The Canadian Opera Company presentation of "Billy Budd" is a cause for giving thanks--thanks to COC for bringing Toronto the Canadian première of this masterpiece by Benjamin Britten; thanks to COC General Director Richard Bradshaw for finding a great production of this work to bring us; and thanks again to him for giving Canadian baritone Russell Braun the opportunity to add the title role to his repertoire, a role he has long wanted to perform and one he is sure to reprise elsewhere.
"Billy Budd" is based on Herman Melville's final work, written in 1891 and not published until 1924. It is a tale of good and evil set aboard a British warship in 1797 when Britain was at war with post-Revolutionary France and fearful of the anti-hierarchical views of republicanism and atheism France had unleashed. Billy, representing goodness, beauty and innocence, is pressed into service aboard "The Indomitable" and becomes a favourite of all the crew and of Captain Vere. To the sadistic Master-at-Arms, John Claggart, Billy represents a virtue that, should it continue to exist, would cause his own deeply cynical world-view to crumble. When Claggart accuses Billy of inciting mutiny, Billy strikes him and unintentionally kills him. Captain Vere then must make the decision whether to save Billy or condemn him to death, a decision that continues to haunt him long after the events are over. Thus, the story is not simply about good versus evil but about how to live in a world where both exist.
The libretto by E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier is one of the greatest of 20th-century opera libretti. It is not only true to Melville's novella but concentrates its imagery so that the ship becomes a "fragment of the earth" and a "floating republic" that sails through "mists" obscuring both reality and judgement. Britten's score is alive to every nuance of the libretto, and in its insistent ebb and flow conjures up the threatening, unstable world of the sea. After its première in 1951 Britten was praised for the work's variety of tonal colour, all the more remarkable in a work without female voices.
The production, helmed by Australian director Neil Armfield, is a marvel and has already won awards for its co-owners, the Welsh National Opera and Opera Australia. The production's salient feature is Brian Thomson's huge, grey, hydraulically controlled platform mounted on a revolve. Throughout the opera it is raised, lowered, tilted back and forth, and turned, sometimes all at once, its movements so timed to the score one would think the conductor were also controlling it. Its movements and those of the 67-member cast onto and off of it are so seamlessly choreographed and so vivid that I often had to remind myself that I was not watching an actual manned ship at sea. Rather than an example of technology for its own sake, this moving platform embodies all the imagery given to the ship as an isolated, dangerous epitome of the world. Nigel Levings' lighting creates the world of mist where the ship finds itself, making the sky seem perpetually overcast with only fitful glimmering of sunlight. The costumes by Carl Friedrich Oberle are entirely in steel blue, grey and white as befits a work about moral light and darkness. The sole bit of colour is Billy Budd's red neckerchief, which Armfield gives a symbolic value not unlike Desdemona's handkerchief.
Armfield's creation of this vast world does not come at the expense of the specific. Amazingly, he draws acting from the huge cast as finely detailed as one might find in a classical repertory theatre. Unlike so many directors nowadays, he does not artificially impose a concept onto the opera, but rather his decisions serve only to further the understanding of the text and the impact of the music. He does not, for instance, play up the homoerotic subtext in the relations of the three main characters, but he does allow us to perceive it as a subtext, just as it is in the novella and in the libretto.
When one sees a cast who both sing and act flawlessly, one finally comes to see how opera can be regarded as the most elevated form of drama. Indeed, there is no weak link in the chorus or in the 18 separate singing roles. Understandably, Russell Braun is the local favourite. Unlike his jocular Figaro and Papageno, this role gives him a psychological depth to revel in. His interpretation of Billy's long meditation in the brig where he comes to reconcile the injustice of the world with the goodness he sees in it is as deeply moving as it is musically precise. American bass-baritone Jeffrey Wells with his dark, powerful voice, characterizes Claggart not unlike one would Verdi's Iago--someone who believes in a cruel god and can cripple and destroy innocence without scruple because that is what the world does. The third member of the opera's central triangle is Captain Vere, brilliantly portrayed, vocally and dramatically, by British tenor Nigel Robson. He shows us the older Vere, whose mediations open and close the opera, as a man wracked with incessant doubt, seeking vainly for absolution.
In secondary roles, David Evitts, Lester Lynch and Alain Coulombe are excellent as Vere's three commanding officers, often singing in close harmonies or in tricky fugal passages. Billy's friends make up an opposing set of three and, unlike the vocally close-knit officers, are freely individual. John Kriter, forgoing his usual comic roles, plays Red Whiskers, a timid butcher who is never comfortable with life on board. Andrew Tees brings quite a range to Donald, who first appears as the ship's clown but is deeply concerned about the tension between Billy and Claggart. William Fleck draws an unforgettable portrait of the old seaman Dansker, making his leave-taking from Billy one of the most affecting scenes in the opera. Also impressive in their roles are Benoit Boutet as Claggart's spy Squeak and David Pomeroy as a Novice and victim of Claggart's brutality.
All is under the firm control of conductor Richard Bradshaw, who shows a clear mastery of Britten's idiom. In his hands, the music inexorably builds in tension like waves, climaxing in Claggard's credo, again in the magnificent battle scene and finally in the 35 isolated chords that follow Vere's fateful decision.
Seldom does one come across an opera production that is intellectually stimulating, emotionally powerful and visually spectacular. The COC's presentation of "Billy Budd" is all these. Don't miss it.
© 2001 Christopher Hoile
The Ausable Theatre production of Sam Shepard's "True West" is an impressive beginning to the company's fourth season. The production marks Ausable's metamorphosis from a summer theatre based in the tiny town of Lucan to an alternative theatre company based in London. There is no doubt that London, whose Grand Theatre has of financial necessity become a purveyor of rather fluffy material, desperately needs alternative companies like Ausable to give the city artistic vibrancy.
First performed in 1980, "True West," one of Shepard's most popular plays, only last year made its appearance on Broadway, probably because it is no way like a typical Broadway comedy. It is possible to enjoy the play solely for its increasingly hilarious situations, but the play also demands that the audience think about what underlies the actions witnessed.
