Gramophone reviews Tod Machover's Death and the Powers




Appearing in the January 2022 issue of Gramophone, the world's premiere classical music magazine

By Laurence Vittes 

Tod Machover’s science-fiction opera about robots and humans, set to a libretto by Robert Pinsky, was designed with a spectacular visual apparatus in mind, and after productions in Monte Carlo, Boston and Chicago, was nominated for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize. Now what had been an electrifying theatrical experience has been released as an electrifying surround-sound thriller.

The story, about a dying billionaire who downloads himself into his environment, is thoroughly operatic in pace and style, with German Expressionist overtones and a comprehensive score that includes an intoxicating love duet and occasional references to the past, such as Offenbach’s Olympia and Richard Strauss’s Marschallin. Presumably, since the opera takes place in the future, there may also be references to music not yet written as of 2022.

James Maddalena’s Simon Powers is a creation unto itself, eloquent in the beauty of his power and, when filtered electronically, his pain. In his booklet note Thomas May describes the mezzo-soprano’s climactic aria as ‘one of opera’s most memorable transcriptions of female orgasm’, which it makes fair claim to be in Patricia Risley’s spellbinding delivery and the extremely detailed 3D sound.

As striking as the visuals must be, Machover’s arsenal of music stands triumphantly on its own, fusing and defusing technoflash from the composer’s MIT Media Lab with rich writing for Gil Rose’s Boston Modern Orchestra ensemble. The sound is so immersive that it is not only a purer form of the opera, as the booklet notes point out, but provides a unique perspective when played back on surround sound headphones such as Apple’s AirPods Max.

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