It was excellent, this Canadian premiere of The Mother of Us All, Virgil Thomson’s setting of Gertrude Stein’s poetic libretto. The opera tells us about Susan B Anthony starring Meghan Lindsay in the title role, presented under the auspices of Voicebox—Opera in Concert. The best was saved for last, to conclude their cycle of three operas about three extraordinary women. I may be accused of arrogance to say that, having missed one of the three, but the one I missed is Vanessa, a well-known work.
[I have now heard of a student production at Wilfrid Laurier U in the 1980s, which makes this the Canadian professional premiere. I’m inserting this three days after the fact.]
I went to the performance out of curiosity, not expecting to be blown away by the most fulfilling and entertaining piece I’ve seen in a long time.
I must properly credit Kate Carver, Music Director and Robert Cooper, Chorus Director, who between them pulled together a performance of crispness and clarity, giving us a delicious experience of this unfamiliar score. One couldn’t ask for a better introduction. I was pleased to join with the enthusiastic audience welcoming a brilliant performance of this challenging work.
Let me add that I remember Opera in Concert as it began under Stuart Hamilton, a bunch of singers holding scores with minimal staging. Fast forward to today when we watched the entire cast singing from memory in Guillermo Silva-Marin’s poetic staging. Today they gave us theatre with very little missing, leading me to wonder whether it’s almost time to stop calling them “Opera in Concert”.
I had a bit of insight into why this opera hasn’t yet become part of the standard repertoire, when I overheard a composer dissing the score. I think it’s perhaps because Virgil Thomson resisted the temptation to do what successful composers usually do. Thomson chose not to foreground his music, not to show off his compositional virtuosity. How amazing that Thomson did not merely seek to impress us, and instead did the unexpected by purposefully staying out of the way, permitting the piece to work as a piece of theatre. That’s the way opera is supposed to work right? But tell that to the composer who didn’t like it. Thomson’s music never obstructs the complex libretto: which is far easier said than done. Yes the music is deceptively simple, employing a style reminiscent of America in the old days, between its invocation of hymns, spirituals, marches, or old melodies, totally diatonic. But wow there is so much going on in the text that we’d never penetrate its complexities if the musical score worked in the usual ways, meaning a composer being a typical composer. I will resist the impulse to illustrate in detail partly because I don’t have a score handy and partly because I can’t let my long-winded nerdy side triumph over my desire to make this a readable review.
But let me simply offer a bravo to Virgil for his good job even if it’s largely unappreciated. This is a work that deserves to be heard more often, a piece of theatre and never mind if the conservatory doesn’t appreciate it. Perhaps audiences have caught up to what Stein was attempting.
You may recall that I ranted a bit concerning the song cycle sung by Barbara Hannigan at the Toronto Symphony a few days go because I only caught ¼ of her English words, and I was upset that Roy Thomson Hall don’t yet project titles to help us follow along. Operas, like song cycles, are a multi-media art-form, a hybrid combining music and words. The TSO shouldn’t expect us to bury our heads in the program when we need to also watch the deportment of the performer. Thankfully Voicebox gave us a brilliant sets of titles, some of the best I’ve ever seen. If a cast were to do a straight read-through of Stein’s words, you’d hear something of dizzying playfulness, the libretto often featuring strange contradictions or a mass of repeated phrases that are almost impossible to follow. Our titles today helped us sift through the repetitions while also giving the text a bit more logic than what you hear in the libretto as written.
I think the key to this opera is the way Stein problematizes discourse. How better to show us a suffragette revolutionary in an anti-feminist time, than to undercut her words, with the words of the seemingly crazy people surrounding her. She is presented as a person who seems to know who she is and what she wants, while surrounded by people who are conflicted and confused. Almost everyone else sounds mixed up, tangled in a web of words and contradictions.
Meghan Lindsay was remarkable as Susan B Anthony, committing a huge role to memory even though she gave only the single performance. I dearly hope she gets to sing it again, not just because of the work she put in but also because of the excellence of her portrayal. For the most part she is strong as steel but at times she wavers, shows vulnerability, the ambivalence brought on by facing and opposing the normal social consensus of her entire society. Lindsay’s voice continues to fascinate me, as I’ve said several times. She can sing just about anything.
Susan B Anthony is surrounded by a huge cast of characters, both fictional and historical. Daniel Webster opposes Anthony, heroically sung by baritone Dion Mazerolle, who gets one of the best solo moments of the opera, making the most of it vocally and dramatically. Evan Korbut brought his lovely sound to the role of Virgil Thomson; yes you read that right, the composer self-reflexively inserts himself (a bit the way Alfred Hitchcock might) into his own creation. Across the stage, his librettist Gertrude Stein also puts in a mannish appearance, played intensely by Daniela Agostino (a very different sort of trouser role against her usual type).
Holly Chaplin played the Angel who haunts Daniel and the rest of us for that matter, solid vocally and quite magical floating about the stage. Joshua Clemenger was a lovely presence both for his comical delivery and his voice –sometimes very operatic, sometimes lighter—playing the part of Jo the Loiterer. I wish I had understood (perhaps from costuming?) that he is a soldier and veteran, perhaps insistent on his passive role as a loiterer because of something like shell-shock or PTSD. Clemenger was the most sympathetic male on the stage, both as an ally of the suffragettes and as a lovable prototype for the modern man.
Madeline Cooper, playing Susan B Anthony’s friend and confidante Anne was very sympathetic, in some respects the key to the whole work. While almost everyone else (other than Susan B and her close friend) seems mad in some respect, either for their inability to say things plainly or in Jo’s quirky ideas, Anne is that one who simply listens, the one to whom Susan comes when she’s upset, her biggest supporter. It’s more than just the quiet excellence of the portrayal elevating the performance, as she’s a bit like Susan’s shrink, the one sane person listening and validating her, reminding me of Horatio (Hamlet) or Benvolio (Romeo & Juliet). Cooper underplayed in the midst of all the cartoonish craziness, becoming in some respects the kind beating heart underlying or mirroring Susan’s strident activism.
Let me conclude by underlining the importance of this production as far as the mandate and purpose of Voicebox-Opera in Concert. Today we saw the Canadian premiere of a work long overdue for presentation. Their stage is a laboratory, helping us explore and understand the possibilities of opera.
And when I look at the online program notes that I have been using (having misplaced my printed program), I didn’t see much mention of Guillermo Silva-Marin who directed this insightful production (although I’m sure he’s credited in the printed program I lost). Both as their curator & programmer (who selected the operas for the season) as the man who choreographed the movements of the huge cast onstage, and directed the interactions of the singers, I must say I’m grateful.