Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and singers shine in Bramwell Tovey's The Inventor
A Vancouver Symphony Orchestra presentation. At the Orpheum on Saturday, June 9
Alexander “Sandy” Keith, poor nephew of the Halifax beer baron, nursed multiple grudges and concocted truly heinous schemes before committing what Europeans called “the crime of the century” in December 1875, when a shipping crate loaded with dynamite went off on a crowded dock in Bremerhaven, Germany, killing more than 80 men, women, and children. No wonder playwright John Murrell and composer Bramwell Tovey—better known here as music director of the VSO—were attracted to this miscreant’s story. Keith’s tendency to change personas and marry his way into (and out of) money, plus his cloak-and-dagger work for the American South during the Civil War, must have seemed made for operatic treatment.
The concert treatment given here could not offer the elaborate staging The Inventor enjoyed at its January premiere with Calgary Opera, which commissioned the work. But it’s hard to imagine a new work being given a more convincing presentation than that by baritone James Westman, who anchors the work as Sandy and his various guises. Sopranos Laura Whalen and Erin Wall shine, respectively, as the woman he leaves in Halifax and the one he marries in Dresden, Germany, and veteran mezzo Judith Forst is appropriately wrathful as a mother-in-law from Helsinki (or somewhere). Threatening to steal the show, as befits an archnemesis called Luther Smoot, was powerful tenor Roger Honeywell, spitting fire as a ripped-off Virginia rebel determined to avenge Keith’s treachery.
Murrell’s libretto is effective at giving the antagonists distinctive verbal mannerisms, and I enjoyed the way French and German phrases mixed freely with the predominant English, to give a sense of movement among globetrotting troublemakers. This craft was reflected in Tovey’s music, which likewise assigns particular motifs to various players, and cycles through rich operatic influences, ranging from John Adams’s percussiveness to Igor Stravinsky’s circus brass, and the dreamy elegance of both Strausses, father and son (especially when the action shifts to Europe in the second half).
In a preamble, the composer described his work as lasting “as long as James Cameron’s Titanic, but costing a good deal less”. Endurance was a challenge. More than a hundred players, choristers (from the UBC Opera Ensemble), and soloists—including Linda Lee Thomas, jumping between radically different pianos—worked hard to hold highly disparate threads together. But the three-hour effort ultimately felt less like a coherent, self-contained work than a project designed to show off an orchestra’s skill at taking sonic hairpin turns.
The book itself never travels past psychological first impressions. And Murrell lets his antihero off the hook in key areas, since the libretto insists on Keith’s cynical exploitation of Confederate money, when the Canadian was actually a principal in a plan to send disease-ridden clothes to Yankee cities. The man’s explosive downfall appears to arrive with abrupt plans to sink a ship for the insurance money, when the bastard had already been playing that dirty trick for more than a decade.
Why the opera drops this more villainous (some might say entertaining) history remains unclear, and a slide show fixing on some single images for as long as 15 minutes doesn’t exactly help with variety or momentum. In the end, it even remains vague why the opera is called The Inventor, unless Keith’s fixation on time bombs is his bequest to the world.