The Drawing Room from Confluence

The Drawing Room is “a dialogue for three voices and a messenger,” Music by composer Ian Cusson, Text by André Alexis. Its 20 minutes of words & music concluded Confluence Concerts opener to their fifth season.

Composer Ian Cusson

It’s something like a prequel to King Lear, but in modern English.

First, recall the big scene, when Lear sets up the action of the play by saying the following:

Tell me, my daughters,–
Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state,–
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge.

Now imagine a scene putting Lear’s three daughters together in a drawing room (as in the title) before the action of the play begins, which is why I’d call it a “prequel” to King Lear.

It’s a fascinating concept imagining this moment, digging beneath the surface of the play. I loved what they did with it even as my gut resisted the concept. In fairness diverging from Shakespeare is normal in operatic adaptations (setting aside the question of whether to call it “opera”). When one recalls the omission of the whole first act from Verdi’s Otello, the choice to omit soliloquys from Matthew Jocelyn’s recent Hamlet libretto, or the way Meredith Oakes completely altered the ending of her Tempest libretto, I probably should just enjoy the ride without quibbling. 

The setting by Cusson includes some beautiful music. At times they’re singing an arioso (or that’s what I’ll call it even if the word “arioso” is so vague as to be almost meaningless), the text moving very quickly for opera, which is usually slower. There were ensembles (two duets, one trio), that for me were the highlights, the most artificial creations, but containing some lovely music. Cusson often relies on his accompaniments for musical expression while the singers are usually singing very clearly, without much in the way of music to show off (as opera will sometimes do). Words & music function mostly to unfold a dramatic situation for us, to tell the story rather than hit us with vocal display. It’s very effective.

I did not object so much to the setting nor to the way the text is written, but their chosen path of the story. So we watch Goneril, Regan and Cordelia speak with a fair amount of civility & openness to one another, sharing their plans & strategies. With what I’ve seen of dysfunctional families I don’t believe this is how it would unfold, not from what we see of the sisters in Shakespeare’s play. I do think Alexis wrote great dialogue. Alexis’ scene between the sisters is so very powerful, especially when they recall their mother, so well written. I love that Alexis doesn’t simply give us the darker extrapolation that simply follows the arc (backwards) of their bad behavior, digging for something much subtler & deeper.

Please put that into context with the rest of the evening, a series of wonderful songs & musical numbers, an impressive night of musical performance. That appears to be what Confluence Concerts do best. The relaxed and intimate tone at 918 Bathurst made everything accessible. On the drive home I called Erika, who’s out of town for the weekend visiting cottage country with a friend to tell her she would have liked this. They’ve fixed much of what can sometimes seem to be wrong with classical music and opera. Confluence are unpretentious, completely intelligible, entertaining.

It’s especially apt for me this week, when I made reference in reviews to both the Toronto Symphony & Tafelmusik offering programming with promises that seem to echo what Larry Beckwith is doing, with Confluence Concerts.

The TSO’s conductor & music director, Gustavo Gimeno said:

“The creation of contrast is at the heart of what I believe about concert programming—the coming together of past and future, masterworks side by side with new commissions, old friends and new faces on the concert stage: all manner of refreshing or startling juxtapositions.

And Friday night’s concert, “Handel’s London” from Tafelmusik, exposed us to familiar & unfamiliar baroque composers of Handel’s London.

When we heard Mozart alongside Kate Bush, Neil Young and the new piece by Cusson we experienced something truly fresh. My ears felt cleansed, the audience often silent in wonder. I think the TSO & Tafelmusik have the right idea, although perhaps they need to commit more fully to the concept if they’re to create the kind of magic we had tonight.

You can find more about Confluence Concerts at their website.

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