2016: A year in performing arts

Best spoken theatre

Best theatre was nontraditional: Germinal at World Stage 2016, Les Liaisons Dangereuses at NT Live in cinemas, Independent Aunties’ Gertrude and Alice at Buddies in Bad Times, Joel Pommerat’s Ça Ira (1), La fin de Louis in Amsterdam at Holland Festival in June.

Best opera

Stefan Herheim’s The Queen of Spades in Amsterdam.

A very non-grand Traviata sung and spoken gorgeously by non-operatic singer-actors at Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris in October.

François Girard’s Siegfried at the COC. (But see opera on DVD for the verdict on his Parsifal.)

Scottish-Welsh-Tapestry Opera presented The Devil Inside.

The David Alden’s Maometto was irreverent and fun (and tangentially caused a bizarre media storm in which the most conservative of Canada’s opera critics ended up getting a global platform for his pearl-clutching). While most people praised the singing, I was more into the production. I don’t include it here as one of the best opera performances ever seen, but rather as a major operatic event of the year for various non-operatic reasons. Kudos to David Alden for daring to put a little bit of an Islamic culture on stage without kid gloves and fear.

I’ll add Damiano Michieletto’s Samson et Dalila at Opera de Bastille in Paris in October for these things primarily: the brilliant coup de théâtre ending, the sexy as hell Anita Rachvelishvili as Dalila. Also, for the opera house itself. Bastille gets a lot of flak, and unjustly: it’s a very pleasant space inside and outside the hall.

Best concert or recital

This all-Beethoven on period instruments concert in Paris with Viktoria Mullova and Sarah Alice Ott as soloists. First visit to Paris’s new Philharmonie, so that was exciting. The hall is fantastic. The outside spaces, where people mingle in between and after performances, not so much: they’re narrow and like an after-thought to the hall.

As a Stranger, by the Collectif Toronto. I didn’t write about this all-female take on the Winterreise back then, but it was tremendous.

Lineage, the vocal + chamber orchestra program on 19th-20th-21st century musical lineage.

Dean Burry goes Schoenberg on Romanticism with Talisker Players.

Scenes of the Mediterranean: Stéphane Denève conducts TSO in Berlioz: Roman Carnival Overture, Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto No. 5 “Egyptian” – Jean-Yves Thibaudet at the piano, Ibert: Escales (Ports of Call) and Respighi: Pines of Rome

TSO and Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto (soloist discovery of the year for me) in Nielsen’s Violin Concerto. The program also had Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé (conductor Juanjo Mena, with Toronto Mendelssohn Choir) and Granados’ Intermezzo from Goyescas. 

The entire New Creations Festival 2016: first night of the Fragile Absolute, and subsequent nights. The TSO removes the concert web page as soon as the concert’s over, so I had to search through my emails for concert reminders and save them as JPGs.

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There was also a TSO concert with Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique on the program, with Barbara Hannigan singing Dutilleux, that I attended in January, but I can’t remember much about it (it kinda pales) – so let’s include it as “it sounded so great on paper, but then IRL…”

Best opera: streaming, cinema & DVD

The Royal Opera House Boris Godunov, a Richard Jones production, at Bloor Hot Docs cinema. It was an unexpected joy.

Katie Mitchell’s Lucia di Lammermoor (same cinema): excellent with no reservations.

Katie Mitchell’s Pelléas et Mélisande from Aix-en-Provence: ground-breaking. Historians of operatic theatre will look on this production as a milestone, I have no doubts. I have saved an ungeoblocked URL with English subtitles here — do watch it the soonest, because Arte won’t keep it online forever.

I finally watched Girard’s Met-COC Parsifal on DVD and am sorry to report that I was disappointed. Too literal, too Christian-propaganda-y, especially the final act, which was an endless bro-ness renewed, Kundry humiliated agony. So the COC can keep postponing that production for as long as it wants, as far as I’m concerned.

