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Yea, Lucius

Hummingbird Centre
04/13/1999 -  and 15, 17, 21, 23, 25 April 1999
Randolph Peters and Robertson Davies The golden ass
Theodore Baerg (Festus), Michael Colvin (Scholar), Thomas Goerz (Merchant), Doug MacNaughton (Philosopher), Decker LaDouceur (The boy), Kevin Anderson (Lucius), Rebecca Caine (Fotis), Raymond Aceto (Milo/Leader of the bandits), Judith Forst (Pamphilea/Antiope), Tamara Hummel (Charis), Alain Colombe (Seedy bandit)
Canadian Opera Company chorus and orchestra
Richard Bradshaw (conductor), Colin Graham (director)

The Canadian Opera Company commissioned the new opera based on the Latin author Apuleius' Golden ass from Robertson Davies, the grand old Canadian man of letters, and the young Canadian composer Randolph Peters. You don't, fortunately, have to be Canadian to enjoy it, or an ancient Roman. It is set, in a  exuberantly colourful production, in a timeless, roughly mediaeval, Carthage, and it evokes traditional ideas from Greek and eastern cultures in a staged play within a play that gets out of hand and transcends its fairground origins as the narrator showman gets drunk and passes out. What it really does is to do for the north European moralizing fantasy narrative what A midsummer night's dream does for English fairy stories by transplanting it into an exotic, open culture where its ideas can flourish in new forms while they retain their genetic links to ther European stock. Not totally dissimilar to the way Davies saw Canadian culture, of course.

Sadly, Davies died in 1995 soon after completing the libretto. He welcomed Peters  as the composer, and was happy with the idea that Colin Graham would direct and work on it as necessary. But there are structural problems that Davies, with his deep understanding of the theatre, would surely have resolved if he had been able to work more with the composer and production team.

The most obvious problem is that the action builds up engagingly to Lucius' tranformation -- he is torn between the charms of the trainee witch Fotis and his curiosity about her mistress Pamphilea's transforming magic, and in his excitement turns himself by mistake into a donkey. This is exactly the wrong point to stop for a break, but it's an hour in, so Festus the narrator says he needs a drink, and sends the audience off to the bar or to answer calls of nature.

After the break things don't hold together nearly so well. The bandits do a Gilbert-and-Sullivan turn that jars with the integrated though eclectic musical style of the rest of the opera, the ballet of Cupid and Psyche works fine, but Lucius himself drizzles towards his redemption by submission to the triple goddess, stopping to lament the hard life of an ass when he is halfway rescued. The ending vision of the goddess is stirring and magical, but not part of the narrative. For Davies, the Jungian vision is unifying, but it doesn't have the same force for most audiences.

Randolph Peters' music, though, is generally terrific, getting the humourous but sincerely emotional tone of Davies' text perfectly most of the time. The very best parts are those based most closely in the German and English romantic fanstasy traditions, notably a powerful hymn to "Gramarye", the witch's left-handed art of reading and writing the universe, stirringly sung by superb Judith Forst. Much of the text is in ballad-narrative form, which Peters handles with melodic and orchestral inventiveness, and the transformation scenes (impossibly difficult to stage and compose as specficied in the libretto) are spine-tingling if not totally lucid. But that's all right -- it's magic.

There are times when Peters is too respectful of Davies' text and sets his post-Shakespearean conventional lyrics with Lloyd Webberish obviousness. Well, perhaps not that badly, but not enough to turn rhetorical commonplaces into the emotional high points they seem to be meant to be. The most glaring case of this is the duet about time, measure and the endless Now of love between Lucius and Fotis as they make love (in a bed on the stage). This is reprised at the end, suggesting that Davies thought it was something more profound than the Catullan carpe diem it is, but Peters' setting is anodyne and repetitive, creating the sort of endless Now you eventually throw something to put an end to.

But the music in general is thoroughly enjoyable, great fun and sometimes very moving. And the production is totally engaging, with the Canadian Opera Company chorus playing a full part as the enthusiastic audience for a tale of love. The set is very simple, a luminous flat sea view lit to create appropriate atmospheres, and three tiers of steps, which form the stage for the performed narrative and also the theatre for the on-stage audience. There are moments of confusion, generally based in confusion in the libretto, but the colour and energy of the production carry you along. The ballet, styled from further east, Thailand or Hindu India maybe, is particularly striking visually, with the wrathful Venus angular and Shiva-like.

Judith Forst dominated the singing, as both the universe devouring Pamphilea and the sly old bandit-mother. The other performances were in character, and energetic. Rebecca Caine was glamourous and slightly cryptic, alluring rather than naughty, as Fotis. Kevin Anderson was amusingly vain and stupid as Lucius, and Theodore Baerg and Raymond Aceto were both suitably comic in a slightly Chu-Chin-Chow way, as was Michael Colvin as the censorious scholar who didn't think people should see all this filth.

Richard Bradshaw, who lead some magical playing by the Canadian Opera Company orchestra, has been trying to spin The golden ass into the standard repertoire. For its musical invention and potential ideas, it belongs there. But the libretto needs a substantial overhaul to give it some dramatic shape and coherence. When pia memoria allows a sense of proportion, this could be a wonderful work in every way.

H.E. Elsom



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