The play begins with a silent stand-off between two brothers--Austin, who, after an Ivy League education has become a Hollywood screenwriter, and Lee, a drifter and thief, who has just spent three months lying low in the California desert. Austin has left his wife and family to housesit his mother's suburban home while she is away on a trip to Alaska. In the first scenes, Shepard builds up a strong, Pinteresque sense of menace as the loutish Lee seems to threaten more than just the solitude and concentration of his fastidious brother. The turning point in the play comes when Lee manages to convince Austin's agent, Saul Kimmer, that he knows a true story for a modern Western that deserved to be filmed. When Kimmer rejects the screenplay Austin has been working on for Lee's story outline, the brothers begin to take on each other's roles--Lee pulling himself together to try to write his own screenplay while Austin quite hilariously descends into alcoholism and theft. All the while, the pristine kitchen where the action occurs increasingly comes to resemble a trash heap of papers, beer cans and household utensils.
Shepard has said that he wrote the play "to give a taste of what it feels like to be two-sided." On one level, Austin and Lee can be seen as two sides of the same person. Austin is neat and civilized, whose security comes from institutions, whether universities, marriage or writing contracts. Lee is slovenly and uncivilized, educated by experience, getting sex when he needs it, stealing when he needs money. Both brothers say explicitly that they long for the way of life of the other. Yet both need each other to create anything worthwhile, even a screenplay. Austin needs Lee's raw experience for material; Lee needs Austin's facility with language.
This duality can represent the paradox of writing--the more one writes the less one experiences life. But, as is usual in Shepard, this duality can represent the paradox in the American psyche--on the one hand believing in untrammeled freedom, on the other upholding laws and institutions to rein in such freedom. It is an insoluble problem and Shepard presents it as such.
The great merit of the Ausable production, designed and directed by Michael Semple, is that the subtext of the play shines through the funny, scary surface action with such clarity. He does this by slackening the pace ever so slightly whenever one of the many speeches occurs that point to this subtext. Still, he keeps the surface action on a firmly realistic plane even when the implications of the plot spiral into myth. Semple wisely avoids the temptation I have seen in other productions to play up the surreal aspects of the play. To do this destroys the tension between what we see and what the play means that Shepard is so keen to maintain. Given this incisive direction, no attentive audience member should fail to notice the similarity between Lee's "true" Western story of two men pointlessly chasing each other and the action of the play. Semple has also cleverly updated the action to the present. The references to development as it encroaches on nature and makes familiar towns unrecognizable thus remain pointed. As the play demonstrates the conflict of the two side of the American psyche turns paradise into a trash heap.
All of the performances are excellent. Tim Culbert seems born to play Lee. He gives us a real feeling of danger from this desperate, unpredictable character, and yet allows us to see him as a kind of comic tramp, once his guard is down. At first I thought that Ray Bowen as Austin did not suggest enough suppressed annoyance with brother's intrusion to balance the menace emanating from Culbert. But once Austin loses his grip on his tidy sense of reality, Bowen's performance blossoms into an uproarious portrayal of self-pity and self-justificatory cynicism. Both are adept at carrying off the highly physical action whether violent or comic.
In smaller roles, Mike Wilmot gives a fine portrait of Saul Kimmer as a man who can charm you with his mellifluous voice while planning to stab you in the back. June Cole, as the brothers' mother, injects a note of prim disgust, which reminds us the brothers' parents are themselves as unreconciled opposites--she preferring suburban tidiness to wild nature, he living destitute in the desert.
Niki Kemeny has done a great job of co-ordinating properties for a play that is so dependant on them. The kitchen set immediately locates us in a warm US climate, and, strange to say, the aural and visual nature of the mounting litter we see is in itself really quite funny. Dean Harrison has accurately created the strange sounds the play calls for (e.g., coyotes attacking dogs). Virginia Pratten has designed the costumes including an especially comical prudish outfit for the mother.
You don't often find a play that is both thought-provoking and laugh-out-loud funny. Given Ausable Theatre's fine production, if you find yourself even vaguely near the London area, be sure to see it.
© 2001 Christopher Hoile
Ann-Marie MacDonald's delightful confection "Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)" has, since its appearance in 1988, become one of the most successful Canadian plays written in English with over 100 productions in Canada, the US, Europe and Japan. The current CanStage production is the first major production of the play in Toronto in over ten years. The major joy of this production is the author herself in the central role of a self-deprecating assistant professor undergoing a Jungian discovery of the self. The major disappointment is the unimaginative direction and design, which never rise to the level of MacDonald's invention.
For those who have not yet encountered it, "Goodnight Desdemona" concerns a crisis in the life of a downtrodden academic, Constance Ledbelly, who has spent her time ghostwriting articles for the man she has a crush on, Professor Claude Night. On the day of her crisis, her birthday, Constance learns that not only is her love unrequited and her labour taken for granted but Night will be marrying a graduate student and living with her in England. Constance has worked for years trying to decode the Gustav manuscript to prove that Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and "Othello" were originally meant to be comedies but were turned into tragedies by the omission of a "wise fool" who would prevent the plays' misfortunes. In despair, she casts the manuscript (and herself) into her wastebasket only to find herself in the worlds of the two plays. Unknowingly, she takes on the role of the "wise fool" only to discover that while she has prevented some misunderstandings, others immediately crop up to take their place. She comes to see that Desdemona, Juliet and the "wise fool" are all aspects of her own nature, and in the end all three are united in Constance's rebirth to a new integrated self.
MacDonald gives us the definitive portrayal of this central role. Still looking like a boyish waif, MacDonald's Constance is a kind of female nerd we regard with a mingling of humour and pity. As might be expected, the author/actor brings out all the nuances of the multiple puns and allusions in the text with delightful insouciance. She is a brilliant comedian. Her timing, gestures, expressions are so right they effaced from memory all previous portrayals I had seen.
The rest of the cast is also very strong. To be both clever and politically correct in depicting Constance's looking-glass world, Juan Chioran, a white actor, is cast as Othello and Alison Sealy-Smith, a black actor, is cast as Desdemona. Chioran plays Othello in the old-fashioned "singing" style of Shakespearean acting which nowadays rather smells of ham. He is as conceited as one could wish as Professor Night, and, though his main role in the "Romeo" section is Tybalt, he nearly steals the show as Juliet's lascivious Nurse. Sealy-Smith, one of the finest of many actors no longer at Stratford, obviously relishes the role of Desdemona as warrior queen. She vamps it up as Ramona, Professor Night's inamorata, and can swashbuckle with the best as Mercutio. Andy Velásquez is so non-threatening as Iago that his punishment is not as comic as it should be. As the Chorus, he is fine, but where he excels is at making MacDonald's gay Romeo hilariously ditzy. Cara Pifko is not at the same level as the other actors in terms of voice control or characterization. She is pleasant but I have seen MacDonald's manically death-obsessed Juliet played to much greater effect.
