Ideal Pyramus and Thisbe

There are several ways to approach opera composition & opera production. I would like to propose that there might be a polarity we could imagine between extremes, given that at least one of those options is entirely in the mind. Is opera ever realistic? It’s a crazy idea when we remember that opera is a form full of singing and dancing personages. Perhaps the sanest operas are those that eschew display and showmanship, that set aside the virtuoso imperative while embracing the ideal nature of the form.

And so this may sound arbitrary to some of you, that I’d divide opera between those seeking to imitate life, and those turning their back on that life, preferring to go inside to represent an ideal world. Oh I’m not saying that this latter group only portray perfection, just that the level of abstraction is so high that we’re in a realm that’s much more concerned with ideas & concepts than character motivation or gut feelings.

The Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Pyramus & Thisbe is really a program of three works, two serving as a kind of prologue to Barbara Monk Feldman’s new opera. I can only offer my own rationale for the two baroque pieces that begin our program:

  • Monteverdi’s Lamento d’Arianna is a brief scene including some of the best known music of the early 17th century.  Excuse me for waxing ridiculous for a moment, as I include a version of the famous tune sung by a MAN, which is perhaps an indication of how far we’ve come in the past 30 years.  I am not really sure why this is there except as a portrait of heart-break, of love that has been lost. But that is exactly what we see on this program. We do not see love enacted, no kisses, no hugs, no smiling eye contact.  This is as modern as Facebook, lovers in that most modern situation: all alone.
  • Monteverdi’s Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda
    Love is a battlefield as Pat Benatar was wont to say. Whatever your age (and unlike the personages in that song I am not young), the male and the female may seem to be at war.

    We’ve seen a lot of this lately. A couple of days ago I watched another baroque opera concerning a battlefield where man and woman encounter one another. You tell me whether Lully’s Renaud & Armide or Monteverdi’s Tancredi & Clorinda are any more or less realistic than the figure in Benatar’s song. [wow Trey Wilson!]

Speaking of the battle between the genders, it wasn’t too many months since we saw two other operas on the COC stage encompassing a conflict between man and woman. The woman in Erwartung? Or perhaps Duke Bluebeard & his wives? Whether we’re using Schonberg’s expressionist toolkit, Bartok’s more symbolist method, or the baroque operas I cite above, we won’t mistake these stages for the real world.

And that’s all preamble for Pyramus and Thisbe, the third and longest work on the program. We are in an abstract realm, contemplating the meaning of love as though making a forensic examination. I don’t mean we’re poring over bodies or stains on the sheets. But there’s a character onstage who looks just like Peter Falk’s Columbo, played by Owen McCausland. In the battle (Tancredi & Clorinda) it’s as though we’re watching bun raku, that form of puppetry where a story-teller (or in this case, a singer) frames the performance of the puppets (who in this case are a pair of humans), mediating for us.

Owen McCausland as Testo in Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (Photo: Chris Hutcheson)

Owen McCausland as Testo in Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (Photo: Chris Hutcheson)

Once we’re into the new opera, he continues to be a curious figure divorced from the world he is observing. The stage is populated by chorus members paired off as if in echo of the two main characters. They foreshadow what’s to come in the story, as the men wrap shawls around their necks as though to hang themselves: although we don’t see an actual suicide.

One big reason I mentioned the two operas from the spring (two paragraphs ago) is that once again Krisztina Szabó appears to be the go-to singer for a company taking on new / difficult music, alongside the third principal, Phillip Addis. But I don’t believe this score is anywhere near as challenging as what Szabó took on in Erwartung.  Even so this is a remarkable achievement for all three singers & the chorus. The two Monteverdi works that begin the program call for a totally different vocalism, both in comparison to the new music and indeed compared to what we’re accustomed to hearing.

(l-r) Krisztina Szabó as Arianna with Phillip Addis and Owen McCausland in Lamento d’Arianna (Photo: Gary Beechey)

(l-r) Krisztina Szabó as Arianna with Phillip Addis and Owen McCausland in Lamento d’Arianna (Photo: Gary Beechey)

I feel I should mention director Christopher Alden & set designer Paul Steinberg. With a new work you can’t help wondering whether what we’re seeing is in the score or something superimposed by the creative team. For most of the work, we’re watching performers in front of a flat wall of colourful splashes, suggesting pure abstraction rather than representation. And so when Addis and Szabó tussle as though on a battlefield, we can’t take it seriously as a “battle” but rather as something more akin to Benatar’s song: that is, an amorous conflict rather than genuine warfare. The wall had the additional advantage of affording the singers acoustic support, making it possible for them to be very subtle.

I like some of Barbara Monk Feldman’s music very much, and think that it’s a worthwhile composition, a wonderful moment as Canadian composition returns to the COC stage after a long hiatus. I wish I could have more of a sense of what she wrote, given that there are some intriguing layers to the text, the words coming from several interesting sources. I’d need to study it further to have a real sense of it. Again, this is a matter pushing the work into an ideal direction, poetic rather than realistic, and therefore very much in harmony with the style of presentation.

I love Turner as much as the next guy, but i don’t expect all the paintings on display at the AGO to be landscapes or portraits.  Who’s afraid of abstraction?  So long as you don’t mistake this for la boheme or Lucia di Lammermoor you might find Pyramus and Thisbe fascinating & beautiful. The COC will present this triple bill of works again until November 7th. For further information click this logo or the pictures above.

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4 Responses to Ideal Pyramus and Thisbe

  1. Stephen Weir says:

    Our seats aren’t the best – last row on the floor. During much of Monk’s opera the two lead performers are lying on the stage singing into the boards. I know Richard O at the Star raved about it all, but, he must have had better sight/sound lines than those of us in the cheap seats. Could see or hear anything. Thought I heard a bassoon at the end of our aisle. Alas it was a man snoring in the dying minutes of the opera.

    • barczablog says:

      Sigh to each their own…! This final sequence was part of what i was hinting at, when i said “With a new work you can’t help wondering whether what we’re seeing is in the score or something superimposed by the creative team.” There are precisely two moments when the man & woman actually touch: one at the very beginning, one at the very end. Is that deep? or possibly something hugely frustrating? but then again, Pyramus & Thisbe is, if nothing else, a tale of sexual frustration.

      • Stephen Weir says:

        Didn’t know they touched till I read your review. Like I wrote, they were lying on the stage of to the side, singing into the floor and the stage was very dark. Only those in at the front of the house would be able to see what you were talking about. Where did you sit?

  2. barczablog says:

    Although I was sitting right at the front I am making an assumption that they actually touch, as i could make out Addis’s arm coming closer to Szabo just as the work was coming to its conclusion. It looked that way, and seemed to make sense of a story where the lovers have been prevented from making contact. You will recall even in Shakespeare that it’s a source of comedy that they can only peek through a chink at one another (“i kiss the wall’s hole not your lips at all”).

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