50 ways to misread your lover

Monteverdi: Lamento d’Arianna/Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda; Barbara Monk Feldman: Pyramus and Thisbe, world premiere at the Canadian Opera Company, October 20, 2015. Director Christoper Alden, conductor Johannes Debus, singers Krisztina Szabo, Phillip Addis, Owen McCausland and the COC Orchestra and Chorus. Tickets & calendar.

Pyramus1How to describe Barbara Monk Feldman’s music? (For *it* is absolutely the centrepiece of the COC’s production of the triple bill Pyramus & Thisbe that opened at the FSC on Tuesday.) I have been seeking words to do it justice for two days now, while listening to her recent recording Soft Horizons (New World Records, February 2015) on Rdio and this piece on YT, The Northern Shore. Have a listen:

When it’s tonal, it’s not tunefully, but complicatedly so. If it’s minimalist, it does not rely on repetition and rudimentary formulas. When it’s Feldman, it is Feldman with a human face. (Let me explain this flippancy. I’ve heard Morton Feldman’s “For Bunita Marcus” performed by Marc-André Hamelin last year and was struggling to stay interested. Any of Barbara Monk Feldman’s pieces, by contrast, keep me involved and deepen the focus. Never a dull moment—and this includes the silences.) If it’s atmospheric à la Saariaho, it’s generous to the listener, never blanketing with a single colour, always engaging you with unexpected turns, instrumental accents, extended techniques, micro-tones and slides down the pitch akin to electronic music. In short, although we can compare it to this or that style or composer, BMF’s is a musical language apart, with a personality all of its own.

Add to this the layer of human voices, treated (especially the chorus) much in the same way, as a palette for nonfigurative, nonlinear expression—BFM acknowledges visual arts among her main influences–and you’ll get closer to what Pyramus and Thisbe sounds like. She composed the libretto too—out of very disparate bits of text by different authors from different eras. The story of forbidden love, first told in Ovid and reworked over the centuries, involves two lovers who communicate through a crack in the wall that divides the households. When they finally have a chance to meet, Thisbe arrives early to the agreed spot where, instead of Pyramus, she comes across a roaring lioness. Her veil gets caught in lioness’ teeth, but the beast spares her. Pyramus also crosses paths with the lioness and presumes Thisbe was murdered by the animal. He dies by his own hand, and Thisbe follows suit after she finds him dead.

It would be a thoroughly absurd story if followed literally, and BMF doesn’t; she chops it up and re-creates it rather cubistically, as a collage of psychological intensities shared among the two singers and the silent observer/narrator/reader. She is particularly interested in the figure of the lioness—is it desire itself? what is it?—and the wall of miscommunication.

Director Christopher Alden even more so, since he made the Wall the alpha and omega of the production. The panels here are painted in the Rothko style and they are gorgeous to look at and produce a calming effect, but my favourite Chris Alden is the busy Chris Alden, and I kept wondering what a busier, more daring production of this piece would have looked like. (Compare, for example, the static L’Amour de loin by Peter Sellars with the very busy, theatrical production of the same work by Daniele Finzi-Pasca.) In this pared-down, Alden-going-Bob-Wilson-on-us version, the three soloists interact only musically, never physically, with each other and with the chorus that is permanently positioned at the foot of the Rothko panel behind them.

It would also have been very useful to have the libretto handy somewhere in the printed program. Surtitles are not conducive to deep reading, let alone re-reading, and although they were mostly in English, switching to German poetry only in latter parts, they are from several different sources and it would have been fascinating to study how, say, Faulkner as opposed to St. John of the Cross as opposed to Rilke, interacted with particular musical material. The words “Pyramus” and “Thisbe” never appear, as far as I can tell, and * The work could have been given a completely different title, no great loss.

The orchestra was precise and committed under Johannes Debus, breathing as one. Debus himself played the harpsichord in the Monteverdi, and as part of the continuo that included a cello, a bass and a period instrument, theorbo (strummed by the La Nef, Les Violons du Roy and Apollo’s Fire regular, Sylvain Bergeron). The aria “Ariadne’s Lament” opens the proceedings, with a tremendous amount of stillness. It’s minutes of nothing happening while Krisztina Szabó, stage left, sings of betrayed love. The second part, “The battle between Tancredi and Clorinda” is a little more dynamic, with Szabo and Phillip Addis getting into a gentle lovers’ tussle while the narrator (the outrageously good recent Ensemble Studio graduate, tenor Owen McCausland) tells of sword fights and blood spilling, here only metaphorical. Monteverdi’s music is visceral enough, but more could have been done with the staging. It’s not entirely clear why Monteverdi’s shorts were paired with Monk Feldman here—and it could have been any number of one-acters or song cycles or quasi-oratorios by people like Schubert, Schumann or even Strauss or Mahler. Yes, Monteverdi is always good news. However, for this particular pairing, there are other composers who would have been equally good news and would have communicated with BMF’s work in interesting ways.

Would a smaller theatre have been a better setting for an intimate production full of subtle cinematic, non-operatic acting? Very likely. And as the Monteverdi parts were coming to conclusion, I was ready to accept the fact that I would end up appreciating the ideas behind the triple bill without actually being moved by it in any memorable way. But then BMF’s music took over and changed everything–it is the absolute star of the production. The triple bill brought BMF’s music to the COC stage and—fingers crossed—into the classical music-listening mainstream. For that, I am grateful. For that, mission more than accomplished. May this production travel widely, so many others too can find themselves under the spell of BMF’s gossamer magic.

* Correction: They are uttered twice, I’m told by a more careful listener. Pyramus and Thisbe are the first two lines of the libretto, sung by the chorus. In one other line, Thisbe addresses Pyramus by his name.

Photos by Gary Beechey, Canadian Opera Company. Top: Krisztina Szabo, Phillip Addis, Owen McCausland. Bottom: Szabo, Addis and the COC Chorus.

Pyramus2

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