“CanCon”, or Canadian Content, is always a concern in Canadian cultural discourse. A nation with founding cultural influences from Great Britain and France and continual cultural influence from its prominent neighbour to the south, Canada is always questioning its own cultural identity. This can lead to hypersensitivity when it comes to Canadian content in all areas of arts and culture.
In opera, this sensitivity has essentially been distilled to two considerations–Canadian works and Canadian singers. On the latter, Canada is a nation that has punched above its weight for decades; per capita, we have more than our share of great singers. On the former point, Canada has not exactly been a major contributor to the operatic canon.
Though there have been occasional complaints about the number Canadian singers appearing on the Canadian Opera Company roster, they are mostly baseless. Canadian singers, from young talents to established veterans, have a long history of performing on the COC stage, and to mention them all would be a tedious exercise in listing most Canadian singers of note over the last several decades.
The real point of contention has been the lack of Canadian work on the COC stage and the company’s occasional record with Canadian commissions. The world premiere of Pyramus and Thisbe, by
Meredith Barbara Monk Feldman, represents the first Canadian work to appear on the stage of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, the COC’s acoustically splendid home since 2006. It is also the first Canadian wfork on the COC mainstage since 1999’s The Golden Ass,with music by Randolph Peters and a libretto by that giant of Canadian letters, Robertson Davies.
When the COC opened its new home, it eschewed the usual practise of a new commission in favour of Wagner’s Ring (apparently, the first opera house to open with the work since the Bayreuth Festspielhaus). While critics were excited by the prospect of the country’s first staged Ring Cycle, there were also expression of disappointment that an opportunity for a new commission had been squandered.
The COC has had occasional commissions throughout its 65-year history. Arguably the greatest Canadian opera is Louis Riel¸ with music by prominent Canadian composer Harry Somers and a libretto in both French and English by Mavor Moore. Commissioned (though not by the COC) as part of Canada’s centennial celebrations in 1967, the opera had its premiere in Toronto before being unveiled to the world at the Montreal Expo and then moving on to performances at the Kennedy Centre in Washington, D.C. It has had occasional revivals since and is set to receive a new COC production for the country’s sesquicentennial (don’t you love that word?) in 2017.
Since Louis Riel, there have been other notable Canadian operas, and some have had more traction than others. But new commission have mostly come from elsewhere in the country. Even Pyramus and Thisbe is not a COC commission, its score having been brought to the attention of General Director Alexander Neef a couple of years ago by a member of the COC Orchestra.
The COC has in recent years announced a couple of commissions. First up, in 2018-2019, will be Hadrian, with music by songwriter and sometime opera composer, Rufus Wainright¸ and words by playwright Daniel McIvor. And the following season will bring La Reine-Garcon by composer Ana Sokolovic and playwright Michel Marc. But the honour of the first Canadian work on the stage of the Four Seasons Centre has gone to Monk Feldman.
Monk Feldman wrote the opera in 2010, and formed the libretto from excerpts of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, William Faulkner’s The Long Summer, St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul, Rainer Maria Rilke’s Die Sonette an Orpheus and Karl Jasper’s Man in the Modern Age.
The opera is only around 40 minutes long and has been paired with two short pieces by Monteverdi, Lamento d’Arianna (1608) and Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (1624). No stranger to COC audiences, director Christopher Alden has been tasked with combining the three works into one dramatic whole. The pieces are performed without break by the same three singers.
Neef and his artistic team deserve great credit for this brilliant piece of outside-the-box programming. Directing with admirable restraint, Alden deserves credit for its execution. He realises that too much stage business would defeat the sparse, meditative nature of the work.
The set by Paul Steinberg (who also designed the much different sets for Robert Carsen’s Falstaff) is simple yet arresting. Strikingly lit by JAX Messenger, it consists of a long panel wall which creates a rather shallow stage. The wall, covered in Rothko-esque murals, moves to stage right throughout the production, and by the end, is almost entirely off the stage, revealing the black rear stage of the Four Seasons Centre. Chairs for the principals and the chorus round out the set design.
This intriguing pairing is interesting not only for bridging the 400-year history of opera but also because Monk Feldman’s writing echoes Monteverdi’s austere and entrancing musical language. The writing for voices in particular is reminiscent of early Baroque, with its plaintive sighs and gentle declamatory passages.
The evening starts with Lamento d’Arianna, a nine-minute monologue and the only remaining fragment from Monteverdi’s second opera, sung entirely to a recitativo secco accompaniment. Telling the familiar Ariadne story, this moving piece portrays the heroine’s despair at having been abandoned by Theseus (Teseo).
Arianna is affectingly portrayed by Kristina Szabo, who uses her beautiful lyric instrument with sensitivity and fine early Baroque style. In Alden’s staging, Teseo is a silent role portrayed by baritone Philip Addis, who observes Arianna’s grief with sardonic curiosity.
Szabo and Addis next portray the title characters of Monteverdi’s Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, a vividly dramatic madrigal telling the story of Tancredi and Clorinda–he a Christian knight, and she his Muslim lover–who battle to the death (hers) while she is in disguise. Only as she lies dying does Tancredi realise that he has killed his beloved.
