ST. PAUL, MINN., MAY 25 -- Libby Larsen's new opera "Frankenstein" uses high technology to warn against the dangers of high technology. Its music is always powerful, sometimes beautiful, never used for purely musical value but for theatrical effectiveness.
In its world premiere tonight at the World Theater here, "Frankenstein, the Modern Prometheus" took a story that everyone knows -- either from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's novel or from the 1931 movie starring Boris Karloff -- and made it fresh, gave it unprecedented visual and sonic dimensions and explored its philosophical implications with a post-Chernobyl intensity.
"I could create life," exults Victor Frankenstein, a 20-year-old scientist in the early 19th century. "What about the consequences?" asks a friend. "I'll have the truth," says Frankenstein. "Why?" he is asked. "Because I can!" Then Frankenstein is faced with the question at the heart of the opera: "But can we live with it?"
On the whole, the answer seems to be "no," but it is more complicated than that. Composer-librettist Larsen sums up the Frankenstein myth's central themes in a brief, lucid introduction printed in the libretto and the program: "Humankind's inherent ambition and ego; humankind's temptation to misuse technology in service to intellectual ambition and ego; humankind's terror of loneliness; the conflict between emotion and reason; and the consequences of egocentric action in the name of progress." This reworking of the material puts particular stress on the theme of consequences, terrible and unforeseen, of actions arising from intellectual arrogance.
Larsen also emphasizes the need for human warmth. After it has been brought to life, in a moment of eerie tenderness, the monster comes over and embraces its creator. Victor Frankenstein endures the embrace for a moment, then breaks away, and in that moment the creature becomes truly a monster that will kill again and again for revenge. But the creator also becomes a monster. "I made him but I cannot love him," he later confesses. His crime, essentially, is inability to love what he has created -- or the creation of that which he cannot love.
Larsen's themes are presented as vividly in visual terms as they are verbally and musically, with the use of multiple video monitors on the side walls of the theater (usually for closeups of the singers' faces) and a large projection screen at the back of the stage that presents a running visual stream of consciousness -- usually, what the monster is seeing, thinking or remembering. In the scene of the monster's coming to life, the finishing touch is what is shown on the screen: first, a solid wash of neutral color, then little flecks, distorted images, flashes of the face of Victor Frankenstein bending close to watch the miracle of life being born.
These images say things that are beyond words, with the immediacy, complexity and impact of intuitive rather than logical statement. They are a kind of visual music, and a perfect complement to Larsen's audible music, which is totally eclectic -- tonal, atonal, electronic and acoustic, mostly confined to brief, dramatic nuggets but occasionally soaring into an extended lyrical statement. Considered in the abstract, it seems to lack any kind of homogeneity, continuity or sequential logic; considered as a part of an integrated theatrical experience, it says exactly what needs saying at any given moment.
Some of the most striking visual effects are achieved by Christian Swenson, the dancer/mime who takes the part of the monster. Nearly seven feet tall, thin, hairless and chalk-white, he moves with feline grace and commanding stage presence. He is enormously helped by the staging and the brilliant direction of Nicholas Muni. In one scene, summoned by Frankenstein, he emerges backlit amid billowing clouds of steam and intense electric light that simulates flames. The lighting makes him a purely black figure on a blindingly white background, an image that nearly burns itself into the audience's memory.
The cast is well-chosen and excellently rehearsed. Particularly impressive is tenor Steven Tharp as Victor Frankenstein, projecting his words with clarity, excellent tone and strong emotional impact and interacting superbly with Swenson's monster. Good work is also done by Elisabeth Comeaux, Bradley Greenwald, Mary Laymon, Gordon Holleman, Tom Schumacher and boy soprano Andrew Ashcroft. There is a taped soundtrack but also a 16-piece orchestra well conducted by Dale Johnson.
"Frankenstein" will have five more performances through June 3 and will be taped for broadcast next fall on National Public Radio's "The World of Opera" series.