Pondering wandering

I like the sound of that headline. As I do what it says, pondering wandering, I am a bit lost in the ambiguities. If we knew where we were going it wouldn’t be wandering, would it.

The time of year encourages such thinking, the mind drifting onto certain well-worn pathways as several religions have some of their most important holy days.  I’ve been mulling over some of the things I saw recently, that have taken me on a kind of metaphysical journey.

  • Vivier’s Kopernikus in Against the Grain’s recent production at Theatre Passe Muraille (and because it closed I can now blather on a bit more)
  • Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust in a live performance on youtube that I played while I stumbled through spreadsheets during a long day at work Thursday
  • Mallick’s The Tree of Life, that I watched until midnight Friday night
  • The Third Act of Wagner’s Parsifal, that I played through Saturday afternoon

Composer Claude Vivier

I left out certain aspects of my experience of Kopernikus when I wrote my review.  Am I concerned I might foist my particular spirituality upon anyone?  Or is it simply that I wonder if I am just admitting how totally I felt in synch with Vivier, how deeply I identified with his meditation.  But as I went through this little cycle of spiritual and quasi-spiritual works, the parallels and similarities seem so strong I thought I wanted to write about it, both to capture it for myself in this public diary, but also in case this might be illuminating for anyone else in their own journey.

I wish I could see Kopernikus again for at least a couple of reasons. There was a great deal going on in different places in front of us at the theatre. The first time through has a certain magic, but I submit that we really need to be seeing it more than once, given that it’s written (thinking of Vivier) and presented (thinking of Joel Ivany’s direction, Matjash Mrozewski’s choreography as well as the various performances) as ritual. The opera is subtitled “a ritual opera for the dead”, which put Ivany & Mrozewski into a bit of a bind. We don’t get to see it multiple times, so the movement & action needs to somehow signify ritual. Our handouts in the theatre also clued us in to a great deal, although I don’t know that there’s any one way, no right way. It’s wandering, right? That means some are on the path, some aren’t and indeed, those in the bushes may actually be closest to the true way. I think I am having my usual ambivalence, where an invitation sometimes turns me off if it’s too blatant, thinking of this theatre as a kind of temple of the arts but also as a place for Vivier’s ritual celebration.

After the performance I chatted with Joel & Topher Mokrzewski. I wondered about the closing image, which I alluded to indirectly but left out of the review, as I avoid spoilers at all cost. But I realize maybe it would have been useful to talk about this, to in effect give a future audience some idea as to where the storyline goes. Is it a spoiler when they tell you on Good Friday that Jesus rose 3 days later? that we’re saved? That’s the difference between watching a religious epic without any idea of the import or context, as opposed to being a believer who waits for the expected ending to affirm their faith.  Kopernikus’s conclusion at Theatre Passe Muraille was so similar to Robert Lepage’s final image in his Met Production of Damnation de Faust I wondered if Joel & Topher had seen it. I thought of it as an influence and a wonderful one at that, not taking issue with the similarity but admiring its universality.

But they knocked my socks off when they showed me that it’s in Vivier’s score, the most explicit thing in the whole piece. Where everything in Vivier is ambiguous, a verbal labyrinth that is 70% a made-up language (in Topher’s estimation), the ending is clear-cut, as they (or is it Agni only? I can’t recall because I only had a moment to glance at the score that Topher showed me) ascend and walk out a door, a door that shuts with a big sound, to conclude the work.

Bigtime shivers I am recalling at that moment, and surely everyone in the theatre had them too.

The moment at the end of Lepage / Berlioz was elegance itself, and I recall being frustrated at the time. Marguérite goes to heaven. After the massive celebration of the devils in their funny made-up language (uh-oh! another parallel), Berlioz has the angels gently beckoning to Marguérite, inviting her up to heaven. And so we see Susan Graham climb up a ladder, no magic or fancy mise-en-scène. It’s so simple, very much like what we see in the Vivier (and once again there’s Lepage asking his singer to take a physical risk). It turned things a bit upside down to think that, no, Joel wasn’t influenced by Lepage, but maybe Lepage was influenced by Vivier at some level..?   (did he ever come across the piece? I wonder…. No, I would doubt it)

Berlioz figures again in Tree of Life.  I stumbled on this by accident, the day after choosing to listen to Damnation at work, there it was on TV. I hadn’t seen it in awhile but voila, there it was being broadcast and I was irresistibly drawn. I hadn’t noticed that Mallick employs the opening brooding music from Harold in Italy in a sequence of the young Jack, the brooding character we see as an adult played by Sean Penn. How did I miss it the first time through?

And so when in the final ecstatic reconciliation images, the bodies wandering on a beach, reminding me so much of what Joel & Matjash did in Kopernikus, a labyrinth of wandering spirits in a kind of nowhere (whether it’s a beach as in the film, or the brutally blank space Jason Hand made for us in Theatre Passe Muraille), it made sense that Mallick took us from the misery of his Byronic wanderer Harold to the serene affirmation of Berlioz’s Requiem.

I was left alone yesterday (aka Saturday) with the dog. And not just because of the time of year but also because of where my head is at, I pulled out Parsifal. The last act begins with a musical image of wandering that likely resonated with Vivier. I’ve had this conversation in various ways with a few new music practitioners I admire, and whatever their misgivings about opera or romantic music, it’s surprising how often they admit their admiration (that word again) for Parsifal, one of the earliest 20th century compositions, written in the 1880s. That opening is in its way a version of the passage in Harold in Italy, a melancholy wandering lost in a spiritual waste-land.

Redemption in the story and in the typology is to find one’s way: to no longer be lost. The sacred castle of the Grail Knights can’t be found by just anyone but only through grace, through the intervention of higher powers.

It’s very low-key in much of its preaching, letting the beauty of the spring speak to the healing power of spirit in the world, even if the world seems lost. After hours of yard work it’s the most natural thing in the world to sit at the piano and trace that lost pathway, leading to the Good Friday music, and then the angry confrontation between the Knights & Amfortas, before Parsifal appears in the final apotheosis.

Some of us are luckier than others, that the grace finds its way to us, or that we find our way to grace. If you need proof before you open your heart, if you need to see the happy ending, like a movie trailer where they show you clearly how the film ends? That’s what the journey is for, if it has a purpose at all, to get us past the simplistic questioning, to give us the ability to live with ambivalence and doubt.

(afternoon addendum, wandering with the dog in the rain…Wondering if Faust was written by Berlioz at this time of year. He has his Faust in a comparable moment of misery about to kill himself, and he hears an Easter choir (“Christ vient de ressusciter!” they say.) Salvation!? and a moment later, Mephisto appears.  So the tidy ending is perhaps dangerous. Do not be too cocky about your faith, on holy week)

In the meantime, enjoy the spring, enjoy your journey.

This entry was posted in Dance, theatre & musicals, Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays, Spirituality & Religion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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