Kievman’s opera “Tesla” gets a high-voltage premiere

By Lawrence Budmen

xxx in the title role n Carson Kievman's "Tesla," which had its world premiere THutrsady night at teh COlony Theaterc in Miami Beach. Photo: David Rasmon

Kenneth Mattice in the title role of Carson Kievman’s opera “Tesla,” which had its world premiere Thursday night at the Colony Theater in Miami Beach. Photo: David Ramos

Miami-based composer Carson Kievman has created a series of music theater works that push the boundaries between opera, dance, drama and spectacle.

On Thursday night Kievman’s latest work Tesla received its world premiere at the Colony Theater in Miami Beach. Based on the life of the visionary scientist Nikola Tesla, the opera is produced by Kievman’s SoBe Arts. Tesla has been a long-term project for Kievman and the late playwright Thomas Babe, his co-librettist. Two scenes were previously presented at the New York City Opera Vox Festival in 2004.

Tesla was an eccentric and enigmatic figure. An immigrant from what is now Croatia, Tesla acquired great wealth and prestige, only to die in poverty and obscurity. His work developing AC current was pathbreaking. He ultimately signed away many of his patents because he felt his inventions were fossil fuel-consuming and bad for the planet. Ultimately his relentless attempts to develop a coil that would unleash the power of nature to provide free and nonpolluting energy would lead to his demise. In an era when recurrent storms and climate change are very much in the news, Tesla’s story takes on new relevance.

The rivalry between Thomas Edison and Tesla to develop currents for electric power forms the main thrust of Kievman and Babe’s drama. Edison emerges as a no-holds-barred villain, ready to destroy Tesla and his experiments at any cost. The Contests of the Currents takes up most of the opera’s 90-minute first act which brings the evening’s most compelling moments. Kievman’s postmodern musical sensibility encompasses everything from minimalist strains to Ivesian Americana and Sondheim’s melodic theatricality. In the first act’s eight continuous scenes, the music and drama flow organically and effectively.

Mark Twain, a friend and supporter of Tesla, acts as narrator, here portrayed as an automaton in a Disney theme park. His angular phrases morph into a surging theme at the mention of Tesla’s name. Tesla’s initial narrative about his background and family is sung in plaintive, lonely tones. That melody is repeated at pivotal moments throughout the opera and grows in intensity during the protagonist’s triumphs. 

Swirling figures and martial rhythms personify Edison, depicted as a tough and unyielding businessman. In a scene when Tesla has been reduced to working as a laborer on a construction site, a Russian-like melody suggests “The Song of the Volga Boatman.” Kievman effectively employs mallet percussion as an undercurrent to suggest the tension between Edison and Tesla. At the act’s conclusion, following Tesla’s successful demonstration at the 1892 Chicago World’s Fair, Edison declares himself ‘America’s greatest citizen” to a sinister motif in the orchestra.

The shorter second act, lasting an hour and ten minutes, would benefit from some tightening and revision. An initial return to the Twain automaton, now malfunctioning and speaking in Croatian, seems superfluous. The scene between J.P. Morgan and George Westinghouse, disgruntled patrons of Tesla, is musically weak. More dramatic is Edison’s announcement that he is dying and the final arias of the destitute Tesla and Marie Astor Hampton, a socialite and friend, poignantly evoke tragedy. 

The orchestral score turns to homespun Americana as Tesla and the other historical characters turn into Disney automatons. The scene at Tesla’s Colorado Lab where an explosion takes place while Tesla and Marie are having sex produced heat in more ways than one. While not as seamless as Kievman’s previous scores (Songs of the Dandelion Woman and Intelligent Systems), Tesla is more ambitious and set to a more linear and coherent libretto. With some editing, this relevant work could have a future.

The composer could not have wished for a better performance. Surtitles would have been welcome as the often high range of the vocal parts proved problematic for clear pronunciation of the text. Onstage during almost the entire opera, Kenneth Mattice brought charismatic stage presence and a warm, resonant baritone to the title role and his diction was consistently clear. 

Trevor Martin really looked like Mark Twain and his smooth baritone and verbal skills commanded attention in his every scene. Timothy Stoddard was a standout as George Westinghouse with a strong and supple lyric tenor and fervent declamation. 

Chris Vettel embodied Edison’s zeal in strong tones and an upright stage manner. As J.P. Morgan, Kyle Albertson’s bass-baritone had an appealing gravelly edge. Tenor Benjamin Werley’s bright tone and agile enunciation alighted Charles Steinmetz’s brief appearances.

Emily Solo rode the high tessitura of Tesla’s companion Tommie with a light and expressive soprano. Courtney Miller’s sizable and burnished mezzo strongly etched Mina Miller Edison’s interjections. Anastassia Malliaras’s  exquisite high range and multihued soprano were a constant joy as Marie.

Special credit to director Jeffrey Marc Buchman and conductor Mary Adelyn Kaufman for mounting a superb production despite rehearsal delays caused by Hurricane Irma. The 24-piece orchestra overflowed from the improvised pit into the theater’s first two rows of seats. Kaufman’s superbly commanded the multi-layered instrumental fabric and drew first-rate playing from the ensemble, especially the mallet percussion.

Buchman is one of the finest and most versatile directors working in opera today. His intimate realization of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin for Florida Grand Opera last season and productions for UM Frost Opera Theater (as well as previous Kievman works) have been consistently inventive and theatrically engrossing. His fluid staging (aided by Rosa Mercedes’ choreography) vividly conveyed the characters and overriding friction between Tesla and Edison. Nuria Carrasco Dominguez’s period costumes, Stephen Moravski’s unit set, Paul DiPierro’s cityscape projections and Jeffrey Bruckerhoff’s  high-tech lighting enhanced the mise-en-scene.

Prior to the performance Miami Beach City Commissioner Kristin Gonzalez presented Kievman with a proclamation declaring September 28 Carson Kievman Day in honor of Tesla’s premiere.

Tesla will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Colony Theater in Miami Beach. colonymb.org

 

Posted in Performances


3 Responses to “Kievman’s opera “Tesla” gets a high-voltage premiere”

  1. Posted Sep 29, 2017 at 4:03 pm by Jack Firestone

    Great review of a memorable night in the theater. Encourage all who missed it to show up. This is a significant accomplishment for Kievman, Buchman, and all the cast and crew. Also a milestone for opera in Miami. Thanks to all who helped bring this labor of love to fruition.

  2. Posted Oct 02, 2017 at 5:22 pm by Vladimir Ciboci

    I wanted to love and enjoy this piece but horrible acoustics on the stage , or lack of it prevented me from hearing and understanding the libretto. My friend left before the end of the first act because of it. Very nice music drowned the singers, some stage microphones would have remedied the problem, don’t know if Colony has the tech to do it. Published libretto within the Program would have helped immensely. This way it ended in a disappointment.

  3. Posted Nov 14, 2017 at 10:44 am by Carson Kievman

    In response to the previous poster… The Colony Theater had everything to do with the audio balance problems (I’ll leave it at that) – it all depended on where you were sitting. The “TESLA” production video has enhanced audio balance and full subtitles. If you bought a ticket to the show and your seat location made it difficult to experience a balance between singers and orchestra then contact events@sobearts.org and we will provide you with a free link to watch the video. Otherwise go to http://www.tiltedglobe.com/tesla to register and watch the enhanced video as an HD stream.

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Fri Sep 29, 2017
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