I’ve just seen Victor Davies’ adaptation of George Ryga’s 1967 play The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, a very faithful treatment of Ryga’s work, the world premiere production in Toronto.
As a result we’re in a funny place culturally with this opera, using the word “Indian” rather than “indigenous” or “aboriginal”. The world has changed a great deal since then, particularly in Canada, where there’s a national dialogue about reconciliation going on, including an ongoing conversation about violence to Indigenous women.
There was, in my opinion, no cultural appropriation at work in this opera. I say that in context with the recent production of Louis Riel that contained a song whose use raised some interesting questions about cultural property & the law.
But Ryga’s story really concerns an aboriginal woman in an urban milieu and so the musical idiom must use European & North American musical forms. She is immersed in a world that overwhelms her, and so this musical treatment doesn’t raise the question of appropriation. And it makes a lot of sense. She is in a world full of something at times European & conservative, at other times, sounding like country & western, because that’s what they listened to and danced to in the bars back then. It’s eclectic but a recognizable and intelligible mix of styles.
Davies has written something that is especially powerful in its last hour: when it matters. Less than half an hour from the end we get a wonderful trio of three excellent voices singing together, namely Rita, her boyfriend Jaimie, and her father David. For several minutes we heard three voices singing powerfully, pulling at our heart-strings, and with the passionate words fully intelligible.
We also get a thrilling fight-scene that leads to a killing. I was surprised at how gripping this was, considering how badly operas sometimes handle fights onstage. The music is thrilling, dissonant but most important, fluid, which means that the performers can give us the action without being overwhelmed by the challenges in the score.
And we had a kind of tragic epilog to conclude. This sort of thing ideally sums up the story and leaves you with something to think about. You think of the endings of Hamlet or Romeo & Juliet as plays that have a kind of ritual at the ending to mark the deaths and to help us to understand all that has happened. Davies gives us something that is certainly as good or better than any new opera I’ve seen recently, and as I recall it, better than what we have in Ryga’s play at this point (which I clearly recall puzzled me when I read it).
The question we always must ask –that I rarely include in reviews because the answer is so humiliating and futile—is “why set this to music?” Or to put it another way, what does music add, that you can’t do without music? After seeing an opera, I’m often asking myself –and not putting it into my review—why did they bother? For once Davies makes me grateful, made me think “Yes the adaptation improves the original”, takes us somewhere we can’t go otherwise.
Many new operas start well and finish badly, their concept not fully sustaining them to the end. In contrast, Davies is strongest at the end, which is not just remarkable but makes me want to see it again. I also found it a bit long, but maybe that’s contributing to the effect at the end. I put that in context with my earlier observation that Davies was faithful to Ryga. I have a preference for simplicity, and that includes making things shorter when possible, making cuts / edits, because I know that when an opera is too long, you’ll find some people simply will refuse to come. In being faithful to Ryga, we get a show that’s almost three hours long. In the opera world? 3 hours is no big deal, especially alongside behemoths by Wagner & Strauss, and even Mozart. But in the spoken theatre world that length is exceptional. I mention this because I think this piece deserves to be heard, and more importantly needs to be produced, to be known, and not just in the opera world. I’m not sure if it can be done by music-theatre performers (eg Shaw or Stratford), who may not have the voices for the toughest passages; but they usually trade off voice for acting ability. I think the piece deserves to be seen /heard.
Davies was true to his word (in his recent interview). He said he wanted to write vocal lines that are intelligible: and he succeeded admirably. And he said he would aim for singable melodic lines, a goal that he seemed to achieve.
The production from Voicebox – Opera in Concert includes some wonderful work in the upstage orchestra pit, conducted by Robert Cooper, with outstanding work from pianist Narmina Afadiyeva, who played almost the entire show, with the other four members of the quintet (woodwind, violin, cello, percussion) playing only sporadically throughout.
While it’s true there are indigenous performers in the show, I simply want to call attention to great singing & acting. Marion Newman as Rita Joe was authoritative, very comfortable, very strong throughout, in a challenging role, totally believable and worthy of applause. Evan Korbut as her lover Jaimie had genuine star quality, a lovely voice and great presence. Everett Morrison as David Joe, Rita’s father, had some very difficult singing that he handled beautifully, while bringing a special presence to the stage. Michael Robert-Broder was a very lyrical magistrate.
Voicebox Artistic Director Guillermo Silva-Marin showed his uncanny instincts today, not just in his direction, getting great work from the Opera in Concert Chorus and from a large cast on the crowded stage of the Jane Mallet Theatre, but more fundamentally in having the foresight to develop and program this work, latest in a series of pieces commissioned from Davies.
I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.