With such a cast, how strange, then, that aside from one clever casting decision, director Alisa Palmer should make the play seem so awkward. Her blocking often impedes rather than heightens the comedy. In the first scene, Constance's huge desk is downstage centre blocking the view of the single entrance. Though sitting in house seats, I could not see half of the physical comedy MacDonald uses when entering, and the desk blocked the view of the next three actors' entrances and the comedy of a term paper pushed through the letter-slot. Palmer uses blackouts for the transformation scenes from Constance's office to Othello's Cyprus to Romeo's Verona to a graveyard and back to the office. Blackouts destroy the whole nature of transformation, and transformation--oneiric, alchemical and personal--is what the play is all about. Rather than the dreamlike fluidity one might expect in this Jungian comedy, both movement and pacing are clunky throughout.
One might think that a play combining the worlds of academe, Shakespeare, Jung and alchemy would be a designer's dream. Yet, Charlotte Dean has produced the most uninspired sets and costumes I have ever seen for this play. I assume that the sets, painted to look as if build from scrap metal, are supposed to remind us that Constance has entered her wonderland via a wastebasket. However, it is explicit in the text that Constance's experience of Shakespeare on stage comes from productions at Stratford. Why emphasize the poverty of the portal for the dream at the expense of the theatrically overproduced world she could find there? The costumes for Cyprus and Verona are by-the-yard pseudo-Elizabethan nightgowns, with Desdemona's outfit looking particularly ugly. It makes sense that Constance should be no fashion plate, but why make the heroines she admires look so unattractive? Andrea Lundy's lighting is the most imaginative element of the design, while I found Richard Feren's sound either too loud or too soft and usually unnecessary.
What carries the evening is the play itself, especially when the major roles are so well acted as here. I was struck yet again by how clever and overflowing with double-entendres MacDonald's text is. Few Canadian plays are so thematically rich and linguistically playful. So, ignore the unfortunate design and the clumsy staging, and seize the rare opportunity to see the author herself mine the comic gold in this wonderful play.
© 2001 Christopher Hoile
Those who think that the lives of Canadians would make poor subjects for drama have probably been looking in the wrong places. A swift glance over those in the corridors of power and the eyes glaze over. But with a glance at those outside who believe they can change the world, the perspective changes. Anna Mae Aquash née Pictou (called "Annie" by her friends) was one of these people. Her life and mysterious death is the subject of Yvette Nolan's "Annie Mae's Movement" first performed in 1998 and now revived under Nolan's direction by Native Earth Performing Arts in association with the Studio Lab Theatre Foundation.
Anna Mae was a Mi'qmak woman from Pictou Landing, Nova Scotia, left her husband and two daughters to become the only woman warrior in the American Indian Movement (AIM), becoming involved in activities from Wounded Knee to Pine Ridge. When an FBI agent is murdered at Pine Ridge, the FBI interrogate her hoping she will be an informer. After her release, she is kidnapped and never heard of again. In 1976, the body of the 31-year-old woman is found on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. A medical examiner declared that she had died of exposure and sent her hands to the FBI for examination. Not identified, she was buried in an unmarked grave. Only after this burial is she identified as Anna Mae Aquash, prompting an exhumation and an autopsy showing she had died from a bullet fired at close range to the back of the head. Who murdered her has never and probably will never be solved. The FBI is suspected in the murder of other AIM members, the AIM leadership may have thought she betrayed them during interrogation, and members Pine Ridge may have tried to prevent her from exposing a shady deal involving the sale of uranium-rich land.
Yvette Nolan's play leaves all of these possibilities open, tracing Anna Mae's life from her days as a teacher at the Little Red School House through her days as an ardent supporter of AIM up to her last minutes. For such a fascinating woman and such a complex story, Nolan has written a play lasting only an hour and fifteen minutes. The result necessarily seems more like an outline for a play rather than a finished work. The plays moves so rapidly through events that we are left wanting to know much more about the history covered and about Anna Mae as a person. Nolan telegraphs Anna Mae's beliefs through various didactic passages in the first half of the play, which only becomes involving when it moves into Anna Mae's interrogations by the FBI in the second half. Nolan does bring out the numerous prejudices Anna Mae encounters--a Native American in a white man's world, a Canadian in the United States and, most dishearteningly, a woman in a male-only movement. Ultimately, she shows Anna Mae as an idealist in a cynical world. The topics are important and fascinating but they cry out for fuller exploration.
What holds this outline of a play together is the outstanding performance of Rose Stella as Anna Mae. Her quiet intensity gives life to the sketches of a character Nolan provides. Her dance-inflected movement gives the character grace, dignity and power. Jason Yuzicapi plays all six other characters, from a spirit called Rugaru, to Native men in AIM, to FBI agents. Since they are all male, Nolan builds a feminist outlook into the very structure of the play. Yuzicapi distinguishes all six quite clearly, but he does not yet have the same control over movement and voice, as does Rose Stella.
The performing space at the Native Canadian Centre has been divided into a kind of irregular cross with the audience sitting in four groups at each angle as if perched on cliffs over a canyon. Designer Christine Plunkett has, in fact, designed the space to resemble a river, with the action beginning at the entrance to the theatre and gradually moving to the mountain on the platform opposite where Anna Mae meets her death. Rebecca Picherack provides the effective lighting and David DeLeary the sound.
As playwright, Nolan frames the action with an apotheosis of Anna Mae in full traditional garb speaking of her destiny and its meaning. This and her inclusion of the spirit Rugaru and the descent of FBI files from the sky suggest a surreal approach to the material, but this is undermined by the television drama-like style of the majority of the dialog. As director, Nolan's approach is also divided between vision and documentary. Sometimes the actors include the audience in the action, sometimes not. Some scenes are directed as realistic, some satiric as in the court scene, or as science fiction as when we hear Yuzicapi's voice through voice scrambler demanding to know how Anna Mae found out about the uranium.