Dance (of which I’ve seen very little this year)

Crystal Pite’s Betroffenheit at Canadian Stage; Toronto Dance Theatre’s Marienbad which wordlessly explored the dynamics of intimacy between two men.

Another good thing about 2016: meeting opera Twitter friends in real life.

Now let me see if I can do a quick post on the 2016 in reading.

Lineage: German Romantics with Berg, Schoenberg, Webern and Rihm

recitalIt rarely happens that a recital series strikes excellence in programming from the word go, but the group of musicians that include soprano Adanya Dunn, clarinetist Brad Cherwin, Alice Hwang at the piano and visiting musicians–last night those were violinist Madlen Horsch Breckbill and bassoonist Kevin Harris–are doing just that. The group doesn’t even call itself an ensemble and the series itself doesn’t have a name, which is sort of refreshing to stumble across among their branding-over-conscious generational cohort.

Last night was the second recital in this unofficial series. Lineage was programmed as an extended family gathering between the old, (Schubert and Mendelssohn), the twentieth-century middle (Webern, Schoenberg and Berg), and the living (Wolfgang Rihm). There is succinct one-paragraph artistic statement in the program, which is just the right amount of text, and we were handed the original Lieder with side translations, some by Dunn, others credited. (Extra points for crediting the translators. Not a practice often observed.)

Mendelssohn’s piano pieces “Lieder ohne worte” (1841) opened each of the thematic sections of the recital. A Rihm Lied would then follow — “Hochroth” from Das Roth cycle (1990) first, an atmospherically grim song that belies the optimistic tenor of the text by a Goethe-generation poet, Karoline von Günderrode. It was a pleasant contrast, and Dunn sang expressively. What followed was Berg’s Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano Op. 5 (1913), three in three different kinds of slow tempo and one in quick, in which Cherwin gets to have some fun.

A Lied ohne worte from Op. 102 opened the second section, followed by Rihm’s “Blaupause” from “The End of Handwriting” cycle by Heiner Müller. That the subsequent Anton Webern Quartet Op. 22 (1930) was in the middle of the recital attests once more to the excellent programming instincts of the group. More musicians on stage than at any other point that evening, and the piece itself a witty and an extremely eventful conversation between the violin, clarinet, piano and bassoon (subbing for tenor saxophone). A brief “Gebet an Pierrot” (1912) from Schoenberg’s much heftier Pierrot Lunaire cycle followed, in the piano-soprano version. Dunn was immediately dramatic and gave a good idea of the mood of the entire piece. It was again a brief sample that left me wanting to hear more from where that came from.

Schubert’s “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen” (1828) was the crowd pleaser of the night (to me it felt a wee too long), a Lied that could equally be a pocket opera or at least a scena, scored for soprano, piano and clarinet.  It’s structured into the light, melodic first part, the sad part, the the uplifting finale. That kind of a traditionally beautiful Romantic piece absolutely has a place in a mixed recital of this kind, and its colours were welcome.

For the epilogue, Rihm and Mendelssohn switched places, and for good reason. The chosen Linz Fragmente by Rihm was rather monotone, but the final Lied without words by Mendelssohn (Op. 67, No. 4) was while cheerful and melodic also hinting at some of the chaos and intensity that the oncoming musical decades will embrace.

So: a superbly planned recital, with a rich banquet of textures and colours, most of which we rarely get to sample here in Toronto. I’ve been re-listening to the entire program on the Naxos Online Library, piece by piece, all morning. Next time these people throw a recital, run don’t walk.

