Masques of Orpheus, Toronto Masque Theatre, May 6, 2011
La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704)
Orpheus and Eurydice by James Rolfe, libretto André Alexis
Artistic director, conductor, violin: Larry Beckwith
Here’s another creature in the vibrant Early Music eco-system of Toronto to cherish and support: the Toronto Masque Theatre, a seven-year-old company which performs pre-opera operas and commissions contemporary works in the spirit of the masque, combining literary, music, dance and visual arts. There’s no other troupe in town that stages works like Monteverdi’s Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, Purcell’s King Arthur, John Blow’s Venus and Adonis (in previous seasons) or the 17th-century playwright Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure and Monteverdi’s Il Ballo delle Ingrate (both coming up next year).
The evening was divided into the French Baroque first half, and the contemporary take on the Orpheus story after the intermission, with the same instruments and the same voices as in Charpentier’s Orphée. The small orchestra of the TMT (two violins, two recorders, two viola da gambas, a cello, a lute and a harpsichord) provided delights of the symphonic size. Its players are all well-known musicians in their own right and they played exquisitely as an ensemble. They should be named: Joelle Morton (gamba), Justin Hayes (gamba), Kathleen Kajioka (violin), Alison Melville (recoder), Avery MacLean (recorder), Margaret Gay (cello), Ben Stein (lute), Noam Krieger (harpsichord/organ) . (TMT did not post the full list on their website, so I’m transcribing from the program here instead of linking.) When the goings got stalled on stage, you could always fall back on the orchestra and bask in its sound.
Every now and then, the going did get stalled up on the planks. It took some warm-up time for the performers to own their roles in the act 1, and the chorus voices just wouldn’t gel. Teri Dunn’s Eurydice was very subdued, shy, and often frowned. She sang much better and more freely in the second opera. Much of this piece is carried by the role of Orpheus, the haute-contre who has to show us why his singing is so fuss-worthy both in this world and the underworld, but the tenor Lawrence Wiliford did not exactly set the house on fire. His highs came across as forced, his French articulation could have been better, and volume was out of control occasionally. He was also holding the book in his key scenes, and wearing his RL glasses throughout. (Imagine a female singer singing costumed but with her RL glasses on. No, I know you can’t, because it doesn’t happen.) Wiliford also sung better and was more in control in the second opera.
After the rickety start, however, it was smooth sailing for all the other singers. The chorus became one by the end of act 1, and from the opening of act 2 with the hilarious entrance of Ixion, Tantale and Titye (Timothy Wong, Bud Roach and Peter McGillivray) until the concluding tutti and the choreography, it was one glorious ensemble singing and playing. Baritone Alexander Dobson was flawless as Pluton, soprano Shannon Mercer a charming Proserpine in both operas.
The librettist for the contemporary Orpheus was André Alexis, who came to some additional prominence last year when he published an odd essay which zooms in on John Metcalf and his one or two disciples as the reason for the “state of Canadian literary criticism”. (The piece has since been shredded on multiple occasions, notably by Jeet Heer and by Ryan Bigge’s line up of Alexis’ own reviewing gems.) This libretto is a mixed bag: there are moments of great imagination at work, as well as plenty of tired old conventions. On the up side, the scene in which Orpheus on his way out of the Underworld meets the recently deceased shepherd (excellently rendered by Peter McGillivray) and his three complaining sheep (ditto for Agnes Zsigovics, Timothy Wong and Bud Roach) is original, funny and serious, and perfectly put to music by James Rolfe. On the down side, we learn that death is “stillness and peace”, Proserpine is a hectoring wife, women love better than men, and Eurydice is still a helpless, wide-eyed and not too smart a lass with zero agency. (Back to the upside, she gets to show off her voice in a lovely solo “Very well, I will sing a song of yours”, something not given to Orpheus this time around).
No matter; James Rolfe’s music and the singing and acting shown by the ensemble could enliven any kind of text. And so they did, and left us with the impression that it all ended too soon.
May you live long and double your productions, TMT.
(And queer it up a little—can we see some men in skirts and women in trousers, and some mezzos and altos on cast? No point in pretending Early Music is a straight traditionalist business. Ever grateful.)