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From 1608 to 2015

The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
10/20/2015 -  & October 23, 25, 28, November 5, 7, 2015
Claudio Monteverdi: Lamento d’Arianna – Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda
Barbara Monk Feldman: Pyramus and Thisbe (World Premiere)

Krisztina Szabò (Arianna, Clorinda, Thisbe), Phillip Addis (Tancredi, Pyramus), Owen McCausland (Testo, Narrator)
The Canadian Opera Company Chorus, Sandra Horst (chorus master), The Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, Johannes Debus (conductor)
Christopher Alden (director), Paul Steinberg (set designer), Terese Walden (costume designer), JAX Messenger (lighting designer), Tim Claydon (choreographer)

P. Addis, K. Szabò (© Michael Cooper)

The Canadian Opera Company has received a lot of criticism for not performing works by Canadian composers. Since its beginning in 1951 it has mounted just six Canadian operas on its main stage (in addition to several smaller-scale works for the Ensemble Studio performers, some of them for school tours). The company’s last main stage Canadian work was Randolph Peters’s The Golden Ass (reviewed here) in 1999. It was quite the marvelous entertainment but, alas, has never had a second showing here or anywhere else.

Barbara Monk Feldman’s Pyramus and Thisbe is therefore the seventh Canadian opera produced on the company’s main stage, and the first since the Four Seasons Centre was opened in 2006. Monk Feldman completed the work (“on spec” - it was not commissioned) in 2010 and submitted it to COC General Director Alexander Neef. He was intrigued and, since it is barely 50 minutes in length, came up with a program that complements the work. Thus two short pieces by Claudio Monteverdi precede the new work. Christopher Alden, who has helmed four other productions for the COC, was hired to direct.

The works are performed in chronological order. While houselights are still up we see the three soloists (a woman and two men) mount the shallow platform which is backed by a vibrantly painted screen in shapes and colours reminiscent of Mark Rothko. The woman, Krisztina Szabò, is seated far left and in that position begins her heartfelt performance of Lamento d’Arianna. The man in the centre of the stage (baritone Phillip Addis) is aware of her suffering and at one point makes a sympathetic gesture, but eventually turns his back and lights a cigarette. The second man sits silently in apparent anguish to the right.

As the Lamento concludes, the platform moves leftward so that the second piece, Monteverdi’s Combattimento, is played out in front of a vivid red background. The second man, tenor Owen McCausland, expressively declaims the narration while Tancredi and Clorinda use Arianna’s scarf in a tug of war. At one point the action flags and it is Clorinda’s turn to have a cigarette. The ardent combat resumes; Tim Claydon’s choreography bursts with fully charged eroticism. Clorinda is mortally wounded and begs to be christened before she dies.

The platform shifts further and Pyramus and Thisbe is played in front of a stormy dark green backdrop. Monk Feldman has assembled her own libretto from the following sources: Ovid’s original tale as recounted in his Metamorphoses, William Faulkner’s The Long Summer (in which a man who has been shot collapses), The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross, and Rainer Maria Rilke’s Die Sonette an Orpheus, with also a brief quote from Karl Jaspers. (Her original inspiration was a painting by Nicolas Poussin.) Not only is this range of sources dauntingly cerebral, articles in the program by Christopher Alden and Professor Amy Beal give yet further comment and interpretation. Much of this is little help in figuring out an elusive work.

The director’s ideas that all three pieces depict a woman’s battle with patriarchal forces works fine for the two Monteverdi pieces (what with the abandoned Arianna and the defeated Clorinda), but the story of Pyramus and Thisbe is not about people in conflict with one another. Gruesome circumstance makes Pyramus think that Thisbe has been killed by a lion, so he commits suicide - and as a result so does she. Monk Feldman’s treatment focuses on the existential, then works toward the idea (contained in the Rilke poem) of a joyous acceptance of death. Her music mainly consists of long, rhythm-free phrases separated by silences. The orchestration doesn’t really accompany the singers, whose few lines are more like pitched speech. The orchestra is used more in conjunction with the chorus of 16 whose stylized movements reinforce the trance-like, ceremonial nature of the music and the production.

The talismanic scarf is once again featured, and the Narrator posts a large photo of a lioness. What little forward motion the music possesses diminishes even more toward the end when the slowly-sliding screen is almost off stage and we are faced with the dark cavern of the backstage. A single bright light shines out at the audience (a retinal annoyance).

Barbara Monk Feldman herself is quoted as describing the piece as a “non-opera”. It is the kind of work I would normally expect to see given concert-style staging by the likes of the Esprit Orchestra - or any large orchestra (the score requires about 60 players - they are used sparingly). The COC’s production amounts to a super-sized piece of performance art - it certainly is visually striking.

A small ensemble with continuo accompanied the Monteverdi pieces. The Monk Feldman work does not conjure up anything remotely neo-renaissance - she is very much a contemporary composer. The singers were all in fine form. Phillip Addis has the least to sing but his attractive voice is always welcome. Owen McCausland makes a terrific impression as the Narrator, and Krisztina Szabò grabbed us with her first utterance of “Lasciatemi morire”. Conductor Johannes Debus devotes his usual care and attention to it all.

One wonders what the future of this work might be. I can foresee it appearing on the festival circuit. I am sure it packs neatly into one container and it requires just three soloists and a small chorus. The big expense would be the orchestra. At about 75 minutes in length, some might think it’s too short. The opening night audience greeted it diffidently, although politely.

A postscript: As we know, operas composed by women are not numerous. In 50+ years of opera-going, I have now seen just seven. The other six were: Moya Henderson’s Lindy (in Sydney, 2002), Judith Weir’s A Night at the Chinese Opera (in Edinburgh, 2010), Ana Sokolovic’s Svadba (in Toronto, 2011), Jeanine Tesori’s A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck (at Glimmerglass, 2011), Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin (in Toronto, 2012), and Dame Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers (at Bard Summerscape, 2015). A friend opines that this makes me an expert in the field (really?), but I am unable to make any sweeping statements contrasting female versus male operatic compositions. One reads of other recent operas composed by women and others are expected. The COC has commissioned one from Ana Sokolovic, La Reine-Garçon, based on Sweden’s Queen Christina, for the 2019-20 season.

Michael Johnson



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