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Jamie Barton, she who wanders

cover-imageIt’s a joy to discover that Jamie Barton is one of those precious singers who can handle Mahler, although if I were to judge based on the lavish force of her voice, her extroverted bubbly-ness and love of camp, I’d have had doubts. Luckily, her first Lieder recording (with Brian Zeger at the piano) more than convinces that she can do inwardness, sombre colours, subtlety and even, often enough, holding back. About half of the disc is Mahler: the five Rückert-Lieder and three stand-alone songs plucked from other cycles. The Rückert doesn’t leave anything to be desired. “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft” is all in the smooth feline legato lines, beautifully sustained and withheld by Barton (and thanks to the translation by Richard Stokes, which replaces “linden” with “lime”, even the text becomes er more fragrant than usual). “Um Mitternacht” is lesson on how to progressively darken a song and how to deliver its atmospheric moodiness and anger at the empty, godless sky. “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” accomplishes to be melancholy without being hopeless; Barton explains in her liner notes that for her the song is not about saying goodbye to the world, but saying goodbye to its harshness and pull and finding a place of calm, and you can sense this in the interpretation. She also goes softly-softly with this one, no excessive statements, and dials it to plaintive whisper by the final verses. “Ich leb’ allein in meinem Himmel, / In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied” is conveyed as a shared intimacy, whispered into one’s ear.

“Ich ging mit Lust durch einen grünen Wald” (from Mahler’s Lieder und Gesänge aus der Jugendzeit, Book 2) continues, deliciously, in the same vein. It sounds very light and high and utterly girly.  “Scheiden und Meiden” is a riot; Barton mostly leaves behind the dainty vocality for this one and goes for the full blast, but why not, the song works this way too.

Unsurprisingly—we saw it in her recital at Koerner Hall—Barton is very much at home in Dvořák’s “Gypsy Songs” cycle. The folk-ish, dancey numbers are sung with great ease, but she is at her beautifulest in the introspective and bittersweet songs, “Má píseň zas mi láskou zní” (My song resounds with love), “A les je tichý kolem kol” (All around me the forest is quiet) and especially “Když mne stará matka zpívat, zpívat učívala” (When my old mother taught me singing), which is fevastating.

The Sibelius section that concludes the CD is more of a mixed bag. There’s a thing that a critic said about Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s Rückert-Lieder recording once: “[she] sings here with a monochrome severity”, and that’s a constantly lurking default for the voices of this kind that have great capacity and ripeness. The take-no-prisoners approach works well in “Svarta rosor” because it’s an ink black, terrifying song. The contemplative “Marssnön” just about pulls it through and stays this side of too loud, but the rest of Sibelius on the disc tends to go for too forte and too monochrome. It could also be that by the end of the disc the ear got satiated and is perhaps pining for something unfamiliar to happen? But the Sibelius finale is the only semi-sour note in the recording with plenty of other riches by an artist who will be developing in all kinds of interesting directions in the years ahead.

East and west meet before the hardness of history: a conversation with Diana Tso

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Jen Hum Phoebe Hu, Vania Chan, and Vicki Kim in Comfort. Photo by Dahlia Katz

The 1937-45 Sino-Japanese war, the Asian leg of the Second World War, remains under-historicised in the west. Its most brutal event, the invasion of the then-capital of the Nationalist China, Nanking, by the imperial Japanese army, remains under-acknowledged in the east too, playwright Diana Tso tells me, and for a host of conflicting reasons. Japanese historiography still downplays the atrocities—estimated by other historians to be between 200,000 and 300,000 Nanking residents killed and tens of thousands of women raped. A great number of the surviving “comfort women” and their families prefer not to talk about their lives in conditions of sexual slavery due to the stigma. But books do exist, and are coming out with increasing frequency, and Tso used them for initial research for her latest play with music (a contemporary masque, in many ways), Comfort, opening tomorrow with Red Snow Collective at Aki Studio in Regent Park.

Tso had read Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking, the collection Chinese Comfort Women, and a book of testimonies by Japanese soldiers and their victims collected by a Japanese journalist, but it was her travels to Korea and China over the last ten years, for research and inspiration and activism, that shaped more directly her play. In 2009 she met some of the survivors in China and Korea. “They have created ‘houses of sharing’ in Korea where some of the grandmothers live together, paint, try to build a community and heal,” says Tso. “To this day, every Wednesday they stand in front of the Japanese embassy and ask for recognition of the crime and an apology.”