We have not heard the last of the historical Anna Mae Pictou Aquash. She lives on through the testimony of her deeds and ideals. And I suspect this will not be the last play to commemorate the life and death of this remarkable woman.
© 2001 Christopher Hoile
When England's Royal National Theatre chose 100 plays, each to represent a year of the 20th century when it was written, Patrick Marber's "Closer" was selected to represent 1997. While its externals are firmly rooted in the late 20th century, the themes of the play are universal. It concerns four characters--Alice, Anna, Dan and Larry--strangers at the start, who are very direct with each other about their needs for sexual intimacy, which they mistakenly equate with love. By the end, both men have slept with both women and all four have drifted apart again.
The irony in the title is that the four desire to be closer to each other but back off from actually becoming close. In Marber's dark satire of late 20th-century relationships, people have confused the interaction of physical surfaces with any interaction of mind or heart. It is fitting that Marber has given all four professions that deal only in externals-Alice is a stripper, Anna a photographer, Dan an obituary writer and Larry a dermatologist. The epitome of all the relationships in the play is a hilarious scene when the two men, Dan and Larry, meet in an Internet chat room, Dan pretending to be a woman. Larry thinks he is achieving authentic responses from the "woman" online, when in fact, the Dan as the "woman" is merely telling Larry what he thinks Larry wants to hear and is testing him to see how far he'll go. In this pseudo-relationship, both are completely isolated and without any true knowledge of the other.
Marber's play itself is a marvellous study in contrasts between form and content. Initially, the relations of the characters, based solely on sex, seem chaotic. On reflection, one sees in the course of Marber's twelve powerful scenes, that the quartet moves through each of the four possible (heterosexual) combinations from their meeting, linking up, breaking up, rejoining and breaking up again. Often parallels between couples are reinforced through intercut scenes using the same props. The characters speak almost exclusively about sex, love and hate in language replete with four-letter words. Yet the play itself chastely shows us no sex, violence or nudity. Unlike so many playwrights, Marber is well aware that overuse of "shocking' language ultimately does not shock. He exposes the characters' use of such "direct" language as in fact devalued and superficial. The characters often say they want to tell or know the truth about each other, but they construe "truth" solely as negative and are never prepared to receive it. Just as they have confused sex with love, they confuse freedom with lack of commitment with the result that they are more at sea than free. They are selfish and seem actively to avoid knowing the self so that they waste their energy in trying to maintain a successful pose. Thus, paradoxically, a play about four aimless, morally ungrounded people turns out itself to be highly structured and firmly moral.
Normally, such an excess of "adult" language and situations would be a sign that the play is supposed to be grittily realistic. But Marber's play is a satire and sends up the "adultness" of both. If "Closer" were directed as realistic, it could be criticized for its characters who change the objects of their lust but who do not develop. Fortunately, director Dennis Garnhum realizes this and plays up the outrageous wit and humour in the work from the start. Gradually he allows the pain and anger of the characters to have a stronger impact, so that by the final scene the feelings of all the characters is muted, pervaded by a sense of loss and resignation. The last scene takes place in Postman's Park, a Victorian monument dedicated to ordinary people who gave their lives to save others. The selfless actions of the dedicatees mock the hollowness of the characters' lives and remind us of a nothingness to come. Garnhum has the memorial plaques extend into the auditorium and across the back wall as if to show that we are in the same position as the characters.
Garnhum has a superb cast to carry out his vision of the play. All four are able to play the characters both as hilariously selfish and capable of a gradual awareness of their own emptiness. Angela Vint succeeds at the difficult task of making the young Alice both innocent and sexually aware. Her character is the centre of the play both because her arrival in London precipitates the action and because she is the one who has most clearly created a tough persona to protect her confused inner self. The imagery of the play suggests that she is both Alice in a modern looking-glass world and Eve, who bites an apple to gain knowledge only to be barred from paradise. Shaun Smyth plays Dan the obituary writer as a man whose desire for control stems from his own insecurity. Dan saves Alice after an accident and falls in "love" with his image of her, only to exploit her life story for a novel and throw her over. Gina Wilkinson is Anna the photographer who, like all the characters, needs a new relationship to create a sense of self-worth. Wilkinson's delivery is a degree or two slower than the others, but she never fails to give her lines the right impact. Just as Dan throws Alice over for Anna, she throws him over for Larry. As played by Blair Williams, Larry the dermatologist is the most callous and witty of the four. Yet, Williams succeeds in making Larry's grief at betrayal seem deeply felt, even if it is ultimately the grief of a child over losing a toy.
Peter Hartwell's set mirrors the state of these lonely and drifting characters. On a stage with the back and side walls bare save for memorial plaques, stand isolated parts of walls and office desks on floats that combine and recombine. The sets and costumes are all off-white or grey so that symbolic objects stand out--an apple, a rose, Anna's shoes, Alice's dress at the club--all of them red. Kevin Lamotte's lighting and Dave Howard's sound design instantly transport us from a hospital waiting room or busy art gallery to a strip club or airport hotel to the quiet closing scene in Postman's Park. Special credit should go to the imaginative design for the projected Internet conversation between Dan and Larry.
"Closer" is not a play I would recommend to the easily offended. But anyone who can see past the continual "adult" language and explicit discussion of sex will find that this is one of the most intelligent and carefully wrought plays of the last decade. Pascal saw man poised between two infinities. Marber shows man poised between two nothingnesses--hollowness inside and death outside--attempting and failing ludicrously to negate both with "closeness."
© 2001 Christopher Hoile
The new Canadian Opera Company production of Mozart's Idomeneo, Rè di Creta provides an evening of exceptional music-making but very poor theatre. Unlike in Billy Budd, with which it is alternating, in Idomeneo the elements of the production are not fully integrated and do little to heighten the opera's inherent drama.
Idomeneo (1781) is the first of what are often called Mozart's "seven great operas" but, along with La Clemenza di Tito, is the least performed. Part of the reason for this is that it is a late example of "opera seria" ("serious opera" as opposed to "opera buffa") in which recitative and da capo arias alternate in stately procession and where the singers play static, generic types with little character development. Thus, there is none of the boisterousness of Mozart's two German "Singspiele" and little of the psychological sophistication of his three Da Ponte operas. Still, the invention of Mozart's music, with so many intimations of things to come, raises the work out of the confines of its genre, even if those strictures are still visible in its form, plot and characters. Given these generic aspects, the work needs the imagination of a good director to bring out its drama on stage.
