the 24th in its history - of Resurrection, the new opera by American composer Tod Machover, received triumphantly by the Texan public...What makes Resurrection original, and allows it to frequently skirt around the pitfall of the familiar, is the use of electro-acoustic techniques, with three synthesizers in the pit which, doubling the traditional instruments or lying above them subtly, amplifies and enriches the sonorities of the orchestra and, above all, completely changes its colors...Resurrection keeps our attention from one end to the other, seduces us, impresses us (the convicts in Siberia), even excites us (Katerina's magnificent lullaby, sustained by electronic instruments only), and this accomplished by music perfectly integrated with the action.

Richard Martet, Opera International, 6/99 (translated from French)


[In Resurrection], Machover has made something new in music theater...There's an urgency in the animated score, which runs just over two hours. The music is tonal, bewitchingly beautiful and totally engaging. There are sections that might be labeled "aria" or "chorus", but essentially the music flows without interruption and it never flags. Perhaps the originality of the score lies in Machover's approach. Other composers describe what is happening; Machover's music results from events. "Its something new even for me," he says. "I've tried to convey musically the gradual process of spiritual reawakening, to write the kind of music that happens when people start caring for each other." Rarely is the audience for a new opera as enthusiastic as the crowd in Houston's Wortham Center for Resurrection.

Wes Blomster, Sunday Boulder Camera, 5/2/99


Tod Machover set a libretto by Laura Harrington that simplifies and clarifies Tolstoy's text. There is a series of arias for the two principals, which Machover binds into a seamless whole...Driving, pulsating intensity...At its best, Resurrection makes a powerful impression...Baritone Scott Hendricks, who took over the role of the Prince at short notice, gave an extremely assured performance. Mezzo Joyce DiDonato, a graduate of the Houston Opera Studio, chosen early on as the "resurrected prostitute Maslova, sang the demanding but rewarding role with great beauty and strength. Tenor Raymond Very appeared in two roles, making his best impression as the political prisoner, while conductor Patrick Summers, adept at balancing electronic elements with the acoustic ones, held the complex whole together...The Houston audience accepted it enthusiastically.

Patrick J. Smith, Opera News, 10/99


Machover's rich orchestral palette and high level of rhythmic inventiveness works especially well in the first act; the musical language of Act II owes more to Machover,s electronic interests. One haunting lullaby is accompanied exclusively and quite beautifully by eerie, manufactured sounds. This, it turned out, was deliberate - a musical means of differentiating the fallen world and the one striving towards rebirth. After the premiere, Machover commented that the computerised keyboards operate at almost all times in the score, and that their primary function is to emphasize certain orchestral gestures without calling attention to themselves. Another useful result was the excellent balance between pit and stage, due to electronic rather than acoustic doubling of voices...Tod Machover may well be the future, particularly since he can actually write music for singers.

Heidi Waleson, BBC Music Magazine, 7/99


Tod Machover's new opera, Resurrection, an adaptation of Tolstoy's novel, has been about a decade in the making - a long wait, but definitely worth it...Particular reason for excitement was in the composer's innovative composition technique which includes use of computers and hyperinstruments,, Machover,s own invention - computers that can be played, like musical instruments, transforming the sound of traditional instruments and voices as they are played. Machover's musical language seems not to be concerned with whizzes, pops and other technological sound effects however; rather it crosses artistic boundaries, creating a synthesis of the acoustic and the electronic. So, although 95 per cent of the piece included computer collaboration, the result, although subtly different from normal acoustic sound, is hypnotic, beautiful, and very effective...[There is] marvelous characterisation of the central characters, retained as the focal point of the whole opera and thus keeping the structure steady. Here Joyce DiDonato as Katerina Maslova and Scott Hendricks as Prince Nekhlyudov produced a complete performance, singing and acting to the highest standard. Maslova is a role of terrifying complexity and diversity and DiDonato coped with its many transformations and delivered one of the most powerful performances I can remember.