During the Japanese occupation of the city, about 20 remaining westerners, banking on their foreign power citizenships and employing not a small amount of chutzpah, marked off a Nanking Safety Zone with Red Cross flags and proclaimed it a no-atrocity area. It worked. In one of those perverse twists that history excels at, a German businessman who also happened to be a confirmed Nazi rescued thousands of Chinese and is now acknowledged as one of the most reliable witnesses  of Japanese brutality in Nanking. During her last visit to Nanjing, Tso met a widow of a man who had stayed in the ‘international zone’ and asked her to share the story of how they met. It was that encounter that planted the seed of the play as a love story amid historical unrest.

But nothing is straightforward: there’s a play within a play, and frequent incursions into mythology. “In my play, we follow a fisherman and a merchant’s daughter. Both are in love with the opera called Butterfly Lovers – an actual Chinese opera piece in which a knowledge-hungry girl is not allowed to go to school because of her gender. The woman in my play suffers similar fate; her upper-class merchant’s family has promised her hand in marriage. So, it’s 1937 in Shanghai. Two people fall in love. The war breaks out, she escapes her family home and the arranged marriage and is eager to help in the Chinese war effort, but is immediately captured. He, meanwhile, embarks on a search for her.”

Music is composed by Constantine Caravassilis and is there for dramaturgical accents, for atmosphere, for scene enrichment. Comfort is not a sung-through, through-composed opera, but an eclectic dramatic creation with music. The small band consists of erhu, percussion, accordion and piano. “I first worked with musicians exploring the text and the movement, while the composer worked on the score and proposed music – and this mix resulted in new text and new scenes.” Tso’s monologue for the Moon about devastation of humanity came out of just such a collaborative alchemy. “It would not have happened if I was working in isolation at home on a pre-music text. It was music that made me see things.” It’s only after that stage of collaboration that they (the director is William Yong) added straight theatre actors to the mix. In the  final show, there are 3 musicians, one professional dancer, one opera singer (soprano Vania Chan) and 7 actors, one of whom specializes in acrobatics. “If you put a group of different creators in the room, you want to use what each of them has as their forte.”

It will come as no surprise that Tso has the Jacques Lecoq School on her CV. “In other schools you’re trained as one thing only–an actor–with very specific skills; there, people of different skills come together, some are dancers, some directors, some actors. You’re exploring all those simultaneously, being a director, a writer, an actor, working as an ensemble to create something new. Instead of waiting for your agent to invite you to acting auditions, you create your own work.”

Comfort runs Nov 26 to Dec 10: Info & tickets

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Vania Chan, Phoebe Hu, Vicki Kim (front) and Jen Hum. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Healey Willan and the Art Song: A New CASP project

healey-willanSince I didn’t grow up in the Anglo tradition, the name Healey Willan was completely unknown to me before this concert. I’m told anybody who’s ever attended a protestant church service in Toronto–or sung in one–would know of Willan, but they will know him primarily as a composer of music to accompany church functions, and likely think of him as part of the stuffy hardcore British line of the (pre-)Canadian music in Toronto. The Canadian Art Song Project people thought that that judgment is unfair, and opened up and sifted through the vault of Willan’s little performed art songs. And they found some gems that absolutely withstand the test of time.

The pre-concert talk given by the composer Dean Burry, with occasional footnotes from a singer’s perspective by Lawrence Wiliford, helped situate the man in the history of music and the history of Canada. British (Empire) music at the turn of the twentieth century lagged behind the European Continent in experiment and innovation, and still very much looked back to the nineteenth century. Most frequently performed composers were of Elgar’s ilk, and this musical culture spilled over to the ex-colonies. Willan moved to Toronto in 1913, became a big fish in a small pond and continued to compose in the late Romantic tradition.