The story of Idomeneo is much more coherent than many "opere serie" which often devolve into a series of loosely connected vocal showpieces. It is a Greek variant on the familiar story of Abraham and Isaac or of Jephtha and his daughter. When Idomeneo, King of Crete, encounters a storm while sailing back from the Trojan War, he rashly promises to Poseidon (here "Nettuno") to sacrifice the first person he meets if the god brings him safely to shore. This person turns out to be his only son, Idamante. Idomeneo attempts to keep his vow a secret and seeks a way of fulfilling his oath, but Nettuno sends a storm and then a sea monster to punish Crete, until Idomeneo is forced to reveal his vow and realize the consequences it holds for Idamante, and the women in love with his son--Ilia, a captive Trojan princess, and Elettra, sister of the matricide Orestes.
With its Biblical echoes and its foretaste of many of the themes of Die Zauberflöte, there is much material for a director to work with. Unfortunately, American director Bruce Donnell, long associated with the Metropolitan Opera, seems to be totally devoid of imagination. According to the announcement for the 2000-2001 season, Robin Phillips was to have directed both this and Verdi's Otello and to have designed a set to be adapted for use in both operas. But after the mounting of Otello last September, Phillips withdrew from Idomeneo citing "health reasons." Donnell is thus working with another's set and costumes, but that hardly explains why he seems not actually to have directed at all but merely to have blocked the action and let the singers fend for themselves as to interpretation and interaction. Indeed, even the blocking, especially for the chorus, is decorative not dramatic. Donnell's work may be sufficient for the Met, a proud purveyor of stodginess, but that approach is no longer sufficient in productions of early opera especially in a Toronto familiar with the meticulous preparation of Marshall Pynkowski for Opera Atelier and the wild creativity of Tom Diamond for the COC Ensemble.
Phillips may be famed as a director but he should leave the designing to others. The modern, curved metal staircase that was acceptable in Otello's Cyprus, is completely out of keeping with the squared, pseudo-Minoan entranceway it embraces. John Ferguson's pastel and earth-toned costumes are pleasant enough but unimaginative. Lesley Wilkinson's unsubtle lighting tries to place the action within a 24-hour period, from one dawn to the next, but she has lit so many scenes for mood that the general scheme is all but lost. Even Bengt Jörgen's choreography is afflicted by lack of invention. The void left by Donnell's non-interpretation of the work was more than filled by Romanian conductor Nicolae Moldoveanu, who in many respects becomes the director de facto. By continually choosing perfect tempi, he is the one who maintains the drama of the piece. He draws crisp playing from the marvellous COC Orchestra making it sound very like a band of authentic instruments.
Despite the fact that the singers are left to their own devices in acting their roles, their singing is a feast for the ears. Michael Schade in title role proves again and again why his has become one of the world's foremost Mozart tenors. Using his agile, powerful voice, he gives us a portrait of a tortured mind whose misery increases the longer he conceals his terrible oath. Though otherwise in excellent vocal form, he did not toss off the difficult showpiece aria of Act 2, "Fuor del mar," with his usual aplomb. English mezzo Emma Selway plays Idamante, a role originally written for castrato. Selway both looks and plays the part of a male youth very well. While her lower range is quite lovely, in her upper range her voice tends to lose focus and lustre under pressure. Polish soprano Elzbieta Szmytka makes a welcome return as Idamante's beloved, Ilia. As in her two previous appearances with COC, her pure tone and vocal control continue to impress, making the Pamina-like "Se il padre perdei" of Act 2 particularly lovely.
The homegrown singers are just as impressive. Tenor Michael Colvin's voice has grown in power over the years, injecting a much-needed sense of urgency into both arias of Arbcace, Idomeneo's confidant. Bass Alain Coulombe give sumptuous voice to the Oracle in Act 3. Indeed, the most exciting singing of the evening comes from two current members of the Canadian Opera Ensemble. Elizabeth McDonald, in her mainstage debut, replaced French soprano Isabelle Vernet as Elettra, the woman who wants to pry Idamante away from Ilia. Singing with power, colour and agility, coupled with persuasive acting, she capped a thrilling performance with a terrific "D'Oreste, d'Aiace," during the course of which her character spirals into madness. In the smaller role of the High Priest of Neptune, tenor and former Stratford actor Roger Honeywell sings with such command and heroic tone, his entrance in Act 3 seems to invigorate the whole opera.
One could not help feeling proud at the curtain call to see that of the eleven talented singers, nine were Canadian--all the more unfortunate, then, that their fine effort should be undermined by such poor stage direction. COC General Director Richard Bradshaw has said that good opera must also be good theatre. It's too bad this production should be an exception.
© 2001 Christopher Hoile
April 20 at the Elgin Theatre saw the world première of a new Canadian opera, Iron Road, produced by Tapestry New Opera Works. In it, composer Chan Ka Nin and librettist Mark Brownell tell the tale of the building of the Canadian Pacific rail line as seen through the eyes of a Chinese girl in search of her father. The subject, the commemoration of the Chinese labourers who built the railway, is important. The production is brilliant. The music is accessible. The libretto, however, presents problems neither the music nor production can disguise.
The focus of the story is Lai Gwan, who, after the death of her mother, leaves China to find the father who abandoned them in search of wealth in the New World. Disguising herself as a boy, she joins a crew of Chinese railroad workers only to arouse the ire of the Bookman, the man who contracts the railroad work, and the love of James Nichol, the crew foreman. She is torn between tradition and love for a "gweilo" (non-Chinese) indignant with her status as woman in a man's world and outraged by the exploitation of her countrymen. These tensions are resolved when the three main characters find themselves buried in a collapsed tunnel where Nichol dies and she reconciles herself with her father. At the end, she dedicates herself to performing the rites for the labourers who have died so that their spirits will find peace.
