It’s another new Canadian Opera Company production where my first impulse is to credit the brass running the COC. But in a week when the big news for North American opera was the second artistic directorship undertaken by Alexander Neef, this time in Santa Fe, it’s a wonderful omen that his role is again front and centre, a series of wise choices.
While the photo of Jane Archibald is far more striking –no offense Mr Neef or Maestro Debus—I’ll still lead with the two men, as I think that’s the real story. The new COC Abduction from the Seraglio –a co-production with Opéra de Lyon—reminds me a lot of their production of Louis Riel last season because of a similar political framework, an enlightened director leading a kind of redemptive production, aiming to save the opera from itself.
This time we’re in the presence of a Lebanese Canadian, namely Wajdi Mouawad, who interrogates the Mozart Singspiel as a site of what the director might call “caricature or casual racism.” By a curious coincidence, Mouawad’s method sets up a similar sort of layering to what Hinton gave us in the spring for Riel. When Jane Archibald sings her big number to close the first half of the show it’s again in the presence of silent witnesses, lending an extraordinary weight to the moment. “Marten aller Arten” is sung from a kind of cleft that has huge resonance for me in a week when I was watching François Girard’s Parsifal and its lurid suggestions of female sexuality (ha, while we’re speaking of co-productions with Opéra de Lyon). As the set begins to move and close in on the women –Archibald plus a dozen extras, half children half adult—if you know this opera, you may gasp. Mouawad seems to make this moment speak for all women. No wonder people are speaking of Archibald as though she were Gandhi or MLK, because of course the moment becomes one of activism, highly political, and I might add, totally irresistible. It doesn’t hurt that Archibald, the COC’s artist in residence sings note-perfect. I can’t recall ever hearing her sing off pitch, and tonight there was a great deal more going on than just the music.
Mouawad gives us a highly original new slant to the story with a fascinating little prologue. What if we were to see the characters who escaped from the Seraglio, back in Europe? The opera becomes a kind of discussion resembling a trial –again reminding me of Hinton’s Riel—in its reframing of a flawed work with the benefit of 21st century hindsight. The dialogue is new, and the staging is peppered with moments where the illusion is pierced by flashback moments, as when Belmonte is touching Konstanze in a scene she has with Selim. Those occasional moments of ambiguity made the whole thing electric, seeming to dance on the edge of being yanked from one reality into another. We open after the intermission with a prayer and a dervish-like dance both of which add to the richness of the production.
The set design of Emmanuel Clolus is a co-conspirator in the inter-penetration of the original, at times pushing it away, at other times overwhelming us, as in the moment I described that concludes the first half. There’s a mysterious geometric shape peeking out upstage, that is finally revealed near the end –spoiler alert—when we discover that this is where the women have been held captive and where the four Europeans are held pending their torture, a spherical shape that alludes to the Earth in its totality. Am I reading too much into it? one does that when one is feeling drugged, my mind expanded in sympathy with all the love and enlightenment (in more senses of the word than just the one) on display.
There may be casualties. The comic tone one usually encounters is harder to find, possibly because the opera simply isn’t as funny in this version. No it’s not a light comedy, too much gravitas for that. Pedrillo, played by Owen McCausland is the designated funny man, sometimes in cahoots with Goran Juric’s Osmin.
While I’m saying nice things about Neef, who hopefully will read my apparently sycophantic words, I hope he reads my next sentence. There are several brilliant Canadians in this show, and some talented imports: but I feel that if a Canadian can do the role, every effort should be made to cast the domestic talent. I think we’ve improved from the days –especially under Mansouri—when we had to endure mediocre Americans coming north when there were lots of Canadians perfectly capable of offering a mediocre (or even dare I say it, good?) performance. All things being equal, the Canadian must get the job. If you’re bringing in brilliant foreigners such as our Rigoletto, fine and dandy. But I am sure there are Canadians who could have sung Belmonte or Osmin, lovely as these two artists were. As Neef’s star rises with his new foreign appointment, as the sesquicentennial sinks into the distance behind us, I hope they will keep the Canadian in Canadian Opera Company, as we must continue to see lots of Canadians onstage. Jane Archibald, Claire de Sévigné, Owen McCausland and Wajdi Mouawad are brilliant Canadians of whom I am very proud, thrilled by their excellence.
Abduction from the Seraglio continues until the closing performance February 24th.