But within that idiom, he created some mesmerizing art songs. There are composers who function as brilliant systemathizers of the established and popular musical idioms of the recent past–Reynaldo Hahn, for instance–and Willan himself would probably belong to that group. Some his early songs, which opened the recital last night, would not stand out if found in a Schubert or a Rachmaninov song book. Others expand on the French mélodies vocabulary: those selected last night (“Eve”, “Dreams” and “Dawn”, all from 1912, sung by soprano Martha Guth, mezzo Allyson McHardy and baritone Peter Barrett, with Helen Becqué at the piano) remained unpublished during his lifetime, hélas. As did, said Lawrence Wiliford at the pre-talk, the most experimental songs in his portfolio: Willan’s playing with the form and potential new languages remained hidden in his unpublished works.

There were a number of folk songs in the program last night, and some are clearly better left aside as artifacts  from the past: the jolly England “Drake’s Drum” and his take on the Scottish folksong don’t really add much to the conversation. Dean Burry was right, though: “Lake Isle of Innisfree” sounds spacious and new. Willan’s effort with Canadian francophone folk is also interesting: “Rossignol du vert bocage” and “Laquelle marierons-nous”, sung by McHardy with Becqué at the piano, were not in any way predictable.

The concert finished with the 1914-1920 set “War and Innocence” and the only trio of the evening, “A Song of Canada” (1930) which, as ‘patriotic songs’ go, was almost pleasant.

All in all, I’m glad for this discovery. My understanding is that some chosen items of the Willan songbook may end up being recorded on a future CASP CD. For that and other updates on CASP ongoing research, revival and commissioning projects, head here.

Jamie Barton in recital

Jamie Barton with Bradley Moore at Koerner Hall. Photo credit James M. Ireland.
Jamie Barton with Bradley Moore at Koerner Hall. Photo credit James M. Ireland.

The cutest baby-Wagnerian around, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton made her Toronto recital debut at the Koerner Hall last night with Bradley Moore at the piano.

The program was diverse, but the format was kept traditional, with no witty intros or personal stories in between the sets of songs, which would have enriched and enlivened the event. She did finally speak–and kick off her shoes–before the last, American set, and showed talent for gab. More words next time, JB!

She mightily impressed in Dvořák’s Cigánské melodie. Moving through its divergent moods with great dramatic wisdom and excellent diction, Barton was very much at home in the Czech song cycle. She took good care of each word; the way she inhabited the word pláčem in the sombre fourth song effectively created a mini-scene of its own.

The three songs by Chausson too went well. The main issue with a large impressive voice like Barton’s in recital is to rein it in, not let it rip (too soon, too often, ever, maybe?). I wondered if an opulent voice would not maybe blow away some of the gossamer-ier sides of French mélodies, but turns out I didn’t need to: “Hébé” and “Le colibri” in particular were a delight as Barton gave her high floating pianissimi (yes they exist!) a good workout. We usually hear lighter voices in this rep, but hearing Barton and, say, Marie-Nicole Lemieux in mélodies is a whole different re-read. Pourquoi pas.

The Schubert set was a wee bit humdrum, possibly hindered by an under-ambitious choice of songs. Does anybody ever get excited by “The King of Thule” or “Shepherd’s Lament”? I’d loved to have heard Barton in some Lieder that mean the world to her personally, and the reasons why. Maybe something from Winterreise? Der Erlkönig? Ständchen? But no luck. OK, there was “Gretchen am Spinnrade” but the piano wheel didn’t spin for it with much propulsion, alas.

The final Jesus-y set wasn’t my thing (James Ivey-arranged “His Eye is on the Sparrow” and “Ride on King Jesus”) though “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” (arr. H.T. Burleigh) can never fail. The encores were a Sibelius and a Princesse de Bouillon aria from Adriana Lecouvreur.

