I’ve just seen the premiere of a new opera from James Rolfe & Morris Panych adapting Gogol’s story “The Overcoat”.
There’s much to admire, and frankly I feel like saying “it’s about time.” Opera is often bogged down in virtuoso exercises that obscure the simple core elements of the story. The Overcoat: a musical tailoring is an astonishing creation, a transparent bit of nothingness hinting at profundities. No the singers aren’t showing off (the basis of the genre for centuries), and even more importantly, neither is the composer (the unfortunate tendency in the last century or so, that usually buries the story beyond reach of all but the most erudite audiences). The story is simple but amazingly, so is the musical treatment.
The creation reminds me a bit of one of my favourite operas. Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hoffmansthal’s Ariadne auf Naxos went through a series of stages in its conception, an idea that grew over time. Similarly, there was an earlier Overcoat 20 years ago that Panych returns to in 2018 with Rolfe, bigger and bolder even as it is in some respects like a whole lot of nothing. Sometimes a creator can come back to an idea to make it work even better, but what’s especially impressive is how simple their dramaturgy, and without convolution or undue complexity.
As they say dying is easy, comedy is hard. The Overcoat: a musical tailoring is an admirable piece of work that had the audience roaring with laughter, that deserves to be exported abroad, a wonderful creation to be produced and interpreted again.
We’re in the presence of something reminiscent of that master composer, Rossini, who regularly wrote numbers and situations reducing people to comical automatons. Panych and Rolfe give us a 21st century version, the robotic behaviour much more disturbing than anything you’d find in Rossini. Much of the way, the text is in something like couplets, reminding me at times of the nonsense verse of Ogden Nash. This stylization is an interesting choice, setting up the absurdist tone for the work but also making the words fully intelligible; as the opera unfolds this nonsensical texture takes on darker overtones. We’re hearing something at times sounding minimalist like Glass or Adams, although at times I thought I was listening to a musical rather than an opera.
Please don’t take that as disparagement, as I am often unsatisfied with new operas and opera composers. I was thrilled when hearing The Ecstasy of Rita Joe last week, to encounter a score employing an accessible idiom such as country music, less worried about showing off compositional chops and winning conservatory brownie points, than simply telling the story and moving our hearts. There’s nothing extra in what Panych and Rolfe give us, a very lean structure. As in the recent adaptation of The Tempest, where Meredith Oakes opted for shorter lines than what Shakespeare wrote, tampering with iambic pentameter to make the opera understandable and allow the story to move much faster, I think they opted for something very different from the original. We get a viable, intelligible and completely absurd discourse to explore the world of the story. While there are changes from the story in their adaptation I don’t think that’s an issue when most people won’t know the story.
Lean and minimal as the work is, there was an enormous amount of energy poured into the Tapestry –Vancouver Opera co-production, presented at the Bluma Appel Theatre, as part of Canadian Stage’s 30th Anniversary Season seen tonight. Sometimes there was only one person onstage, at other times a huge big crowd. For such a slim story, Panych & Rolfe have created something big. While much of the story involves solitary actions and absurd descriptions, they choose to display an absurd world not just inside one person’s head but filling the stage, dashing back and forth. The simple little story doesn’t move all that fast, but the personages on stage certainly do. Wendy Gorling’s movement vocabulary (a gloss upon her original creation decades ago with Panych) is for me the most exciting part of the presentation, a fabulous visual commentary upon the story & Rolfe’s score.
The opera feels fully realized because of the high quality performance presented tonight. Geoffrey Sirett created the role of Akakiy Akakievitch, a poignant mix of comedy and occasional pathos, wonderfully well sung. Sirett has a gift, possibly because he is free of affections or mannerisms and able to show real vulnerability, always interesting to watch. It was great to see Peter McGillivray in two very different roles—Petrovich the tailor and Akakiy’s department head—both showing off his lovely voice and quirky comic sensibility. Andrea Ludwig was an interesting anchor in the production, as Akakiy’s landlady, giving us some of the few moments of lucid commentary in a work that is otherwise mostly absurd rather than explicit. And as a narrative device, Rolfe & Panych created a “mad chorus” of three fascinating women, who first appear, crawling out of the orchestra pit, commenting at various points in Akakiy’s journey and giving us beautiful music as well, the trio of Caitlin Wood, Magali Simard-Galdes and Erica Iris Huang.
Leslie Dala conducted a small ensemble (a dozen names listed, but it’s hard to know exactly what that entails, when one is simply “percussion” and another “keyboard”), holding everything together beautifully, and the text fully intelligible throughout.
If there’s any way you can get to see The overcoat: a musical tailoring I strongly recommend that you go see it. If nothing else you’ll laugh. The production is on until April 14th, and then will be seen in May out in British Columbia with the Vancouver Opera.