Against the Grain Theatre premiered version two of BOUND at The Great Hall on Queen St W or as Joel Ivany called it “an ongoing process”. I didn’t see version 1, and perhaps this summer or next year there will be a version 3: further workshops and/or explorations.
Version 2 is many things. We were told in some of the PR that this is “opera in the age of Trump.” And so this is opera framed within a heavily political context. Posters were up in the washroom, and the program was done a bit like a passport from an authoritarian society.
The AtG website calls it A Handel Mashup. In the preshow intro by Ivany & composer Kevin Lau we were told that Canadian Opera Company general director Alexander Neef suggested a Handel mashup. Ivany didn’t go on at great length about it, only to tell us that there is this intriguing question that Lau presented to us. Is it Handel or is it perhaps Lau?
After hearing it I’m okay saying that it’s both. We’re in a kind of post-modern creative space, familiar when we see an old building re-purposed with additional shapes & structures, so that the old is re-framed and reinvented in the new. Lau was very humble about his role, but it seems simply to be the pragmatic work of a musician, someone who re-purposes the old while adding new wrinkles. I did something similar in church Sunday (a postlude incorporating REM’s “It’s the End of the World as we know it” and the hymn “When all is Ended.”). Post-modernism is pragmatic, re-working what you have, and not necessarily original: although in places we were 100% Lau with little that sounded like Handel. The variety he offered is helpful sometimes deliciously different, occasionally dissonant. The ear was toyed with but mostly caressed.
Version 2 has four characters singing Handel, using a modern libretto crafted by Ivany. The four are to be imagined as though they’ve been detained by this repressive state. I’m not sure I understand where the work came from, especially when there’s a version 1 with additional singers. But as Ivany described it, in the creation process, the singers were asked to bring arias that they liked to sing. That suggests that there’s an earlier layer of pragmatic authorship from Ivany, setting new words to those tunes, followed by another layer when Lau adapted this into something else with a small orchestra; and there’s another layer with the electronics, sound design by Acote.
It might be the edgiest thing AtG have ever done.
Did anyone mean for the style to be symbolic? perhaps it’s not meant to be but it seems profound, Handel being this old voice for expressions of individual passion. But the abuse of power, authoritarianism, this is nothing new. The various ways a person expresses their griefs is one of the universals in opera. So much of what we see in our social systems are antiques, vestiges that are still with us like tailbones, long after the function is gone. The struggling of old against new makes perfect sense in this style.
The four characters are introduced within that repressive political context, on a card inserted into our passbooks, showing the character with the singer identified as an alias.
- Noor Haddad alias Miriam Khalil
- Kelly Davidson alias David Trudgen
- Naveen Dewan alias Andrew Haji
- Ahmed Habib alias Justin Welsh
There’s a great deal of exposition, details that add depths and nuances. While I didn’t follow everything going on (not just because there were so many poetic lines from Ivany, fascinating things being said by the singers, that I couldn’t always discern, but because of the complexities of the premise), there wasn’t a moment that let down the intensity, nothing wasted. Version 2 gives us a glimpse of a much more complex world, one we accept on faith because it’s totally believable. The singing of the four soloists was nothing short of spectacular, whether alone or in the occasional ensemble.
But it wasn’t what I’d expected. There were two arias from Andrew Haji –one near the beginning, another near the end—that gave us sparkling coloratura. David Trudgen’s arias were perhaps the most atypical, as in places Lau had the orchestra doing tango rhythms and in another, syncopated drumming at times with military overtones. In places the voice or its accompaniment had been sampled and was coming back, transformed, as though inside the singer’s head.
While I suppose the form is technically some sort of pastiche, I don’t know that it matters. It was more on the concert side than on the theatrical side, of opera. Music director Topher Mokrzewski led a sensitive reading of this music that was at once old and yet new, deliciously crisp & clear.
The four are detained & supposedly being oppressed. But we don’t see any oppression. The voice of the state is occasionally represented for us in the voice of Martha Burns speaking. From the soloists, we hear of suffering, we hear brave sentiments of resistance. It’s a curiously powerless state, their threat theoretical rather than actual. Handel is also the composer of such triumphant tunes as “See the Conquering Hero Come”, a composer of pomp & power, never more so than in the coronation anthems such as “Zadok the Priest.” Opera was for centuries a tool of oppressive states, authorizing and celebrating tyrants: even if this is not likely anything either Ivany or Neef want to promote. We get a much more politically correct Handel. More villainy might have given the work more balance, but even so BOUND is bound to please. We don’t disbelieve the suffering or the reality of the singers in their mysterious places of confinement.
All in all it was a lovely evening of music, splendid performances framed within the ironic signage & programs. BOUND v.2 will be repeated Tuesday & Wednesday at 8 pm at The Great Hall.