Matthew Peacock, Opera Now, 8/99


Tolstoy's ''Resurrection,'' published just a hundred years ago, in its day outsold ''War and Peace'' and ''Anna Karenina.'' It's a powerful novel, to shatter the calm and the conscience of any reader who lives comfortably in a capitalist society. It finally preaches, from Matthew V and XVII, Christ's doctrine of acceptance and forgiveness of injuries; it satirizes a materially compromised Church; on the simple narrative level it's the tale of a prince and a prostitute. On that level, Alfano composed his ''Risurrezione'': Katusha as the shining redeemer of the nobleman who wronged her. Machover and his librettist, Laura Harrington, aimed higher, hewed closer to Tolstoy, included more of the characters and the action, and made more of Prince Dmitri Nekhludov, the man in need of redemption and resurrection. Their task was not easy. Tolstoy himself, we're told, was uncertain how things might end and even played games of patience to determine whether Katusha should marry her repentant prince or her fellow prisoner Simonson. The games didn't come out; Tolstoy decided at last to unite Katusha with Simonson. ''Resurrection'' is a great novel with some untidy, arbitrary action and much moralizing, but it is passionately felt, and it stirs passionate response. The opera is in two acts, of about 76 and 50 minutes. Act 1, a series of short scenes, intercuts Katusha's trial for murder (Dmitri is a member of the jury) with flashbacks to their first meeting, the seduction, etc; these are followed by Dmitri's prison visits, and his decision to change his life and save Katusha. (Pages of Tolstoy are condensed into the single line ''Divide my land, equally, among the peasants.'') Much of this is set to arioso declamation - with bold, attractive melismatic extensions of syllables ­ over moto perpetuo movement. But it's tricky, restless moto perpetuo, with time signatures that tend to change every measure. In Act 2, the march to Siberia, the numbers become longer: a massive choral march, whose tread continues through Dmitri and Katusha's re-encounter; her beautiful folk-lullaby over a convict child; Dmitri's ''awakening'' aria; Simonson's fervent sermon ''You change the world one man to another ...Everyone can do it''; Katusha and Dmitri's octave restatement of that assertation in their farewell duet...An orchestra of 32 was given extra colors by three synthesizer keyboards; natural and electronic sounds were blended in masterly fashion. The presentation was first-rate, well sung, and stirringly acted. As Katusha, mezzo Joyce DiDonato poured out true, steady, shining tone through every register, with never a squall or scream. She was moving. Baritone Scott Hendricks's Dmitri was nobly, firmly, romantically sung. As Simonson, Raymond Very's tenor rang ardently. Katherine Ciesinski, Judith Christin, James Holloway, and Dale Travis were notable in smaller roles. It was a true company performance, with the three principals and several others alumni or present members of the Houston Opera Studio. Houston's new music director, Patrick Summers, led a sure-paced, confident performance. A British production team - director Braham Murray from Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre, designer Simon Higlett, lighting designer Chris Parry - achieved a handsome, straightforward staging. The new opera was warmly received.

Andrew Porter, Boston Globe and London Times Literary Supplement, 5/6/99


The Houston Grand Opera is the beneficiary of a subtle and sophisticated new work by Tod Machover, [who] has probably done more than any of his contemporaries to explore the applications of technology to an art form notorious for its Luddite tendencies. In Valis (1987), based on a science fiction novel by Philip K. Dick, and hailed as the first computer opera, the action actually takes place in one person's head. In the even more 'wired' Brain Opera (1996), the audience wanders through an interactive fun house, helping to create a work in progress by playing on a variety of ingeniously concocted electronic instruments. Resurrection, Machover's new work for Houston, continues his technological explorations but on a much subtler, less immediately apparent level by seeking to achieve an organic blend of electronic with acoustically produced sounds. On its surface, Resurrection resembles nothing so much as a grand Russian opera in the 19th century tradition, complete with arias and choruses and outfitted with an...uplifting finale...As horrified as modernist critics have been by this finale, it is perhaps as true to the Tolstoy novel upon which the opera is based as anything else in the score. Machover adopts an approach to composition that's obedient to his subject. Written near the end of the great novelist's life, "Resurrection" tells the tale of a profligate prince who sets an innocent girl on the path to prostitution by seducing her, only to find the road to his personal salvation by trying to make amends. It is a novel ecstatic in its final pages with hope, and, judging by the cheers with which Houstonians have been greeting the musical setting, Machover has found in traditionally tuneful tonality a suitable complement to Tolstoy's blush-inducing prose. Nothing could have been more different from the hyper-emotional, ultra-lyrical style he adopted in this final scene than the hectically busy, texturally complex, metrically restless sounds of the first act. But again, this seemed a logical reflection of the novel's change in tone as Prince Dmitry Nekhlyudov moves from the corrupt urban world of his aristocratic class to his Siberian adventure in self-discovery. What Machover has done, in other words, is adopt an approach to composition as obedient to the character of his subject as was his approach to both Valis and Brain Opera, offering a timely reminder along the way that people, not technology, are his real subject.

