L’Homme et le Ciel: worth the wait

I attended the opening of Adam Scime’s opera L’Homme et le Ciel at the Music Gallery, produced by FAWN Opera, directed by Amanda Smith and conducted by the composer. While I’ve seen two other presentations of portions from Scime’s opera –one from FAWN in April 2014, another from Bicycle Opera in their 2014 summer tour—and although there was another presentation of parts of the opera in Kitchener, also in 2014, this is the first complete presentation of the work.

Composer Adam Scime

There are several inter-woven storylines leading to this great moment for composer Scime and for Amanda Smith, FAWN’s artistic director. I say this as I try to keep it all clear in this attempt to capture a series of impressions about the event, fearing that I’ll omit something.

I want to properly acknowledge Scime’s work. His score for l’Homme is a combination of electro-acoustic music generated invisibly, and a live score for three singers and at least six players; while the program mentions piano, violin, flute/piccolo, cello and clarinet/bass clarinet there was also percussion (or was that produced when the piano wasn’t playing? I wasn’t watching closely enough to be sure). We begin very softly, with a repeated pattern that suggests we might be in minimalist territory, which is where we stay for awhile, the music soft with occasional silences to ground us in the here and now. For a piece concerned with matters of spirituality, this is not surprising, as Scime created a genuine sense of immanence with the voices & gentle sounds from his ensemble, at times very carefully rooting us in the moment.

Yet at other times the sonic space was saturated, voices coming strongly at us at the same time as complex textures overlaid one another, an effect calling to mind layers of fabric or splattered paint (thinking of Jackson Pollock), the layers transparent rather than opaque, but the complexity wonderfully significant. This is not a modernist complexity, even if at times we seemed to be in an atonal world, whereas at other times I heard extended chords suggesting something late-romantic, coherent and harmonic.

Scime is setting a libretto by Ian Koiter, that is in French based on a 2nd century story. While I understand French, the effect of the opera in another language creates some distance, some additional artificiality. We are moving away from realism and in the direction of something more symbolic, more purely abstract than what one usually sees on stage or screen.

Is the story as complex as the music that we hear? Most certainly.

Or to put it another way, the score is an eloquent answer to the most fundamental question to put to any of the composers whose operas I’ve encountered recently, namely “why tell this story via opera”? Often I can’t help thinking that composers are attracted to opera because it’s a big money prestigious field, a place to wield power and influence. At a certain point in their careers it’s inevitable that they’ll try to write an opera. As a person raised on opera as though it were mother’s milk, I’ve always distinguished between opera composers and those who don’t really get opera, especially when one senses that there’s no sense of attachment (let alone love & respect) to (for) the form. Scime’s score can’t be told any other way than in the operatic medium, and as such makes everyone –singers, musicians, director—look good in the process. A good opera should be like an argument advocating for the medium, making you want to hear more operas, and that’s exactly what I felt watching Scime’s opera.

This is not an opera about clarity but rather about unanswerable questions. I felt confusion, and by that I don’t mean an alienation from the work, but rather a purposeful fog created in the mind of the protagonist Hermas. This is an opera about a spiritual journey, as Hermas ponders and shows us his attempts to make sense of what he has experienced.

The one question I might have for Scime is to wonder myself whether his own journey and that of Hermas is over. The work ends with questions left in the air. Even though the spiritual text Scime has set is old, the setting is quite modern in its willingness to portray the psychology of Hermas’ struggle, to avoid the simple closure one gets from romantic works such as Parsifal or Lohengrin, where the allegorical is trumped by the need to tell a story with a clear ending even if such closure violates the higher purpose. Scime and Smith make no such surrender to a simplistic impulse. While I don’t think it becomes better if you make it easier for the audience –by supplying a bit more closure at the end—I couldn’t help wondering if there’s more here, more to the scenario and more music that Scime might yet bring to light.

Alex Dobson is the latest incarnation of Hermas, a portrayal showing us layers of wonderment & discovery, while employing that luscious instrument that we’ve grown to love & admire over the years. Larissa Koniuk, who is the only person I’ve seen undertake the role of Rhoda, seems very comfortable with Scime’s demands. Like Dobson, Koniuk has some big singing, at times competing with the ensemble’s fortissimo. The dense layers of sound & meaning cohere beautifully, both voices soaring through clearly. Adanya Dunn in the smaller role of The Messenger contributed to the sense of mystery, both in Hermas’s journey and in our own experience of the opera.

There have been several small opera companies in the Toronto area employing a variety of strategies to grow, to find repertoire, to make themselves stand out.  FAWN, through the vision of Amanda Smith their artistic director, have taken a very singular path, building this opera even though it has taken the past couple of years.  It was worth the wait.

L’Homme et le Ciel will be presented again Friday Dec 4th at the Music Gallery. I hope to hear it again someday.


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