TORONTO — What do you get when you pair the work of a living composer with that of one from the 17th century? The Canadian Opera Company (COC) is currently producing Quebec-born composer Barbara Monk Feldman’s 2009 work Pyramus and Thisbe alongside two pieces by 17th-century composer Claudio Monteverdi, Lamento D’Arianna and Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. It’s boldly ambitious in scale, even as it desperately tries to cultivate a poetic intimacy with a melange of stellar singing, daring direction, and artsy design
Pyramus and Thisbe eschews traditional drama in favor of a more abstract presentation. Inspired by Nicolas Poussin’s 1651 painting ”Stormy Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe,” the work incorporates in its libretto lines from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Faulkner’s The Long Summer, the work of 16th-century mystic St. John of the Cross and of psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers, as well as two almost complete poems from Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus. The story comes from Ovid’s tale of two secret lovers who arrange a nocturnal meeting. Thisbe arrives early but flees when she sees a lioness bloodied from a fresh kill and drops her scarf. Pyramus arrives, sees the bloodied scarf, and assumes Thisbe is dead; he kills himself, and when his lover returns to find him dead, she kills herself too. The story was the basis for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and has inspired many tragic romantic tales.
Lamento D’Arianna is a fragment of a long-lost opera revolving around the Greek myth of the heroic Theseus abandoning Ariadne (Arianna in Italian) in Naxos after she has helped him escape the labyrinth; in the scena, the titular female bitterly laments her fate. Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda features a libretto based on portions of 16th-century Italian poet Torquato Tasso’s epic La Gerusalemme Liberata (Jerusalem Delivered). Set during the First Crusade, it revolves around Tancredi, a Christian, battling his beloved but Muslim Clorinda, who is disguised as a soldier.
This isn’t the first time Monteverdi has been paired with a contemporary composer. Last year, Gotham Chamber Opera staged Tancredi alongside Lembit Beecher’s I Have No Stories to Tell You; that production was site-specific and used the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s evocative Arms and Armor Court and Medieval Sculpture Hall as backdrops.
In Toronto, director Christopher Alden has a far less intimate space. The stage of the Four Seasons Centre is huge, and a three-panelled, Rothko-esque backdrop by theater designer Paul Steinberg runs the length of it. Combined with the careful choreography of Tim Claydon and JAX Messenger’s dramatic lighting, the set creates a meditative mood that’s complemented by Monk Feldman’s score. Large swaths of that score are made up of sustained notes, which attempt to convey specific colors that Alden has translated into striking images. During Lamento, for instance, baritone Phillip Addis, as Theseus, stands between two panels of the immense painted set, hand on the red one, creating a long shadow and silently staring out at the audience, smoking. It’s a devastating portrait that captures many ideas: of youth, indifference, the ephemeral nature of love affairs. During Tancredi, soprano Krisztina Szabo, as Clorinda, stands, arms spread, against that same red panel, as Tancredi (Addis) chokes her with the rolled-up scarf that’s previously been used as a weapon of both seduction and combat. It’s striking and discomforting, and makes period productions pale in comparison; highly mannered movements are replaced with a loose physicality that illuminates both the battle of the sexes and the lack of communication in the modern world.
Pyramus and Thisbe begins when Tancredi ends — there’s no break, only the final image from the Monteverdi opera: Tancredi kneeling over the slain Clorinda. It’s a fascinating reversal of the Poussin painting, which depicts Thisbe kneeling over a dead Pyramus. The chorus silently enters, clothed in a dark green that echoes tones used by the painter. Szabo and Addis are fantastically compelling leads, and together with tenor Owen McCausland (Narrator in Tancredi and silent, mysterious figure in Pyramus), the gifted COC chorus, and conductor Johannes Debus, they create a powerhouse of energy. Alden teases out the subtext of the score with smart directorial choices, whether it’s having the chorus move in choreographed precision (a kind of modern take on the precise Baroque choreography of Monteverdi’s world) or McCausland sticking a large picture of a lioness on the side of the stage (complete with endearing fold marks), signalling a benign perceived threat rather than a real one. There’s no denying the creativity of his direction, but he’s limited by a challenging score that frequently confuses vagueness with poetry. The (Jaspers) line, “Don’t sacrifice yourself; be yourself,” which Thisbe sings to her beloved, comes off like New Age hokum, not the deep expression of acceptance one suspects it’s meant to be.
It’s ironic that Pyramus and Thisbe — a Canadian opera long anticipated and riotously celebrated within the country’s arts community, premiering on the built-for-opera stage of the Four Seasons Centre (it opened in 2006 with Wagner’s Ring Cycle) — is simply unsuited to its setting. The work is small; the space is vast. The eyelash-fine intricacies and whisper-soft subtleties of Monk Feldman’s work are nearly lost within the huge expanse of the auditorium. Some have complained that the score is too soft to be heard at the back of the house, and it’s hard to believe, between the sustained tones and Claydon’s sometimes-challenging choreography (at one point Szabo lies on the floor singing) that the most subtle aspects of the opera would be appreciated at the Fifth Ring, aka very top, of the center. A smaller space might’ve allowed for a more immersive experience.
Still, it’s ballsy of the COC to stage Pyramus and Thisbe, particularly since many Canadian composers have been expressing a distinct feeling of being ignored by the country’s largest opera company. As COC General Director Alexander Neef recently told the Globe and Mail, “I just felt this was the right time and the right piece and the right project to put out there and say, ‘This is also what opera can be.’” In a season that opened with a highly traditional (if theatrical) production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata (complete with huge ball gowns) and a 2015–16 roster filled out with the works of Wagner, Mozart, Bizet, and Rossini, having a show onstage that was composed fewer than 10 years ago by a Canadian-born artist feels like a coup. Neef could’ve easily programmed the historical opera Louis Riel instead (that’s expected in a future season), but clearly wanted to do something more radical.
And pairing Pyramus and Thisbe with the work of an early opera composer feels like the attempted creation of a link between old and new; the bridge is the design and direction that reflect the shared themes of all three pieces. In this sense, the production helps expand opera’s definition to fully embrace the nonlinear, non-narrative structures that many indie opera companies have already discovered. Doing so, as the Dadaists did with visual art, as Beckett did with theater, as Cage did with music, is vital in order to move opera forward. Many meaty questions arise once the final, sustained note in Pyramus fades. The most important one is: does it work? Yes and no. See it and decide for yourself.
The Canadian Opera Company’s production of Pyramus and Thisbe continues at the Four Seasons Centre (145 Queen Street W, Toronto) through November 7.
Corrections: This piece originally misstated that the male lead in Lamento D’Arianna is Jason, not Theseus. It also originally misidentified one of Owen McCausland’s parts and misspelled the name of Lembit Beecher. All errors have been fixed.