William Littler, Toronto Star, 5/8/99


Tod Machover's reinvention of Tolstoy's fable of Russia's turn-of-the-century justic system is presented with enough zeal that even the Russian author, who hated opera, would approve. With Braham Murray's stage direction, Machover's work is a panoramic feast. It takes viewers inside Russia's courts and dirty jails, and finally to the frigid horrors of Siberian exile. The composer's musical style emerges in a few suspenseful, violent scenes. With sinister rhythms, the music creates an aura of the spiritually dead, faithful to Tolstoy and acquiescent to the couple's redemption. The show never feels derivative, and the dramatic performances of the all-American cast are inspiring...Machover's stunning visions achieve sympathy between the audience and those persecuted on stage. For Tolstoy, the act of writing War and Peace and Anna Karenina drove him to peel away the stifling cocoon of his aristocratic life. Giving up his country estate, the author rook to making his own shoes and donned the blouse of a Russian peasant. In this cynical age, the message is potent.

Cynthia Greenwood, Houston Press, 5/29/99


Among his many titles at the Media Lab at M.I.T., Tod Machover is head of Opera of the Future. And that is exactly where he belongs. Machover's new opera, Resurrection, is the work of a cyberartist who has found in Tolstoy's last novel a route back to the future...Certainly Tolstoy's Russia of 1899 resonates now in our own fin de siecle. It was impossible Friday night not to connect the horrific march of Siberian prisoners on the Wortham Theater stage with pictures from Kosovo...Machover has a gift for making music that is direct and complicated at the same time, for mixing popular and arcane elements. He often teases us with a captivating tune we never can quite fully grasp through a riot of bouncing rhythms and a carnival of special effects. The vocal writing [of Resurrection] often dazzles with grand melismatic flourishes; jazz tumults through the brutish seduction scene; a gripping rhythmic pulse catapults through ever-changing meters. The second act takes place in Siberia and here Machover's music, slow and atmospheric, begins to haunt. This is the 24th new opera that Houston has created, and its resources are admirable. Baritone Scott Hendricks (Nekhlyudov) was plucked from the company's Opera Studio training program and mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato (Maslova) is a former member. Both bloomed thrillingly as the course of Nekhlyudov's obsessive love unfolded.

Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times, 4/26/99


Machover has created a score driven by insistent, restless rhythmic energy. Constantly shifting meters created urgency while avoiding the monotony of a Philip Glass work. The music was fundamentally tonal with dissonance used liberally for mood and effect. For moments of quietude and reflection, mainly for arias and duets, Machover opted for an overpared harmonic language...Being best known for his work in electronics ("Brain Opera" and hyperinstruments), Machover combined a traditional opera orchestra with electronics. They enhanced the sound overall, added color and occasionally created atmosphere by themselves. The blending was effective and completely unself-conscious.

Charles Ward, Houston Chronicle, 4/26/99


Tod Machover's Resurrection is a bifurcated work that assaults the ears and then caresses them. The first of two acts does, indeed, have some intense dissonance and jagged vocal lines. But in the second act's Siberia, not only Prince Nekhlyudov and Katerina Maslova, but also Mr..Machover, are transformed. A distinctly more lyrical style becomes the dominant musical idiom. Not that the first act is all grinding dissonance. The opera's first shocker is a passage in the instrumental prelude that sounds like the opening of Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" as rethought by a modern composer. One festive chorus sounds almost folksy. But the second act is consistently more calming, with some pleasing choral writing and beautiful music for the female lead. Mr. Machover is circumspect in his use of electronic music. The main performing force is a conventional orchestra, and the electronics are subtly blended...A musically cohesive evening.

Olin Chism, Dallas Morning News, 4/26/99



"Tod Machover - Giving Music a Makeover", Spring 1999, Opera Cues

"An Opera Lures a Futurist Back to the Present", April 18, 1999, Kyle Gann, The New York Times

"Composers Mining the Music of Their Youth", April 18, 1999, Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times

"Houston Brings Tod Machover's Resurrection to Life", April 18, 1999, Richard Dyer, The Boston Globe

"Tolstoy Transformed", April 18, 1999, Charles Ward, Houston Chronicle

"The Marriage of Tech and Opera", April 23, 1999, David Kushner, Wired News

"On The Beat", March 1999, Brian Kellow. Opera News


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