As this simple summary indicates, Brownell has not really created a new plot for a new opera as much as amalgamated antique plot devices one might have thought had died out with Puccini. With two unknown identities revealed, a beloved saved from death in the nick of time, a beloved dying unbeknownst to a lover present and a cataclysm that all too conveniently resolves personal conflicts, Brownell's libretto owes more to melodrama than to history or real life. One wonders whether such an artificial plot is really the appropriate medium for such a serious and important subject. Brownell tries to make the plot relevant by cramming it with as many current topics as possible--feminism, capitalism, racism, miscegenation or political appropriation of others' achievements. Although he does give each main character a reflective aria, so many agendas and so much happening to the characters give little room for any development.
Anyone familiar with Chan Ka Nin's orchestral music will be surprised at how much he has altered his style to make it more accessible. It is so accessible and so eclectic that one could be forgiven for thinking Act 1 part of a lost musical by the creators of Les Miserables. We must wait until the sensuous and complex prelude to Act 2 for a style more recognizable as Chan's own, extending through a remarkable dream sequence and into the Bookman's powerful aria in Scene 1. After another descent into megamusical, Chan voice re-emerges with the fantastic appearance of the first train to run the line and later in the profound requiem for the dead that closes the work. I understand the desire to make a new opera less daunting by choosing a simpler idiom, but Chan's own voice because it is more complex conveys immeasurably more intensity, mystery, tension and depth than his "lighter" style. That is why the second act, with much less pastiche, is so much stronger.
The lasting achievement of the work, besides its subject matter, lies in the fascinating dialogue Chan has created between Eastern and Western musical traditions. Just as the libretto is in two languages (a third of Brownell's English translated into Cantonese by George K. Wong), the 36-piece orchestra comprises both Western and traditional Chinese instruments. The Chinese instruments accompany the Chinese workers and the thoughts about tradition in divided characters like Lai Gwan and the Bookman, while the Western instruments accompany the white men and the divided characters' New World-minded thoughts, mingling when there is conflict between them. This is a technique sure to be influential in any future operas about the immigrant experience.
The cast is excellent both as singers and actors. Zhu Ge Zeng is terrific in the central role of Lai Gwan. She can soften her coloratura when needed but hits her stratospheric notes with absolute security. She portrays Lai Gwan as a tomboy, tough on the outside but not lacking in vulnerability and doubt about her enterprise. Canadian Stuart Howe makes James Nichol, who falls in love with Lai Gwan, a very believable character, though his arias, the most pop-influenced in the opera, don't give him much opportunity to show the range of his fine tenor voice. American bass Zheng Zhou as the Bookman is given the single best aria in the work showing his acting abilities and strong voice to their best advantage. Canadian mezzo Grace Chan sings the role Ama, Lai Gwan's mother, with great feeling and makes the most of the contrast between the dying Ama and Ama as the admonitory ghost who haunts Lai Gwan in Act 2.
The minor roles are also well played and sung with Curtis Sullivan as a cartoonish Sir John A. Macdonald, Martin Houtman as the inept Donald Smith, Henry Li and Jovanni Sy as labourers and Brian Duÿn as a Herder. All is under the firm control of conductor and Tapestry Artistic Director Wayne Strongman, who never allows the forward momentum of the work to slacken.
Iron Road is certainly the finest large-scale work yet by both director Tom Diamond and designer Dany Lyne. Such is the closeness of their collaboration that it is difficult to know whether decisions about design influenced the direction or vice versa. Lyne's imaginative sets and costumes ensure one visually stunning scene after the next. The huge red lacquer cut-out that sets the first scene in China, the boat that sails for Canada and the magical way land is sighted, the inventive way flying banners chart the railway's progress, the labourers' camp in the mountains and the "Iron Dragon" itself when it first travels the rails are just some of Lyne's many creations for this work that deserve recognition. Bonnie Beecher's highly atmospheric lighting enhances each scene.
Tom Diamond shows mastery in directing both individuals and crowds always with a view toward illuminating the text while responsive to changes of mood and tempo in the music. Choreographer Xing Bang Fu contributes dazzling dance sequences in both acts of the opera combining movements from traditional Chinese opera with modern dance.
As a spectacle, Iron Road is continually exciting, and, once Chan allows his own voice freer rein, so is the music. Intellectually the work serves to heal a wound by commemorating all those who died in building Canada's national railway. This makes it all the more unfortunate that, until the sombre final scene, the incredibly clichéd libretto weakens our emotional involvement.
© 2001 Christopher Hoile
How good it is to find a Canadian play that deserves all the praise and awards it has won. Michael Healey's opened in February 1999 at the Theatre Passe Muraille and has since gone on to win a Dora, a Chalmers and a Governor General's Award for best play. This, the third production of the play in Toronto, is part of a Mirvish sponsored national tour. A tour of the Prairies is currently in progress organized by Theatre Passe Muraille. On April 22 it had its US première at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago (requiring the use of a dialect coach!).
What makes the play so successful is its simplicity and lack of pretence. In very natural dialogue, laced with unforced humour, it tells a story complete in itself but with implications encompassing the function of storytelling, the nature of memory and the meaning of theatre itself. Taking as its background the collective creation of The Farm Show by Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto in 1972, the play follows Miles, a Toronto actor, who is billeted with two bachelor farmers in Southern Ontario to gather information for a play about farming. Morgan, the dominant one, takes care of Angus, his childhood friend who suffered a head injury when they both were in England during World War II. Miles overhears a story Morgan tells Angus about their life and uses it in the play. Issues naturally arise as to when a story is personal and when it is only "material."
These issues are the same as in American Donald Margulies' Collected Stories of 1996, seen last year at the Stratford Festival. Compared with The Drawer Boy, Margulies' play looks like a sitcom with delusions of grandeur. Margulies takes two acts to reach the point that Healey reaches in one. For, indeed, the second act of Healey's play moves beyond the trendy question of "appropriation of voice" to chart the effect that the story-as-play has on Angus, who is taken out of himself by viewing himself on stage. The dramatic path Healey takes that moves us beyond politically correct certainties into fundamental ambiguities of truth and fiction is brilliant. And he does this all the while keeping his story and characters in the forefront, never lapsing into the didactic or symbolic as do so many young playwrights.
