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Harrington plumbs Tolstoy's angst in opera

For a woman who likes to laugh, Laura Harrington has picked some bleak and twisted topics for her plays and musical productions.

Joan of Arc, William Tecumseh Sherman, Napoleon in exile, men and women who can't quite kick the habit of re-enacting the bloodiest battles of the Civil War--Harrington, a lecturer in music and theater arts, has transformed them all into vibrant, award-winning dramas.

Now, working with Media Lab composer Tod Machover, Harrington has produced a libretto for an opera of "Resurrection," an 1899 novel by Leo Tolstoy, author of "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina."

"Resurrection" opened at the Boston Lyric Opera on Nov. 7 and continues through Nov. 20.

"Resurrection" is not funny. Tolstoy wasn't funny, after all. He was a brooding son of the ruling class. "Resurrection" got him excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church for its subversive views on Christianity and class.

Set in Moscow, a gulag of prison yards and in Siberia, "Resurrection" is a "prolonged crisis of conscience for Prince Nekhlyudov who has seduced Maslova, a young serving girl. Then--flash forward 10 years--he's on a jury for a trial in which she has been accused of murder. In an instant, he knows: he is responsible for everything that has happened to her. He divests himself of his land, follows her to Siberia and tries to right his wrong to her," said Harrington, who summarized Tolstoy's plot like she's gaining speed on a treadmill.

At this point, with Tolstoy's story line in place, Harrington delves into the drama. This isn't treading. It's more like kick-boxing with the literary gods.

"'Resurrection' is a flawed novel. It's not 'War and Peace.' That's why we can tamper with it. Tolstoy himself wasn't sure if or how to finish this one. He had a didactic purpose--to use these characters to instruct us--but he resorted to playing endless games of solitaire while he wrote, hoping the cards would resolve the plot," she said.

The internal conflicts in "Resurrection" contain the dramatic promise, Harrington noted. Certainly the Russian landscape--especially the wasteland of exile, represented on stage by a massive, stranded iceberg--promised nothing.

"I mean, think about Maslova. There she is, walking, walking--the prisoners all had to walk those 3,000 miles to exile in Siberia--and there's Mr. Prince in a carriage. Tolstoy of course wants us to wonder: Will Nekhlyudov be resurrected by this? Will Russia be resurrected? And he keeps the focus on the prince. But he's not really the dramatic center. It's the girl, the really interesting character, who is transformed," Harrington said.

The librettist then pointed to places in the opera that Maslova's voice, the voice of the character breaking free, emerges in its universal and very modern form.

"Maslova is treated better among the prisoners than in society. When the prince arrives ... well, she's done with 'some day my prince will come.' Done with traditional romantic stuff. She just says 'No,'" Harrington said. "She is a very modern, very complex character. Tod has written some of his most beautiful music for her. And the lady who plays her--a leading lady to die for!"

Tolstoy, Harrington noted, was tormented by guilt for actions just like the prince's. He had crises of conscience, crises of patriotism, crises of wealth and crises of faith. He gave away land, money, royalties to undo the corruption of wealth. Yet his novel veers weirdly from sympathy for the victim even as it preaches atonement.

"It's interesting for a modern audience in that we're dealing with Christian guilt, not Freudian guilt, and atonement isn't generally what's on their minds. But it was on Tolstoy's mind. All the issues of 'Big Opera'--love, guilt, mercy, forgiveness--are in 'Resurrection,'" said Harrington.

The most moving moments of "Resurrection" for Harrington are those that deliver these big themes, sparely.

"What happens in any libretto is that the story is distilled to its essense so we can get straight to the emotion, and the music does the same," she said. "The prisoners' march to Siberia, when Maslova sings a lullaby to a little girl whose father is in chains, is that kind of moment for me. Then the really big questions come out: Who is really resurrected? Never mind Tolstoy's ambivalence--isn't it the serving girl?"

Harrington began work on "Resurrection" in 1997. The opera, commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera, is headed for Opera Pacific in Santa Ana, Calif., in 2003.

"Resurrection" left her with an appetite to do something "small, that could be done anywhere without huge capital. So it's back to work on finishing a trilogy about war and violence and how they work like a virus, moving through the centuries," she said.

The first play of the trilogy, "Hallowed Ground," concerns Sherman's march to the sea. The second, "Pickett's Charge," portrays Civil War re-enactors. The third, now in progress, is about Napoleon in exile. And already Harrington is laughing.

"It's got characters from past and future times--Ulysses S. Grant, J. Robert Oppenheimer--and great details. Did you know they were plagued with rats on St. Helena? Rats carpeted the room. Napoleon's servants had to nail tin over the rat holes on the floor," she said.

What about those dour folks who populate her early work? The Tolstoy-esque crises? Those Big Opera themes and feelings? Harrington starts each project by enjoying the spectacle, the time travel, the play before the play.

"Ah, Joan of Arc. Napoleon had an iron bathtub, you know. I wondered, what if Joan of Arc fell through the ceiling into the tub? It's a time-travelling play, a musical play, with lots of effects. I'm having a lot of fun with it," she said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 14, 2001.

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