CAMBRIDGE — “It's up to us if they is or ain't,” sang Terpsichore (as played by Rita Hayworth in 1947's “Down to Earth”), explaining the artistic power wielded by her and her sisters — the Muses. Henry, the playwright protagonist of John Aylward's new opera “Switch,” very much ain't, until meeting the bubbly, too-good-to-be-true (and probably mythical) Anne. Soon, he's having artistic “breakthroughs,” arousing the suspicion of Molly, his long-suffering actress girlfriend. It might sound like breezy entertainment, but “Switch,” in its premiere performances at Cambridge's Le Laboratoire, was considerably more serious and more ambitious — enough so that, in the end, operatic possibilities were mostly overwritten.
Aylward, a composer of wide intellectual curiosity, provided his own libretto; the text, though, is closer to a straight, densely wordy play. “Switch” leans far more heavily on speech than song, stretches of dialogue intermittently veering into melody. (Interestingly, many of the longest sung passages eschewed words altogether.) Anne, Henry's muse, is particularly loquacious, unleashing torrential disquisitions on inspiration, the artist's role, and the unconscious, bolstered by passages from Joseph Campbell and Thomas Mann. But amid the verbiage, characters remain brittlely archetypal: Henry the suffering artist; Molly the frustrated other woman; Anne the uninhibited free spirit.
By contrast, the music was resourceful and fluid. From four players (the Ecce Ensemble's Keiko Murakami (flutes), Vasko Dukovski (clarinets), Serafim Smigelskiy (cello), and Mike Truesdell (percussion), all conducted by Jean-Philippe Wurtz), Aylward summoned textures of efficient richness, delicate and deep all at once. (A recurring technique — a traditional, musical tone in one instrument combined with a noisier, non-traditional tone in another — yielded copious dividends.)
The performers unwaveringly threw themselves into the fray. Misha Smigelski found a hesitant body language for Henry's self-absorption, gamely channeling his impulsive, awkward attempts at connection. In the dual role of Molly and Anne, Amanda DeBoer Bartlett was a high-energy dervish of theatrical presence, fizzy and fearless. Both evinced vocal qualities (Smigelski's wine-dark bass, Bartlett's pearly soprano) that made one antsy for more actual singing. (A lively, sharp-cornered duet between Bartlett and Murakami proved the most satisfying set-piece.)
Both the piece and the production, directed by Laine Rettmer, put faith in unresolved multiplicity. The language overflows the plot; the language evaporates into stuttering and gibberish. Symbolic props (a tape recorder, a mirror, and that operatic favorite, a ring) erratically proliferate. (It's echoed in Rettmer and Andrea Merkx's set, lining a narrow corridor with four versions of Henry's apartment, variations on writerly themes: typewriter, desk, coffee, and booze.) Straddling essay and drama, “Switch” at times came awfully close to embodying what it seems to criticize — conceptually casting Henry's muse as a delusion, for example, but only after explicitly sexualizing her in performed reality. The piece's abundant ideas too often drown each other out.
In “Down to Earth,” Terpsichore convinces a Broadway composer to transform his burlesque of the Muses into a high-minded ballet, only to relent after a failed out-of-town tryout. The often-bewitching sounds of “Switch” surely don't deserve a fate that drastic. But another guiding light might be invoked: less is more.
John Aylward: Switch
Laine Rettmer, director; Jean-Phillipe Wurtz, conductor. At Le Laboratoire Cambridge, Friday
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.