The pandemic is simultaneously new in its requirements and yet old in once again reminding us of our ultimate destiny. Modern science may blind us to history’s lessons. The images on the tray in this picture come from Täby kyrka, a medieval church that probably influenced Ingmar Bergman in showing death playing chess in The Seventh Seal. I brought the tray home as a souvenir from my trip to Sweden.
The Canadian Opera Company and Against the Grain Theatre have collaborated on a film of Mozart’s Requiem, the latest of the COC’s online offerings. Director Joel Ivany revisits the Requiem, previously seen at the Mozart @260 Festival in January 2016, with the Toronto Symphony, the Amadeus Choir & Elmer Iseler Singers bearing the epithet “semi-staged”.
For that 2016 live performance Joel got a personal investment out of each of us by handing out blank cards to each of us, as we came in. We were told in the pre-concert introduction to write the name or names of someone whose passing we would choose to celebrate or mourn.
A new ritual & convention of mourning was invented on the spot.
Each of us used the card in our own way, but this abstract template furnished a place where we all seemed to meet even though this was not a church, just a concert hall.
For 2021 the new film posed some dramaturgical questions that I’ll attempt to articulate while looking at how Joel and the COC responded. On the website we see the following textual preamble:
“This multi-disciplinary presentation in collaboration with Against the Grain Theatre invites us to reckon with the impact of COVID-19 and devastating losses—and heal together through the power of Mozart’s astonishingly moving Requiem.”
We’re invited to explore the implications of death in the Requiem text, probing even further than what Joel gave us in 2016 at the TSO. The film alternates back and forth between two sorts of discourse, not unlike classic number opera. But instead of recitatives telling the story, followed by arias or ensembles exploring the passions of that moment in the drama, we have Mozart’s numbers alternating with a series of gentle interviews with the soloists (soprano Midori Marsh, mezzo-soprano Marion Newman, tenor Andrew Haji, and bass Vartan Gabrielian) speaking of their experiences. This was a film version of the thing Joel did back in 2016 when he asked us to write down names of the people we had lost. And towards the end of the film we again saw names and concepts such as +215 written on pages before us in this communal space of mourning and commemoration. The comments function the way arias do in number opera, giving us reflective pauses in the Requiem. In addition to the concert context we also watched film of the soloists on a beach, lovely images not unlike what we see in the film The Tree of Life, even as it also resembles the Scarborough Bluffs beaches near my home in the east end of town.
All four soloists have great moments, although I’m particularly impressed by the sensitive and idiomatic work of Midori Marsh, a young singer who is part of the Ensemble Studio. Andrew Haji continues to sing like a star, sympathetic and always musical.
At first I had wondered about the interpretive choices made by Johannes Debus leading the orchestra and the COC chorus. They sound very dry, even astringent in the choruses that we hear, setting up the solos as an escape from something dreadful and terrifying. There is no consolation to be heard in the opening statement of the “requiem”, or the “kyrie”. The sonics of the auditorium plus the producer’s choices (where the microphones are placed, equalization etc) seem designed to maximize the scariness of the text rather than to bring us any kind of ritual consolation. I was frankly confused, until I started to notice how the commentaries from the soloists as well as their solos were placed in sharp contrast to the work of the chorus. Whether this was a conscious choice (to maximize drama and dryness) or an accident of acoustics, the combination works. As we get closer to the end, there is a more vulnerable sound from the chorus, a gentler sound.
The COC / AtG Requiem joins their other online content, available from the COC website for the usual six months.