“Requiescat in Pace” is the last line in the third of three operas presented by Opera 5, namely Cecilia Livingston’s The Masque of the Red Death, whereby we had the name for the evening’s program. I wonder if Poe’s story ends that way? I do know that “In pace requiescat!” is the last line of Poe’s story “The Cask of Amontillado”. I suspect the phrase could fit somewhere into any of his stories. Note, that in Latin one can reverse the order of the words without disrupting the sense.
And so “RIP” is what i shall call this trio of operas based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe.
I’ve always felt that I prefer performers whose ambitious striving leads to errors, rather than a more cautious perfection. Professionalism in this country often leaves us with polished performances whose shiny surfaces belie the lack of heart on the inside. Notwithstanding a boldness that sometimes leaves RIP teetering on their tightrope like a circus act, RIP is so very bold, taking us to three very different places, both because of the divergence in story, in compositional strategies & dramaturgy, but also in the mise-en-scène.
We began with Cask of Amontillado by 20th Century American composer Daniel Pinkham. The story I remember builds to a climax, as a man is locked into a vault, crying out for mercy, but none is shown. The intriguing choice made by director Aria Umezawa was that the party revellers from earlier in the story become in effect part of the set, as though they are the vault. It’s a fascinating choice, one that alienates us from the horror in the story, making us instead party to the fury of Montresor, and reducing the outcome to something a bit more comical rather than genuinely horrible. From the beginning –because we’re seeing a Poe story enacted rather than simply told—we not only see the set up for Montresor’s plan and his cold calculation, but an added layer of alienation because of the use of chorus. I wondered how Pinkham wanted the story enacted for his opera, and what he’d say about this presentation; or did Umezawa give us exactly what Pinkham specified? Either way I found it very clever, and portraying an additional layer of horror in the implacability of the chorus. The alternative –showing the actual erection of layers of masonry–would be very difficult (and expensive) to achieve on a stage.
Second up was none other than Claude Debussy, in his thrilling La Chute de la Maison Usher, the one that felt truest to the spirit of Poe. In places it was as though Golaud was visiting from Allemond, although the textures were just a bit crazier, the harmonies more chromatic than Pelléas et Mélisande. .In this one especially I was very moved by Adrian Kramer, a voice I’ve missed since he left the COC Ensemble, likely working outside of Toronto. His singing was stylish, while his dramatic presence was always a quantum leap above everyone else in the show. He was at the centre of a charming directorial conceit for the triptych, whereby each story was introduced by a small passage read aloud from a story, grounding us in Poe before we moved into the operas. It was good to see Kramer back on a Toronto stage.
Where the first two operas were done with piano, led by Opera 5 music director Maika’i Nash, The Masque of the Red Death was done with a small orchestra led by Constantine Caravassilis. In some respects the first two were like a prelude to the third work, which was a more serious effort in every respect.
Livingston’s opera is in a pragmatic mix of styles, sometimes sounding like Kurt Weill when the raucous chorus was singing, sometimes more like Philip Glass when the pattern music kicked in. I say “pragmatic” because the styles work with the textual requirements of the libretto. Linvingston’s arioso is very easy to understand, even in the passages building to a powerful climax.
Opera 5’s program “In Pace Requiescat” continues October 30th & 31st at the Arts & Letters Club in Toronto. Click picture for more information.