Opera is a difficult business. So much can go wrong. Even if you have a fine composer, excellent musicians, a strong conductor, and seasoned singers, success is often still highly elusive.
Such, regrettably, is the case for Uksus (“Vinegar”) by composer Erling Wold. The chamber opera is based on the life of surrealist writer Daniil Kharms and the short-lived but influential 1930s Soviet avant-garde collective OBERIU. It’s the latest production from the newly resurrected Oakland Opera Theater (OOT) at Oakland Metro Opera House, a capacious and multi-faceted black box theater near Jack London Square that also hosts metal shows and underground wrestling matches.
Bay Area composer Wold is known for his chamber operas. The first of these, A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil, brought him to the attention of OOT in the 1990s.
Wold’s musically-captivating if theatrically disorienting Uksus, which premiered in San Francisco in 2015 to lesser acclaim than his previous opera, Certitude and Joy, has been revived here with much of the same cast and crew. The only notable exception is the replacement of Duncan Wold (the composer’s son) in the role of Pushkin — Kharms’ used the famous Russian author’s name as an alias.
The music, performed by a small, agile orchestra neatly conducted by Bryan Nies, is a captivating mixture of minimalist arpeggios coupled with jazz. There’s also a little Eastern European styling thrown in for good measure. The talented cast, which includes the inimitable soprano Laura Bohn as Fefjulka and the rich-voiced mezzo Nikola Printz as Our Mama (and in the last act, Stalin), performs the work’s many duets and trios with precision and passion. Tenor Timur Bekbosunov handles the title role capably and flamboyantly.
Unfortunately, the staging of the opera, directed by Jim Cave, doesn’t match the memorable music. The gimmicky feel of the mise-en-scene begins as soon as you entered the venue, with Soviet border guards ordering patrons about, demanding passports and creating a sense of havoc and confusion. We see Pushkin resting on a stretcher. Funeral rites are performed. Another performer declares himself to be a samovar, and gives us a brief sketch of Kharms’ life before ushering us into the house.
This pre-performance charade sets the tone for the evening — one that’s absurd and not just a little pretentious. The cast attempts to hold our attention by surrounding us and making eye contact with individuals. One performer even aggressively tried to sweep my feet away from under me with a broom on opening night when I saw the show. Yet the piece lacks enough to grasp onto as far as drama goes. It dissolves into simple spectacle.
Though the plot goes through points of Kharms’ life as a children’s writer, husband, founder of OBERIU, and psychiatric ward prisoner, Wold doesn’t do enough to flesh out his main character. Instead, we get a wacky discourse on meatballs (the dish is apparently what the piece is about, according to a line in Act II), an enormous puppet robot, and dodge balls thrown in our direction.
This uneven production comes off as an ambiguous sign for the daring and gritty little Oakland Opera Theater, best known for mounting the well-received west coast premiere of Philip Glass’ Akhnaten in 2004. The company all but disappeared in 2009, going from two opera productions annually to one every two years.
The company’s progress has been hampered in part by real estate woes. It has had to move twice in the last decade. But it’s forging ahead nonetheless.
Next up, if OOT manages to sort out a dispute with one of its current neighbors, the organization plans to stage a collaboration with Tourettes without Regrets, poet Jamie DeWolf’s monthly genre-defying performance art show also at the Oakland Metro. The project is a Romeo and Juliet opera featuring audience participation. Unlike Uksus, hopefully the “immersive theater” elements next time around won’t stand in the way of the music.
Uksus plays through Sunday, Sep. 4 at Oakland Metro Opera House in Oakland. For tickets and information, please click here.