Glorious Of the Sea

Of the Sea opened tonight to tumultuous applause from the Bluma Appel Theatre crowd, a co-production of Obsidian Theatre & Tapestry Opera.

Kanika Ambrose (photo:Dahlia Katz)

Kanika Ambrose (libretto) and Ian Cusson (music) have collaborated to bring a beautiful myth to life. I heard how they worked together at the Tapestry Liblab in 2018, gradually inventing a story that hit me as a perfect parable for our time. We’re watching people who have fallen or been thrown from slave ships, sinking to the bottom of the ocean and being brought back into a kind of life. It’s easiest to imagine such a scenario in an opera, and I am grateful to hear this sung by a cast of black performers. I had no trouble believing the illusion especially with the magical visuals from Rachel Forbes (set & costume designer) and Laura Warren (projection designer).

Dzifa (Suzanne Taffot) and Serwa (Chantale Nurse) seek to lead Maduka (Jorell Williams)

It’s almost Easter, and here we are with another opportunity to ponder the immortality of the soul and the meaning of life, admittedly via a different set of cultural assumptions,. Dzifa (Suzanne Taffot) is the Queen who revives those who have fallen or been thrown into the ocean. We meet Maduka (Jorell Williams) who is unwilling to accept his fate, seeking to rescue his baby girl. Izunna (Justin Welsh) shows Maduka a group of others led by Serwa (Chantale Nurse) who seek to avenge themselves, even if their efforts prove to be futile.

The final scene hundreds of years later reminds me of a cross between the end of Wozzeck (in the foregrounding of the next generation) and Akhnaten (recalling the brutal reality confronting souls finding themselves displaced in time): except it’s gentler than either of those two.

Composer Ian Cusson

Cusson’s score sweeps you up, at times making patterns that might remind you of the oceanic music of Debussy, but including vocalism that is always easy to hear and understand. Cusson’s music is truly beautiful, the singers given occasion to seduce us into their world.

On occasion Cusson asked his singers –especially the two Queens, namely Nurse and Taffot—to venture to the top of their range. Williams gives us a great deal of dramatic singing, passionately committed throughout, and wonderfully transformed in his last moments. Welsh (whom I haven’t heard in awhile, but who will be back with the COC next year) sounded especially strong, his tone ringing out beautifully. It was good to hear sweet-voiced tenor Paul Williamson as Yaakar. Ruthie Nkut makes a stunning grown-up Binyelum.

Two key members of Tapestry’s team for Gould’s Wall were back, namely stage director Philip Akin and music director/ conductor Jennifer Tung, leading members of the COC orchestra; 19 players are listed in the program.

Tapestry offered us other impressive world premieres in the past year, recalling RUR and Gould’s Wall last summer. I found that Of the Sea moves me more than either of the other two, a surprisingly uplifting experience considering the dark history of the middle passage. In its way this tale is just another way of looking at fundamental questions of morality such as those faced by MLK or Malcolm X, pondering how one chooses to respond to oppression.

No one in North America is making so much good new opera as Tapestry. There are four more performances for Of the Sea at the Bluma Appel Theatre until April 1st. For further information and tickets click here.

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