For this new production only superlatives are in order. Designer John Ferguson has created a beautiful, clean-lined set with just enough fixed elements to suggests an farmhouse but placed edge on so that we see through the house to a farmland backdrop beyond. He has surrounded the set with a proscenium within the Winter Garden proscenium modelled on the kind of square, moulded archway one finds in Ontario farmhouses and suggesting the theatrical metaphor implicit in the story. While farmers' outfits have not changed much in 30 years, Ferguson creates a painfully authentic 1970s look for Miles's wardrobe. Kevin Fraser's lighting enhances every scene, setting the times of day precisely and making the backdrop of farmland fade out as night falls. Marc Desormeaux provides interludes of authentic-sounded country music and the often hilarious sound effects.
Miles Potter has re-directed the play's original cast for the larger space so that it seems perfectly at home amidst the foliage of the Winter Garden. He has an unerring sense of how to pace the work and draws truthful, exquisitely detailed performances from all three players.
Tom Barnet's Miles is a naïve city feller who falls for all of Morgan's outlandish exaggerations about farm life. He is insecure both about himself and his usefulness to the actors' collective. What he is good at is understanding human interactions, which is how he perceives the emotional stasis Morgan and Angus live in and is motivated to help Angus regain his memory. Barnet shows the conviction slowly build beneath his character's awkwardness of the rightness of what he is doing. Jerry Franken, in a great performance, plays multiple levels of Morgan's character all at once. On the surface he is the dour farmer hostile to the intrusion into his life of a young know-nothing. Below that level is the boyhood friend of Angus who will do anything to protect him. And below that is a man whose feelings of guilt have been gnawing away at him since he and Angus returned from the war. It is hard to imagine a better performance of that role, just as it is hard to imagine anyone other than David Fox as Angus. Angus's head injury has left him with no memory of the past whether of years or seconds ago. The injury, however, has not impaired his ability to do complex math in his head. Fox can show in just a fleeting facial expression a distressful memory briefly rising to the surface and sinking again. His character makes the greatest outward change in the play from the idiot savant we first meet to someone bewildered by the memories that at last start to return and hungry to learn the truth about himself and the past. It is an unforgettable performance.
Do not hesitate to see this play. For once the surfeit of Canadian award-giving institutions have rewarded something truly great. With such an intelligent production and such powerful performances, the show is unmissable.
© 2001 Christopher Hoile
Last year the traditional 'Molière slot' in the season of the Théâtre français de Toronto was occupied by two plays by the 19th-century writer Alfred de Musset. This year we move up a century with two plays by the father of the Theatre of the Absurd, Eugène Ionesco, in a production by the Théâtre Denise-Pelletier of Montreal. Unfortunately, director Jacques Lessard's sledgehammer technique ruins the humour in both works, as does the unbridled overacting he encourages.
In Jacques ou la Soumission and its short sequel L'Avenir est dans les Oeufs, written in 1950 and 1951 respectively, Ionesco explores one of his favourite topics, society's pressure on the individual to conform. In the first play the young man Jacques is pressured to accept his family's values as represented first by their love of potatoes with lard and second by their desire for him to marry. Much of the play is taken up with the family's use of all means from cajoling to outright threats to force Jacques to accept the meal and then the dish, so to speak. In the second play Jacques has to be taught how to mourn for his dead grandfather (who seems unaware of his condition) and to do his duty to society by replacing that loss with children.
Yannick Bacquet's imaginative set promises more than the production delivers. Occupying most of the small stage is a huge of 500 gram can of 'A la Mémé' brand 'Pommes de terre au lard' advertising that it now comes with 'Cubes de lard' as pictured in the delightfully sickening suggested serving on the label. The can is flanked on either side by entrance flaps with bar codes, the numbers representing, as an in-joke, the dates of birth and death of Ionesco. When the can opens it reveals a room crammed full of enormous household appliances. We are thus visually prepared for a critique of capitalism and consumerism, but the direction never follows this up. In fact, to confuse matters, Lessard has Jacques Père reading a Russian newspaper.
Bacquet's costumes, while they fit in with the set's colour scheme, do not support the meaning of the play. Why, in a play about the pressures to conform, give each of the characters such highly differentiated costumes? Jacques is supposed to be struggling to assert his individuality against all the others characters, so why costume them as individuals. It would have made more sense, as in La Cantatrice chauve, to have the two sets of parents look as much alike as possible.
This signalled that the concept of the production is severely flawed--not that Lessard has a clear concept in the first place. His idea seems to be to make all of the characters except Jacques and his bride Roberte in clownishly exaggerated character types. He has the two sets of parents and Jacques's sister, Jacqueline, begin the play by shouting out all their lines. This gives the actors nowhere to go and no room for nuance, and so becomes tedious very quickly. Anyone who has seen Ionesco at the Théâtre de la Huchette in Paris, where La Cantatrice chauve and La Leçon have been playing continuously since 1957, will know that the best way to put Ionesco's verbal farces across is by playing them as deadly serious. To play them as clown shows actually undercuts their humour. It is reality that is seen as absurd, not artifice. The relentless shouting, of course, causes much of Ionesco's clever word play to be lost.
Also contrary to the play's theme of conformity, Lessard allows the actors completely different acting styles, which means that many have taken it a free rein to overact. Worst of all is Louisette Dussault as Robert Mère. Her constant posturing and mugging seems a shameless attempt to draw the focus away from others and on to herself. Jacques Allard as Jacques Père exaggerates his character far too much right from the beginning. Christiane Proulx as Jacques Mère and Patrice Coquereau as Robert Père do their best to act their parts in a sensible way in the first play, but both give way to the general shouting that reigns in the second. As Jacqueline, Simone Chartrand acts as if she were in a sitcom but, compared to the antics of the previous four, seems quite restrained. Veteran actors Gilles Pelletier and Françoise Graton play Jacques' grandparents in the manner closest to the grave/comic style of the Théâtre de la Huchette, Pelletier in particular somehow remaining unscathed by the coarseness surrounding him.
Jacques and his bride Roberte are meant to be completely different from all the others, and only in their scenes together has Lessard caught the right tone. Stéphane Brulotte and Evelyne Rompré are excellent as these two who try to create their own world out of the sound 'chat' as a refuge from parental inanity. Brulotte gives Jacques both a goofiness that relates him to his family and the suppressed anger of an individual who knows he is being crushed. Rompré, sadly hidden behind a mask in both plays, exudes sensuality as she takes on the task of seducing the unresponsive Jacques. The transformation of the two into horse and rider during Roberte's long speech in the first play is well directed and gracefully performed, as is their gradual felinization afterwards.
