There’s just one engaging three-minute segment in the unfortunate production of Libby Larsen’s “Frankenstein” that opened Saturday night at the West Edge Opera, but it’s a dazzler. It happens in the moments after the title character first instills his monstrous creation with the spark of life.
As embodied on the stage of Oakland’s Pacific Pipe warehouse by the virtuosic turf dancer Gary Morgan, Frankenstein’s creation stirs slowly into being with a series of sinuous shudders and curls. Morgan does his signature move — a contortionist’s overhead wriggle of his arm, exploiting a shoulder joint that seems unmoored by any conventional ball-and-socket apparatus — and a wave courses through his body, and you can feel the galvanic excitement of life springing up where there had been none.
If only he could do something similar for the rest of this misbegotten 90-minute evening.
It’s telling that the rewards in this venture come from the specifics of the company’s production and not from Larsen’s 1990 opera itself, which turns out to be a work of almost comical ineptitude along nearly every dimension — lumpy and flailing in its dramaturgy, maladroit in its vocal writing and burdened with an alarmingly flat-footed libretto by the composer herself.
To say anything complimentary about the piece requires a focus on Larsen’s orchestral writing, which boasts a few ingenious textural ideas — some spiky woodwind solos, a handful of pungent percussion passages — and which got a pointed rendition under the leadership of conductor Jonathan Khuner.
But that doesn’t get you very far. Soon you have to contend with the work’s failure to take any kind of dramatic measure of its source material, Mary Shelley’s 1818 gothic novel (there’s no reference here to the Boris Karloff incarnation of the story, or even to kindly, feckless Herman Munster, who might have brought some welcome levity to the proceedings).
To jam the whole story into a series of just over a dozen scenes, Larsen slices things up willy-nilly, depriving all of them of weight or connectivity. Frankenstein himself appears in a double guise, as the narrator looking back on his life story (tenor Daniel Curran) and as the actor in those events (tenor Sam Levine). Sometimes the two share the stage, tripping over each in a clumsy pas de deux.
The rest of the characters are faceless, interchangeable ciphers. Frankenstein’s sister Elizabeth (soprano Chelsea Hollow), his friend Henry Clerval (baritone Ryan Bradford), his kid brother William (boy soprano Rowan Whitney, awkwardly amplified for audibility) and the ship’s captain Robert Walton (bass-baritone Josh Quinn) mill around the stage yelling at Frankenstein or gasping in horror at his misdeeds. Only Justine, the virtuous maidservant, stands out particularly, and that was largely due to the lustrous, honeyed singing of mezzo-soprano Veronica Jensen.
The tale, such as it is, is conveyed in baldly pedestrian language (”You wanted the truth? Why” “Because it’s there!”). “Frankenstein” serves as a reminder that writing an opera libretto is like performing an appendectomy — it’s not something you undertake on your own merely because you can’t bother to rustle up someone with the relevant skills.
And the libretto in turn is set to uniformly undistinguished vocal lines — some a series of ungainly leaps and lunges, others so drab that the performers can lapse into spoken dialogue and back again without a listener noticing the shift.
The West Edge production, directed by Matthew Ozawa on a set built around neon tubing, doesn’t make much of a case for the material. The one inventive aspect of Larsen’s opera is the idea of having the monster’s life presented as a video projection — the world as seen through his eyes — with orchestral accompaniment.
But Jeremy Knight’s video for this episode was too blurry and faint to register, and there was scarce incentive to watch it while Morgan was doing a spellbinding 10-minute dance routine downstage. He’s a monster, in an absolutely positive sense.
“Frankenstein”: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 17; 3 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 20. $57-$96. Pacific Pipe Oakland, 1391 W. Grand Ave., Oakland. (510) 841-1903. www.westedgeopera.org