Now can we please hear Barton in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde? Sooner rather than later? She’s back to Toronto in the fall for Mahler 3 with TSO in the meantime.

Filthy Brides, or: AtG gets Cozy

I managed to see A Little Too Cozy, the Against the Grain Theatre adaptation of Così fan tutte, on its closing night this weekend. This isn’t a comprehensive review by any means, but a few thoughts on the production that was extensively covered by multiple other media.

The basic idea behind Joel Ivany’s update works well: Fiordiligi/Felicity and Dorabella/Dora have made it to the last round of a reality TV show in which eligible singletons interact with each other via text, email and phone only. Before meeting in person their chosen bachelors, Guiglielmo/Elmo and Fernando, the women have one last test to pass: two ‘new candidates’ (actually Elmo and Fernando, switching girls, tempting fate) trying to seduce them with “A bird you laid your eyes on is better than the one hiding in the bush” shtick. Hosting the show—while sporting cheesy suits–is the devious presenter Donald L. Fonzo (Cairan Ryan), in cahoots with the show’s “talent relations coordinator” Despina (Caitlin Wood).

When the set is an actual TV studio on 10th floor of the CBC building, the feeling of unreality that one gets with the unfolding of Cosi is perfectly founded. You may ask yourself why the women would go through the absurd setup of this TV show to get engaged, but why do people go to reality TV shows in the first place? It’s more to do with becoming famous for 15 minutes than achieving whatever the official end goal of the show is, winning the race, or getting the bachelor. Ivany made the women, particularly Dora, publicity hounds. In a tech-positive affront on the fourth wall, the AtG encouraged the audience in the studio to tweet (suggested hashatags get repeated and flashed on screens) and take photos. As far as I know, this invitation to engage on social media during the performance is a precedent in Toronto, and a very positive one.

And still, Cozy did not manage to eliminate the boring bits of Cosi and this opera, like Mozart/Da Ponte’s, has snooze minutes. TV studio acoustics aren’t very good for unamplified singing and the trademark intimacy of the AtG’s productions was lost this time. A lot of the text for me was lost too, and the lustre of the score in this quartet-with-piano reduction. It was the largest, most warehouse-like space they’ve ever had a show in. Since it was the last show, there was probably some exhaustion to blame, but tenor Aaron Sheppard had very little volume all night, and even the charismatic and hilarious mezzo Rihab Chaieb occasionally produced impure, airy sound. While Clarence Frazer was both funny and sang well and was on all the time, Shantelle Przybylo’s continuous squinting distracted from her sweet and capable singing.

Ivany divided the libretto into segments that happen on camera and those that happen backstage, which is a brilliant touch. His Così libretto, like his Figaro was, is sharply zeitgeist-y and populist. What’s new is that it’s (and this is a compliment) filthy—much filthier than either Figaro or Uncle John was. I don’t know if Ivany knows of Ali Wong’s comedy yet, but her stage persona and Cozy brides-to-be have a lot in common.

 

MY Opera does The Rape of Lucretia

Christina Campsall as Lucretia, Nicholas Borg as Tarquinius, Victoria Marshall as Bianca and Anne-Marie MacIntosh as Lucia. Photo by William Ford Photography.
Christina Campsall as Lucretia, Nicholas Borg as Tarquinius, Victoria Marshall as Bianca and Anne-Marie MacIntosh as Lucia. Photo by William Ford Photography.

Lots of good singing and musicianship last night in MY Opera’s The Rape of Lucretia, and Britten’s music (piano: Natasha Fransblow), the best thing about this opera, contains vast painterly visuals and subtlest love of detail. The music in Lucretia’s home, the women’s collective work and the light of a new day in particular, have rich cinematic quality. The ensembles are tremendous: whenever Britten has two or more people singing at the same time, a thrilling discord is heard. The oft returning, initially playful chord becomes the “is that all” motif that adds meaning wherever it appears.

