Moreau Meets Groundhog Day Week in The Invention of Morel

Invention of Morel
Valerie Vinzant (Faustine) and Andrew Wilkowske (the Fugitive) sing the same sunset (photo by Liz Lauren).

The Police drummer Stewart Copeland has turned the 1940 Argentine novel into his fifth opera that’s a mix of island dwellers like Dr. Moreau and Gilligan’s Professor, while extending Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day into an eternal perfect week in this world premiere at the Studebaker Theater, a three-plus year co-commission with Long Beach Opera.

The cool tabbed program indicates that Adolfo Bioy Casares’ source material has also inspired movies and perhaps some of the plot points in the TV series “Lost.” The lead Fugitive (Andrew Wilkowske) is accompanied by the Narrator (Lee Gregory), both dressed in identical castaway costumes (by Jenny Mannis) and scruffy beards, to tell their tales of eking out an existence on the isolated isle until a group of glitterati arrives.

The intellectual elites dance, sunbathe and ponder what their host Morel (Nathan Granner) has invented as they strangely ignore the Fugitive, who has developed a crush on Faustine (Valerie Vinzant, sporting a Louise Brooks bob, inspired by Bioy Casares’ real-life love of the silent screen actress, and age-appropriate for the historic venue).

True to her name, Faustine and her coterie have unwittingly made a devilish deal, unspooled through Copeland’s syncopated score, conducted by COT’s Artistic Director Andreas Mitisek and performed by a 16-piece orchestra, primarily drawn from the Fulcrum Point New Music Project.

Copeland is a drummer, after all, so maybe his dual leads are the drumsticks to drive the dark story? (And The Police’s fourth studio album was “Ghost in the Machine” – here it’s a green machine, and another motif in the libretto by Copeland and London-based director Jonathan Moore, also echoed in the angular set by Alan Muraoka and projections by Adam Flemming). The two baritones use different tenses too, to reflect the cyclical nature of their predicaments, one singing “am” while the other “was,” and a refrain of “has done/is doing/will do.”

Noah’s Ark is also evoked, the effect of tides on human behavior, as is the ethnographic premise that photography can steal souls, or move like a Harry Potter newspaper. The pastiche is a 90-minute curiosity, amplified though the excellent ensemble voices in ariosos.

A virtual reality tour of the island with the unusual tides was offered before the performance, using a downloaded smartphone app coupled with the theater’s headgear. The whole enterprise feels a bit like a video game, complete with avatars and multiple story threads to be chased and retraced. The Narrator keeps a diary, a written document of the tangled narrative, a meta-libretto for the book-cum-operetta.

The Invention of Morel ran February 18, 24 and 28 at Chicago Opera Theater, The Fine Arts Building’s Studebaker Theater, 410 S. Michigan Ave. COT’s season continues on April 22 with the Chicago premiere of Philip Glass’ The Perfect American, a fictionalized Walt Disney biography. Tickets and info at 312-704-8414.

Karin McKie
Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.