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.