Christina Campsall’s Lucretia felt right in just about every way. She was apprehensive and troubled from the get go, dignified in angst and (later) devastation and just a dash of glamorous throughout. Hers is a pretty mezzo that you wouldn’t exactly call either light or dark in timbre, doing both as needed. It’ll be interesting to see where she goes next (she’s sung Ruggiero and Offenbach’s Hélène at the GGS of Opera in recent years). Jonelle Sills (Female Chorus) and Daevyd Pepper (Male Chorus) were very good too, if very different characters dramatically. While Sills sang hers sincerely, Pepper’s showed hints of being calculating and self-interested. Hints only, however; much more could have been done to redefine the Choruses dramatically, especially because that was the initial promise.

Victoria Marshall (Bianca) and Anne-Marie MacIntosh (Lucia) were flawless in their scenes / miniatures. At various points during the show I found myself wondering ‘Yes, but what I really want to know is what those two are doing right now.’ Among the men, Jacob Feldman (impossibly boyish looking, but vocally convincing) and Evan Korbut as Collatinus and Junius respectively left a stronger impression than Nicholas Borg as Tarquinius. With Borg, there was some apparent straining in higher notes, and acting occasionally came close to caricaturing without any real menace stemming from the character, but he did well and held his own in the most difficult of scenes, the preliminaries to the rape. There was proper tension between the two characters, and the singers really made most of the awkward setup.

Director Anna Theodosakis placed the opera in a mid-twentieth century country—time when Britten worked on the piece. The MYO says it’s Italy nearing liberation, but the production is nowhere near that specific. You would expect in that case an Italy closer to the Italian neo-realist cinema? No, the setting could more plausibly be any other country that experienced occupation or heightened military presence roughly around that time, Hungary under Soviets, Berlin under Soviets, Yugoslavia under Germans or Italians, Greeks under the colonels, Spain under Franco, and on and on. And this broader applicability is a compliment to it, actually. While the production did not have a built set, the costumes and the direction did the story-telling, and very competently.

But as far as Lucretia and I are concerned, we are done. I’ve given this work hours and hours of fair trial, and will give no more. This was a gentle, confident production, but the libretto stays bad, irreparable. A woman is treated like garbage, then kills herself because she is too ashamed. Angels sing of Christ’s tears, praise her purity. Curtain. For good.

 Daevyd Pepper as Male Chorus and Jonelle Sills as Female Chorus. Photo by William Ford Photography.
Daevyd Pepper as Male Chorus and Jonelle Sills as Female Chorus. Photo by William Ford Photography.

Ave atque vale, Lucretia

Lucretia-BannerThere are barely any operatic works that I’d consider unstageable or irredeemably irrelevant. But last year, after seeing the Glyndebourne streaming of The Rape of Lucretia in the oddly respectful, libretto-at-face-value staging by Fiona Shaw, I realized that TROL would from then on be one such work for me. And not because of the detailed scene of rape, or the fact that the male leads use women’s bodies as currency in intra-military and political competition with impunity, or that the division of women into the whores and the chaste gets all of the airtime, or that the victim of rape takes upon herself the ‘spoiled goods’ stigma and kills herself out of shame and guilt.

No, not because of that. An intelligent staging could rework the bits of this ghastly puzzle into something that subverts its surface meaning instead of amplifying it.

It’s because of its ending, in fact: after Lucretia’s death, the chorus wonder among themselves whether the suffering and pain is all there is, and reassure us that no, that Christ the Saviour will come soon and be crucified and with His wounds redeem the wounds of the suffering humanity, including the poor Lucretia. Just you wait: she will not have suffered and died in vain.

What.the.actual.fuck.

Last time I got that angry after a show had to be after a Lars von Trier film—could be Breaking the Waves, could be the one with Nicole Kidman, could be any random misogynist crap that his funders and film critics encourage him to produce. One of his favourite tropes is Woman as the Sacrificial Lamb: an innocent, good woman being excruciatingly annihilated by a group/community, and this event, there are hints, works as an exorcism and brings catharsis for said community (or bro).

