FORT WORTH -- Twice, audience, performers and staff at Tuesday night's opening of the Fort Worth Opera's Hydrogen Jukebox were sent to the basement of the Fort Worth Community Arts Center. Actually, tornado warnings fit right into a turbulent work that begins with lightning in Oklahoma, and everyone was pretty chipper about the brief interruptions.
Philip Glass' chamber opera, to poetry by Allen Ginsberg, continues the Fort Worth Opera Festival's tradition of new and "out-there" works. Twenty-one years on, its critiques of wars, corporate abuses and political flimflammery, its acknowledgment of homosexuality and drug use, can still get a rise.
Scored for six singers, two wind players, two keyboard players and two percussionists, Hydrogen Jukebox has been imaginatively staged and choreographed by Lawrence Edelson. Down the middle of the intimate Sanders Theatre, with the audience tiered on each side, designer Anya Klepikov stretches a stylized train track. Segments are removed and spun around as part of the choreography; turned-up endings become ladders and roll-around vehicles. C. Andrew Bauer's projections range from milling faceless crowds to a nuclear-explosion plume.
Picking up themes from the libretto, the singers are variously costumed as soldiers in fatigues and gas masks, flight attendants, nuclear scientists and suited bureaucrats. At the end, in a hymn to death, they strip to boxers and slips, lie down and one by one fall silent. Glass' score has the familiar undulations but also surprisingly lush harmonies. "Song #10" suggests a revivalist altar call, gathering emotional intensity. Unaccompanied harmonies in the final "Song #20" sound like an Elgar part-song.
Vocal writing, for varied solo voices and ensembles, is simple and direct. Women sometimes intone wordless descants above male voices.
Creeping, dancing, flinging themselves, the young singers put on heroic performances. With understated amplification to equalize voices wherever they turn, they also sing with handsome tones and uncanny pitch accuracy.
Dan Kempson's gorgeous baritone is a standout, and Abercrombie & Fitch looks won't hurt his career. The rest of the cast is really fine: sopranos Rosa Betancourt and Corrie Donovan, mezzo Amanda Robie, tenor Jonathan Blalock and bass Justin Hopkins. Leading from one of the synthesizers, Steven Osgood supplies clear and sensitive musical direction.