Classical album of the week: Bates: The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs review – tech god gets an all-American opera

Pentatone, two CDs

Mason Bates’s clever fusions of electronic sounds with big-boned orchestral writing have made his concert works very popular in the US. A Bates opera was a natural next step, and a stage work about the life of the Apple founder Steve Jobs made a neat fit for a composer whose use of technology and ability to commute easily across stylistic boundaries has won him so many admirers. With a libretto by Mark Campbell, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs received its premiere at Santa Fe a year ago; the recording comes from those performances.

Musically and dramatically it’s an assured enough first opera, if an unremarkable one. Running for 95 minutes in a single span, its 20 scenes shuttle forwards and backwards over the crucial moments in Jobs’s life. A prologue and epilogue are set in the Jobs family home in 1965, and the penultimate scene takes place at his memorial service in 2011, while the dramatic climax comes with his decision to leave Apple in 1985, only to return 12 years later and initiate the series of products that made his and his company’s fortune.

Because the Apple Corporation refused to sanction Bates’s project, all this has to be told without mentioning the company explicitly, and that only adds to the sense of packing too much in, so that everything seems superficial. The characters are cardboard thin – even Jobs himself, with all his contradictions and personal cruelties, hardly emerges in 3D, as portrayed by baritone Edward Parks. The striking moments come from the orchestra, conducted by Michael Christie, though Bates’s music still sometimes falls back on second-hand rhetoric, just as his vocal lines lapse far too easily into a comfortably bland all-American idiom that is part Copland, part Bernstein, part Broadway.

This week’s other classical picks

John Adams conducts his opera Dr Atomic, April 2017.
John Adams conducts his opera Dr Atomic, April 2017. Photograph: Mark Allan

One of the works that must have been among Bates’s models for his opera, John Adams’s Doctor Atomic, has just appeared on CD for the first time.

The Nonesuch studio recording was made in conjunction with the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s concert staging at the Barbican last year, which Adams himself conducted. Gerald Finley takes the role of Robert Oppenheimer, as he did at the 2005 premiere, Julia Bullock is his wife Kitty, and Brindley Sherratt is Edward Teller.

It’s worth hearing, for the farther the work gets from the tendentiousness of its original staging, the more convincing it seems to become dramatically, though the sheer wordiness and documentary pretensions of Peter Sellars’s libretto remain problematic.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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