And von Trier is not alone: this trope is widespread in culture, its cinematic and operatic corners in particular, but everywhere else too.

TROL itself is so cavalier, so I-don’t-give-a-shit patriarchal, so unlayered dramatically, containing such simpleminded theology that would horrify or make laugh even a deeply religious Christian who indeed does believe that the Son of God had come to earth, died to redeem our sins and will return to abolish death and pain and reward the victims of injustice. (Any Christians reading this: I know you’re more sophisticated than this opera suggests. This is an insult to you, too.)

So imagine my surprise when I discovered that not one but two of the indie opera companies in Toronto would be doing TROL within a short time span. Of all the chamber-size operas around, it’s this one that got chosen—twice. Against the Grain will be co-producing it with various other organizations later this year, but MY Opera, a smart upstart run by the young & talented women who program lesser known rep gems and (equally important) pay the performers, surprised me much more.

The MYO press release also hinted that the director Anna Theodosakis would take considerable liberties with the work and set it in a very different historical period, with not a toga in sight. Company’s press materials also make obvious a sharply attuned awareness of the today widely and hotly debated issues around assault, consent, and artistic representation of same.

So I got curious: to see that a local small company has a more sophisticated approach to TROL than the kinda ideologically naïve one that Fiona Shaw and Glyndebourne took last summer was heartening. But when I emailed company’s General Manager Stephanie Applin, to ask if Theodosakis and the Artistic Director Kate Applin can meet me for tea and conversation, I warned them about my anti-TROL judgment.

They weren’t deterred: Anna and the Applin sisters were game to being challenged and talked to me about the concept and their reasons for doing the work for about an hour. I left in a better mood than the one I came in—which however is not to say that I’m converted to the work. This desperate piece is in capable hands, is what I can say: if anybody can do anything meaningful with it, it’s people like these three women who have thought through every political aspect of putting it on stage and are boldly ploughing though it for reinterpretation and salvage.

In Theodosakis’ regie, Lucretia takes place in Italy at the end of the Second World War. This chimes neatly with the libretto, as the original setting is the (un)rule of the kings before Rome became Rome, i.e. Roman Republic and later the Empire. With Theodosakis we’re still in Rome, but it’s a Rome at the twilight of a regime of a different kind. The militaristic rule is floundering, Italy clearly losing the war, and an internal Italian strife shaping up between the old monarchic regime tainted by its fascist ties, and the new forces of republicanism.

And while Tarquinius and Collatinus, Lucretia’s husband, are in the same army, their political loyalties are beginning to diverge.

So the rape does not exactly happen as an instrument of war—something that I expected we’d see, since the setting is the latter part of WW2. Rather, it’s a tool in the emerging civil conflict–perhaps even a retaliation?

While Tarquinius of the libretto, a vile Etruscan who bullied his way to the (Roman) top carries marks of the racially other, Theodosakis eliminated that complication: her Tarquinius is an insider through and through.

The male chorus and the female chorus are the greatest challenge in this opera. Theodosakis, wisely, puts the pious commenters smack in the middle of the drama. I won’t spoil everything ahead of the premiere, but I can say that they are a couple of functionaries with very specific allegiances and an agenda. The final words that usually irk me so much are uttered with political goals in mind—as something of a calculated manipulation by the means of Catholic vernacular in order to mobilize the populace.

As for the long scene of the assault, the MY Opera ladies tell me that it was important to them to avoid two pitfalls: one, of being gratuitous and voyeuristic, and the opposite one, of softening the scene and making the crime appear more bearable.

Will the production achieve the goals? The approach is certainly well-informed and thought-through. But can they accomplish the miracle of opening up to interpretation the work’s ossified core? We’ll all be able to see April 29 to May 1. Toi, toi, toi, gals.

In the banner photo: Christina Campsall (Lucretia).