The Opera that Deserves its Grammy

Given its engrossing, frequently radiant score, unflinching look at its timely subject matter, and superb cast of singing actors, Pentatone’s live hi-rez recording of the premiere of Mason Bates and Mark Campbell’s opera, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, fully deserves the Grammy recently bestowed upon it by the Recording Academy.

I auditioned the recording after first enthusiastically reviewing the 2017 Santa Fe Opera world premiere, then cheered the differently cast 2019 Seattle Opera production (whose second cast is completing its run as this review appears on-line). I have no question, therefore, that the Pentatone recording team of Dirk Sobotka, Mark Donahue, and Soundmirror, Inc. vividly presents an accurate audio snapshot of one of the most involving, relevant, and touching operatic achievements of the 21st century.

That is not to say that I don’t wish that someone had been able to capture an HD video of Victoria “Vita” Tzykun’s visually and technically state-of-the-art production and Kevin Newbury’s superb direction. Nor can I suppress a marginal preference for Seattle Opera’s (non-recorded) first cast—specifically for John Moore’s vocally and theatrically exceptional Steve Jobs and Adam Lau’s warm, wise, and oh so humorous reincarnation of Jobs’ spiritual teacher, Köbun Chino Otogawa. But anyone who listens to this recording of the Santa Fe will understand why I and other critics hailed The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs as a brilliant musical and dramatic achievement.

The opera centers around the Apple co-founder Jobs’s pivotal year of 2007, when he introduces the “one device” that will do it all. In the same year, we discover him struggling with the fact that his health is declining precipitously. Framing these polar experiences are the Prologue, when 10-year old Steve receives the gift of a workbench from his father (1965) and the late Jobs is memorialized in Stanford University Chapel (2011).

The 90-minute intermission-less opera embraces both sides of Jobs’ life: the ecstasy—the invention from Jobs and his team at Apple that enabled them to beat Ma Bell at her own game, and Jobs and girlfriend Chrisann Brennan taking LSD and making love in an apple orchard—and the agony—Jobs’ heartless rejection of Brennan and their child, his incessant hounding of his employees, and Wozniak’s eventual disgust and departure. The saving grace, as it were, comes in the form of Otogawa as well as Jobs’ compassionate wife, Laurene Powell Jobs.

Jobs’ life is the stuff of drama, which librettist Campbell is careful not to overplay or present melodramatically. Although he made a few changes to the opera between the premiere and its arrival in Seattle, I personally prefer the original ending, which, if a mite sentimental, is certainly less Hallmark-cardish than the current closing.

Given the subject matter, composer Bates has a ball integrating the traditional orchestra with the computer-generated sounds that he has worked with since his days as a DJ. If you can begin to imagine what it sounds like in the “mind” of your iPhone or computer, you’ll get a sense of Bates’ score. Voices may be amplified, but Pentatone’s mix of what I believe to be the feed from the cordless mikes worn by cast members with the miked orchestral ensemble is ideal. On my system, the sound of the 24/96 files was more colorful, three-dimensional and transparent than in the theater. I can only imagine that Pentatone’s two SACDs sound equally good.

There are abundant video clips from the Santa Fe and Seattle dress rehearsals on YouTube. In fact, if you watch the one below from Seattle, you’ll discover that it segues into others. Whether you watch the clips, savor the SACD, or opt for streaming it on Tidal (16/44.1 FLAC) or Qobuz (24/96 FLAC)—only Qobuz has the liner notes—prepare to be hooked.

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