Monday, June 15, 2015

REVIEW: LBO's Hydrogen Jukebox

Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff
On Sunday, June 7, I got to see Long Beach Opera's production of Hydrogen Jukebox. One of the most interesting parts of LBO productions is their exploration of new performance spaces. Hydrogen Jukebox is their second production at the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro, the first being Ernest Bloch's Macbeth. While Macbeth took place in the World Cruise Center, Hydrogen Jukebox was produced in a giant warehouse that is part of Crafted. As the production got underway, the golden light of the sunset over the sea seeped gently through and between the cloths covering the giant doors and windows, creating a sort of industrial pastoral vibe.

Interacting with new spaces creates a world of unforeseen challenges and discoveries, and there seemed to be quite a few of both for director David Schweizer. The layout of the audience reduced the perceived stage area so that the size of the vast warehouse didn't overpower the performers. Scenic designer Caleb Wertenbaker's set pieces consisted of mostly-unadorned warehouse paraphernalia, like ladders and platforms, wheeling on and off stage on casters. This created a moving/spinning parade of objects that seemed to thoroughly explore the vertical space of the stage. Dan Weingarten's lighting design seemed busy at first, but when you consider how much space needed to be transformed with such minimalist stage design, it did a great job of making each song exist in it's own head space.

Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff
I am big fan of both Allen Ginsberg and Philip Glass, so there were high hopes for their collaboration. I was already familiar with many of Ginsberg's poems that became part of Hydrogen Jukebox. Partially inspired by Howl, I even incorporated the character of Moloch into my own Collapse

Though I almost always enjoy Glass' instrumental music, his vocal music after the initial operatic trilogy is still a quagmire to me. The sporadic beauty of his operatic output in the last 30 or so years belies its stagnant consistency. In Hydrogen Jukebox, the most stunning moments feature either vocalise or spoken text. The most frustrating parts attempt to reduce the organic flow of Ginsberg's poetics into neat couplets. The resulting flourishes of multi-syllabic anti-melisma stuffed into unwavering periodicity reduces the florid libretto to a phonemic and rhythmic obstacle course for the singers to run.

But, there were some really powerful musical moments as well, like Michael Shamus Wiles' recital of Wichita Vortex Sutra, the vocalise in Nagasaki Days, or the plaintive choral ensemble singing in Father Death Blues. I've listened to Ginsberg's original version of Father Death Blues quite a few times, and appreciated the New England church vibe that Glass' arrangement gave it. As Morton Feldman said, "OK, give them a moment of beauty - how much more do you need?"

Hydrogen Jukebox finishes LBO's 2015 season, but they'll be back in 2016 with works by Tobin Stokes, Francis Poulence, and Jacob TV. You can find more info on the Long Beach Opera website.

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