Atonal Tolstoy

During the first few scenes of Houston Grand Opera's world premiere of Resurrection, a hedonistic, indulgent prince is smitten with an orphaned servant girl at a dance. Alone with him in her bedroom, the girl demurs, begging for love in tuneful pleas, but he resists. He wants passion. Advancing clumsily to ominous drum beats, the prince unbuttons his pants and gropes at her while she holds back rigidly. At last, he pins her to her back and, heaving and triumphant, steals her virginity as he faces the audience. Rapid fires of percussion echo the two raging hearts on stage.

Such poignant visuals and the signature bass line of this melodically dissonant opera should satisfy even the most atonal-averse. Using keyboards and an occasional synthesizer, experimental American composer Tod Machover's reinvention of Tolstoy's fable of Russia's turn-of-the-century justice system is presented with enough zeal that even the Russian author, who hated opera, would approve. Briton Braham Murray directs the Opera New World production on stage at the Wortham Center's Brown Theater.

With 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 similar to Prince Dmitry Nekhlyudov's seduction of Katerina Maslova. With sinister rhythms, the music creates an aura of the spiritually dead, faithful to Tolstoy and acquiescent to the couple's redemption. Although the show never feels derivative, the dramatic performances of the all-American cast are more inspiring than the voices. Dmitry's motivation to right his despicable acts fails sometimes in the pervasive baritone of Scott Hendricks, who plays the prince.

During the first courtroom scene in Act One, Dmitry is shocked to see that the lovely Katerina, whom he seduced years before, is now a prostitute charged with murder. Dmitry is horrified when his colleagues on the jury wrongly convict her, and he vows to make amends. The first time Dmitry visits her in prison, he falls in love. Then he begins a long series of pleas with the courts and government to gain her pardon after she begins doing time in a brutal Siberian prison camp. The bright lights of the Act One courtroom scenes solidly contrast with the shadowy first encounter between Dmitry and Katerina. As Dmitry, Hendricks lords himself well over the smitten servant girl, played by mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who allows herself to be bowled over by him. Throughout Act One, Hendrick's haughty aristocrat plays well against DiDonato's prideful Katerina. The first time he visits her in prison, she screams, "You disgust me with your piety and your fat, ugly face!" As her fate is determined by the verdict, her screams from the defendant's box prefigure a long, difficult fight that is skillfully rendered by DiDonato through the rest of the show. The discord in her melodies -- well suited for her mezzo range -- evoke sincere distrust of Dmitry's motives.

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But the music written for Hendricks's baritone lacks the color needed to make his renunciation of wealth seem convincing. His pleas for Katerina's cooperation in the prison sound hollow compared with her harsh rebuffs. The contrast may be an illusion created by steady bass streams emanating from the orchestra pit. Dramatically, though, Hendricks is superb as the cad who rebuffs Missy, his fiancee. Mezzo-soprano Judith Christin plays up Missy's desperation to comic extremes. After dinner in her parents' palace, she throws her body at Dmitry, and he is repulsed.

Even more titillating than these antics are Machover's stunning visions of how the powerful operate with amoral purpose. In the Siberian camp scenes of the second act, political prisoner Peter Simonson, who befriends Katerina, is brutally whipped. Percussions that simulate the crack of the whip make the audience wince. Aided by choreographer Sandra Organ, Machover's music achieves sympathy between the audience and those persecuted on stage.

Simon Higlett's snow-filled sets of the Siberian work camp are visually appetizing. Here, the chorus of convicts murmurs in hollow desperation while guards wielding muskets beat the prisoners. The Byzantine backdrop of Christ's blank face is overused, however. Maybe it's supposed to remind the viewer of the couple's redemptive journey. Such elements give the story a preachy tone.

For Count Leo 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 took to making his own shoes and donned the blouse of a Russian peasant. Dissatisfaction with the hypocrisy of his class pushed him to embrace the cultish Christianity that inspires this tale. If there's a criticism of the opera, it comes from the story itself. At moments it's tainted with the same tone of self-righteousness that makes the novel a bit of a bore. Still, in this cynical age, the message is potent.

Houston Grand Opera performs Resurrection in English with surtitles at Wortham Theater Center's Brown Theater on Saturday, May 1, Tuesday, May 4, and Friday, May 7, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $175. Call (713) 227-ARTS for more information.

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