Though they both have a few lines to sing, the majority of the music is given to Testo the narrator. Portrayed by tenor Owen McCausland, Testo looks like a weary, disheveled private detective, covered in perspiration and taking swigs from a bottle.
McCausland, a very recent graduate of the COC Ensemble (the company’s young artist program), gives a rivetingly expressive account of his narration, and like Szabo, exhibits a good command of the style. Addis has the least amount of singing to do here but is a commanding presence on stage and displays his richly beautiful instrument in the short bits of singing he is given.
As the narrator begins to tell the story of their confrontation, Tancredi and Clorinda sit on chairs facing each other and proceed to enact a vigorous battle with strong sexual underpinnings. A consistent prop throughout the production is a scarf, presumably inspired by Thisbe’s veil in the traditional Pyramus and Thisbe tale.
It is first worn by Arianna and later used by Clorinda as a symbol of her disguise and then a weapon in her struggle with Tancredi. Later in Pyramus and Thisbe, McCausland who has no lines in the opera but remains on stage, assumes the role of the lion in the famous tale, and tears the scarf in half. The women of the chorus in Pyramus also wear scarves.
At the conclusion of Monteverdi’s madrigal, Tancredi’s grief at having killed his beloved transitions into Pyramus grieving for Thisbe.
Pyramus is a piece long on atmosphere and short on drama–very short on drama. But that’s also rather the point. Monk Feldman has taken care to remove the dramatic plot elements of the story and to focus on the principal themes of grief and loss. In terms of plot, we essentially see each character taking turns grieving the other’s death.
One of the things that opera is able to achieve as a medium that few others can accomplish as well is to focus on a single moment, a single emotion, and heighten and expand it–almost to the breaking point. Think of all those concertate finales or da capo arias.
In the sense that Monk Feldman zeroes in on and explores Pyramus and Thisbe’s mourning, her work is extremely operatic. However, by being stripped of any element of conflict and resolution, and anything else that might indicate a dramatic journey, the work is also extremely static, more oratorio than opera. Even an oratorio is a misleading description. This is meditation as opera.
Musically too, there is a sustained focus on mood above all else. The title characters mostly emit single lines. There are no long phrases, no musical arc to maintain, let alone any opportunity for vocal display. For their part, the principal task of the orchestra and chorus is to provide a cushion of sound that slowly evolves through the piece. In that sense, the slowly migrating murals of Paul Steinberg’s set beautifully evoke the musical score.
Most of the singing comes from the 16-member chorus. Their interaction with the title characters is in a way reminiscent of the chorus in the opening scene of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Eurydice. BothPyramus and Thisbe lament the loss of the other and contemplate death while the chorus grieves with them. The vocal lines are delivered in halting, slowly stuttered phrases, often repeating the same pitch. Grief, loneliness, and death are given expression in a mesmerizingly ritualistic exploration.
The musical vocabulary which Monk Feldman deploys is deliberately limited. This creates an intense, focused mood, but her accomplishment would have been greater had she been able to achieve an arc through this limited vocabulary. If there is a shortcoming in the piece, it is a failure to create some sense of a musical journey. The impact of the music at the end is not much different at end than it is a the beginning or middle.
This homogeny provides the greatest challenge for COC Music Director, Johannes Debus, who is left to achieve some sort of arc in this minimalist music. He and the superb COC Orchestra do a fine job of creating continuity between the Monteverdi pieces and Monk Feldman’s score, maintaining the same atmospheric mood throughout the evening.
The opera’s final section reminded of the other 21st century opera seen on the COC stage, Kaija Saariaho’s L’amour de Loin. In the Saariaho, there is a similarly ritualistic repetition which yields a profound beauty. Here the result is as contemplative if less beautiful and less musically striking.
Alden’s imaginative direction not only explores the dramatic possibility of each individual piece but seamlessly ties the three pieces together to create an inexorable journey. As well as the use of the scarf, the removal of shoes is a consistent theme. Szabo and Addis are barefoot throughout. The narrator methodically takes his shoes off at the crucial moment of Clorinda’s death. Later, the chorus remove their shoes methodically soon after walking on stage and taking their seats.
With the exception of Tancredi and Clorinda’s physical struggle, the soloists and chorus move throughout in deliberate, choreographed movements and gestures. By the final minutes, Pyramus and Thisbe take a slow “plunge” off the set as it moves off-stage and are left on the bare stage, first lying in death and then rising to unite in the afterlife. Like with any Alden production (Christopher or David), I didn’t necessarily understand every bit of staging but was intrigued throughout.
Monk Feldman is most powerful in exploring and questioning the notions of time and of storytelling. No matter what its shortcoming, this is a compelling and thought-provoking piece. Its life beyond this production is hard to predict. I would be interested to see how the piece would work on its own, without the Monteverdi anchor and Alden’s thoughtful direction. But I would be pleased to see this production revived in the future, and to see more imaginative programming like this from the COC and other companies.
Photo: Michael Cooper