Reviewed by James Karas
The Canadian Opera Company’s choices for its second production for 2015-2016 can best be described as bold, innovative and commendable. It is advertised as Pyramus and Thisbe, a world premiere of a Canadian opera by Barbara Monk Feldman but there is more than that.
The first piece of the programme, which lasts only an hour and twenty minutes, is Lamento d’Arianna, a scene for solo soprano and orchestra and the only surviving fragment from Claudio Monteverdi’s second opera L’Arianna. Mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabo sings the role of Ariadne, the Cretan princess who showed Theseus how to kill the dreaded Minotaur and find his way out of the Labyrinth. Theseus promised to marry her but on his way back to Athens he abandoned her on the island of Naxos.
Phillip Addis as Tancredi and Krisztina Szabó as Clorinda. Photo: Michael Cooper
Szabo as the betrayed and grief-stricken Ariadne sings of her love for Theseus, her anger and her desolate state. She is alone on an empty stage with only a chair to sit on. The music and the singing are elegiac, plaintive and heart-wrenching with bursts of anger when she curses her betrayer. A beautifully rendered piece.
The second part of the programme is Il combattimento di Tancrdi e Clorinda, a piece for three voices from another Monteverdi opera. The three voices are Szabo as Clorinda, baritone Phillip Addis as Tancredi and tenor Owen McCausland as Testo. Il combattimento has a plot. The Christian knight Tancredi does battle on the walls of Jerusalem with an infidel. He wounds the infidel who reveals that she is in fact his beloved, Clorinda – an infidel. She asks to be baptized before she dies on a note of Christian forgiveness.
Testo gives us a blow-by-blow description of the battle but the narrative rarely matches what the two warriors are doing. No problem. We are there to listen to the singing and not watch a brawl.
(l-r) Owen McCausland as the Narrator, Krisztina Szabó as Thisbe and Phillip Addis as Pyramus. Photo: Michael Cooper
The last work and I suppose the pièce de resistance of the evening is Barbara Monk Feldman’s Pyramus and Thisbe. Although the lovers are called Pyramus (Addis) and Thisbe (Szabo) we are quickly disabused of any notion that this is a retelling of Ovid’s tale of the tragic lovers or Shakespeare’s hilarious take on them in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Monk Feldman treats the lovers’ story as a tone poem sung in a slow, deliberate, often dream-like fashion. In addition to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Monk Feldman uses William Faulkner’s The Long Summer, St. John of Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul and Rainer Maria Rilke’s Die Sonette an Orpheus. The opera is sung mostly in English but there are sections in German and Latin.
The slow and deliberate pace used almost throughout the opera eventually becomes ponderous. Banal phrases seem to take a very long time to sing. There are some beautiful passages for the singers and the chorus but not enough to keep one from looking at his watch.
Director Christopher Alden takes a minimalist approach to the three pieces and that is commendable. Ariadne’s lament does not need any movement and the last thing we want is a swashbuckling scene between Tancredi and Clorinda. Pyramus and Thisbe as a tone poem for the stage is not entirely satisfactory.
Pyramus and Thisbe by Barbara Monk Feldman opened October 20 and will be performed a total of seven times until November 7, 2015 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: 416-363-6671. www.coc.ca