Tapestry Opera and OCAD University have a new site-specific opera on display. I chose the verb carefully given that many think of the medium as something one hears, when its tradition has often been one of spectacle, design, the Deus ex Machina, huge expensive productions..
In many ways RUR A Torrent of Light can be understood as a traditional opera, for its determination to show you something unlike anything you’ve ever seen or heard before. It succeeds admirably.
The text I read on Tapestry’s website is useful.
Inspired by Karel Čapek’s 1920’s science-fiction play Rossum’s Universal Robots (which introduced the word “robot” to the English language), composer Nicole Lizée’s and writer Nicolas Billon’s R.U.R. A Torrent of Light grapples with one of our generation’s most fascinating questions.
Čapek is a departure point, the “inspiration” rather than the text that has been adapted. But Capek isn’t Shakespeare, where people will notice whether or not the libretto observes the same plot. It doesn’t matter too because the word “robot” has so thoroughly been absorbed into our culture, whether in industry, warfare or science fiction, that people would likely be upset if the robots didn’t look like the robots we’ve come to know and love.
And while a science-fiction opera might sound like an oxymoron, a total contradiction given the usual perception of opera via winged helmets (a cliché that’s relevant to a tiny portion of opera), or possibly the dying divas of traviata or boheme (much closer to the mark), Tapestry have pulled it off.
Let me interrupt this review to mention how star-struck I was in the presence of the composer Nicole Lizée, or “Nicky” to those who get to know her. She’s not just a great Canadian composer, she’s one of the really great composers in the world, period. Adams, Reich, Glass, Part, Lizée. She is their peer, composing with her unique voice.
My chief fear tonight was that something would go wrong, but clearly director Michael Mori did it right. In the winter they were workshopping the piece, with its libretto by Nicholas Billon.
While we had surtitles, which I always find helpful no matter how well a cast enunciates, this was a very intelligible piece. The music was simple and elegant, staying out of the way of the vocal lines. Lizée has a distinctive sound that sometimes resembles pattern music but includes echoes of popular music twisted and distorted as though someone plays with the record: an old analog idea arguably out of step with the high-tech world in this story. But who cares, it’s a beautiful effect and I don’t care what it signifies, I like it.
Tonight we saw some things that are truly new, in the use of the voice, and other things adapted from elsewhere, such as the movement vocabulary of robots as we’ve already seen in cinema, especially Scott Belluz as Alex, a robot who is shown in the first part as he is beginning to learn, and then is stripped of most of his intelligence, a bit like the HAL 2000 in the film 2001: A space odyssey. It’s quite wonderfully pathetic.
The dance-movement element underscores much of the action, enhancing and expanding the scope of the work. Lately we’re not accustomed to opera companies in Toronto doing what they often did in the 19th century, broadening the discourse with movement and relying on dance to tell part of the story. One doesn’t know where to look, as there’s so much to take in and notice.
OCADU make a wonderful case for themselves in this space, even if its acoustic is a bit harsh & blatant. I spoke to two people who were overwhelmed by the sound (note: for those of you who like powerful experiences, this is a good thing!). I talked about how I used to stuff paper in my ears at rock concerts. This isn’t quite that loud although there are a couple of moments pushing me to the limit.
Billon and Lizée employ a great deal of repetition. It’s less like Philip Glass and more like Sam Shepherd, Laurie Anderson or perhaps liturgy. Repetition solemnizes a great deal of the action even as we stare at pure actions without human intelligence. There’s a great poignancy in that, and stunning beauty at times. Near the end of the first act we’re watching something resembling a ritual as Alex is accompanied by a cortege of robots, breath-taking in their simplicity.
I can’t do the complex visuals justice except to observe how rich the stage picture was. There were times I was reminded of 1950s science fiction, with lights flashing in obvious fakery that one excuses when one’s having a good time. But sometimes it’s cutting edge, CGI that swallows you up.
There are many beautiful moments, lots of great performances. Kristztina Szabo’s Helena is very powerful, especially in the second act, her voice amplified in the relatively tiny space. Lizée gives her some remarkable lines, a very original approach to vocalism. Keith Klassen, subbing for an ailing Peter Barrett in the role of Dom, sounded good, so believable he rarely seemed to be a substitute. Danielle Buonaiuto as the machine Helena was wonderful vocally, offering some of the same physical quirks we saw from Belluz.
Conductor Gregory Oh leading a chamber orchestra delivered a totally coherent performance of the complex score that included personnel widely separated on either side of the stage, chorus members singing and sometimes playing hand-held instruments. I’ve heard that Lizée’s scores can be very challenging, as she will write out effects that one can sometimes make with a joystick on a keyboard: but she makes the ensemble play the effect. I wonder if that was the case tonight? It’s beautiful music that rarely distracts from the story, although we’re not really in a realistic / naturalistic realm but instead something more towards the symbolist if not expressionist. Perhaps we need a new descriptor for this style.
The coda, which is like an epilogue is especially beautiful, as the dance – movement element finally takes over, as though the id, or the machine-equivalent were answering the ego.
I’ll see it again if I can swing a ticket.
More info about RUR can be found here.