Both Claude Accolas' lighting and Ludovic Bonnier's soundscape and music are very effective. In fact, so much of Ouefs is set to Bonnier's intriguing rhythms that the play threatens to become a miniature musical.
One doesn't normally think of Ionesco's texts as delicate, but, when manhandled as here, it is clear how much is lost when their style and verbal subtlety are not respected. Although the 'Molière slot' return to Molière next year in the TfT's expanded season, I hope Artistic Director Guy Mignault will continue to use it to explore others of France's wealth of comic playwrights.
© 2001 Christopher Hoile
The Toronto Operetta Theatre, Canada's only professional operetta company has done the country a service by reviving the most successful operetta ever written in Canada, Leo, the Royal Cadet. You can be forgiven if you have never heard of it since it has remained unperformed for the past 75 years. With music by German-born composer Oscar F. Telgmann (1855-1946) and a libretto by George F. Cameron (1854-1885), Leo opened to great acclaim in Kingston On July 11, 1889 and went on have over 1,700 performances in Southern Ontario and upstate New York.
The only set of orchestral parts was lost during a flood at Telgmann's home in 1925, but in 1997 a piano-vocal score was found at the National Library in Ottawa. The TOT mounted a workshop production of Leo in August 1997 to test its viability. I was there and can attest to the excitement we felt that a piece of Canada's lost musical heritage had been recovered. But as the evening progressed the work proved to be of more than antiquarian interest with one good tune following another in a rich variety of tempi and moods.
The TOT commissioned Canadian composer John Greer to revise and orchestrate the piano score and Virginia Reh to revise the libretto. The results, as heard in a final preview, fully confirm the TOT's faith in the work. John Greer has done a masterful job in scoring Leo for 13-piece orchestra making the music sound fresh and colourful while remaining within the framework of 19th-century light music. He increased the difficulty of a number of songs with virtuoso ornamentation simply because he knows that singers of today can handle it.
Reh has given the libretto a major overhaul, reducing the number of principals from 17 to nine, reassigning numbers and changing the structure from four acts to two. The original work had no conventional plot and merely followed a group of young men from their first interest in the recently-established Royal Military College in Kingston, to their joining the college, being sent to fight in the Zulu Wars of 1879 and returning to their sweethearts. Reh has added intrigue to the story by having Leo and his friends sent to Africa without adequate training because the commandant, Colonel Hewett, wants Leo's girl Nellie as his own. This twist condenses the once leisurely story and makes the Zulu Wars loom right from the start. What Reh has neglected to add is any sense of remorse or comeuppance for Hewett when Leo returns triumphant to Kingston.
As always with the TOT, it is the music that takes precedence. Given the variety of Telgmann's invention--from parlour songs, hymns, marches, invocations, dances and satirical numbers--this is the surest way to make a new audience appreciate the work's value. Accordingly, director Guillermo Silva-Marin has cast primarily for singing rather than acting ability, but there are a number of exceptions.
The most notable is Eric Shaw in the title role. He is absolutely right for the part with his youthful good looks and a powerful English tenor with its heroic ring on high notes. Shaw gives Leo a bashfulness and sense of fun, the qualities that seem to make this likeable hero Canadian. Shaw lights up the scene whenever he is on stage. Another exception is Kevin Power as Leo's comic foil Wind, the would-be poet, whose prowess as a comedian doesn't prepare you for his fine voice. Power brings out all the humour in this unusual character who is a kind of insecure fantasist. In minor roles Richard Dumas as the College's German professor and Luis Garcia as its French professor are such excellent singers and actors one wishes they had more than one song together. One also wishes the role for Michèle Bogdanowicz as Madge were larger to give us more of an idea what Madge sees in Wind.
The other principals sing so well one wants to overlook the stiffness of their acting. Luc LaLonde as Captain Bloodswigger, Bruce Kelly as the lustful Colonel Hewett and especially Richard Shaw as Andy, a "dude" and mocker of all things military, could all make much more of their parts. I assume Gisèle Fredette, playing Nellie's friend Caroline, was under the weather since her voice was uncharacteristically weak. This is a pity since she has some of the most interesting lyrics to sing, most notably a song about how much better the world would be if women were in charge. If Alexandra Lennox were as assured in her spoken as in her sung delivery her Nellie would equal Eric Shaw's success as Leo. Her singing is a constant delight and her duets with Shaw are the emotional highlights of the show.
John Greer himself is the conductor and he and the orchestra obviously revel in this music, always adopting the appropriate style whether parlour, Palm Court or military band. Wind keep working on his "faewie opewa" throughout the action but we never get a glimpse of it. Greer amends this oversight with an hilarious miniature work of his own (based on The Faerie Song by Roscoe and Codman) to cap the triple wedding at the conclusion.
Director Guillermo Silva-Marin has made the wise decision to perform the work "straight." To send it up or add a hint of camp would ruin the innocence of the piece that makes it so charming. The one exception to this is his staging of the battle of the cadets and Zulus in Act 2. From accounts available on a handout, this was for audiences of the day the highlight of the work. In an age where our brand of political correctness was unknown, the work portrayed the battle of Isandhlwana as a victory for the Imperial army where it actually was a defeat. To cut the Zulus and the battle would be cowardly and untrue to the work and would mean losing the majestic song about reclaiming one's homeland that Telgmann gives the Zulu leader Ketcho. Silva-Marin cleverly overcomes this difficulty by staging the battle as a kind of fantasy dance sequence including such anachronistic moves as the Bump. The Zulu warriors are clearly white people, mostly women, in black leotards and the battle/dance ends when Leo is wounded and carried off by fleeing cadets. While the librettist Cameron is no W. S. Gilbert, his innovation is to do away with all the disguised aristocrats and babies switched at birth of conventional operetta to focus on the typical character types, events and concerns of his own time and place. This makes Leo perhaps the first verismo operetta. Telgmann's music, especially in Greer's arrangement, continually reminds one of Sullivan, probably because both were influenced by Schubert and Mendelssohn. If there were a recording of Leo with this fine cast, I wouldn't hesitate to buy it. The score has so many felicities it deserves to be better known and widely enjoyed. So take this rare opportunity to get to know this delightful piece the way early Canadians did and see it in the theatre.
© 2001 Christopher Hoile