Opera’s Premiere Links Modernism With Monteverdi

CAPTION TK Addis (Pyramus) Szabó (Thisbe) in 'Pyramus and Thisbe' in the Barbara Monk Feldman world premiere at Canadian Opera Company. (Gary Beechey)
Star-crossed Pyramus (Phillip Addis) and Thisbe (Krisztina Szabó) are the subjects of Barbara Monk Feldman’s opera.
The Canadian Opera Company world premiere, directed by Christopher Alden, is part of a triple bill. (Gary Beechey)
By Colin Eatock

TORONTO – “Pyramus and Thisbe” is the umbrella name the Canadian Opera Company has given to a strikingly unusual triple bill. The production, which opened Oct. 20 at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre, is made up of three separate works: Claudio Monteverdi’s aria “Lamento d’Arianna,” (a fragment from his lost opera L’Arianna), Monteverdi’s scena “Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda,” and the opera Pyramus and Thisbe – a world premiere by the Canadian composer Barbara Monk Feldman.

Composer Barbara Monk Feldman (Jeff Higgins)
The COC’s first big Canadian opera since 1999 is by Monk Feldman.
(Jeff Higgins)

In pairing Monteverdi and Monk Feldman, the COC proudly displayed some outside-the-box thinking. And it worked because, despite the gulf separating these two composers, there are some striking similarities. Both Monk Feldman and Monteverdi (in the works presented here) espoused styles that are declamatory and anti-contrapuntal. And although Monteverdi’s approach to text is explicit and Monk Feldman’s is implicit, both composers found their way to the emotional core of the stories they chose to tell.

As is true of many North-American opera producers, Baroque opera isn’t the Canadian Opera Company’s forte. While Handel and a few other Baroque composers have graced its stage over the years, it is the grand operas of the 19th century that form the company’s core repertoire. Yet for Toronto opera-goers with a fondness for the Baroque era, this isn’t much of a problem: The city is also home to Opera Atelier, one of the world’s few “period” opera companies, which means early-music enthusiasts can enjoy high-quality Baroque opera at the Elgin Theatre.

New opera isn’t exactly the COC’s forte, either – especially not new Canadian opera. And for Torontonians who would like to see new works by Canadian composers, this is very much a problem. There’s no other company in Toronto capable of mounting a major new operatic work. If the COC won’t do them, Canadian operas of substantial size can’t be heard in Canada’s largest city.

COC general director Alexander Neef
General director Neef plans to stage several new Canadian operas.

Indeed, before Pyramus and Thisbe, the COC hadn’t presented a big new Canadian opera since 1999, when the company produced The Golden Ass, by Randolph Peters. While that is surely not a record to be proud of, the company hasn’t always been especially ashamed of it. On at least one occasion when COC general director Alexander Neef was asked about the lack of Canadian repertoire in his company’s offerings, he said that he didn’t see new Canadian opera per se as a high priority. His views put a few noses out of joint. (See here.)

Yet in the past couple of years, it appears that Neef has revised his priorities, and he has announced plans to stage several new Canadian operas. Monk Feldman’s Pyramus and Thisbe is the first out of the gate – and Neef’s choice of composer for the company’s first mainstage Canadian opera in 16 years is surprising. Although the Toronto-based Monk Feldman is the widow of the famous American composer Morton Feldman (with whom she studied at the University of Buffalo in the 1980s), she is a rather obscure figure on Toronto’s new-music scene; there are other local composers who are more prominent – any one of whom would have been a more obvious choice.

Krisztina Szabó, seated, as Arianna is central to all three operas in the triple bill. (Chris Hutcheson)
Szabó, seated, was the glue that held the triple bill together.
(Chris Hutcheson)

All three works in the COC’s “Pyramus and Thisbe” production were presented against a huge, abstract mural by scenic designer Paul Steinberg. There was nothing Baroque about it – nor in costume designer Terese Wadden’s modern street-clothes. Clearly, director Christopher Alden wasn’t trying to recreate some kind of authentic Baroque staging. However, in “Lamento d’Arianna,” the first of the three pieces performed (without intermission), it was clear that the COC was serious about stepping into Monteverdi’s musical world. The COC Orchestra, under music director Johannes Debus, was reduced to a modest continuo section: harpsichord, theorbo, and a couple of strings.

Mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó was the glue that held the triple bill together, appearing in all three pieces. No doubt, she was cast for her always-impressive skills as an interpreter of contemporary music (her last appearance with the COC was as the Woman in Schoenberg’s Erwartung), but as the tragic Arianna, she proved that she knows a thing or two about Baroque music. Her delivery was plangent and penetrating – not too pretty, yet tastefully ornamented. And Alden’s decision to have her sing the whole aria confined to a chair underscored the intense frustration of the abandoned Arianna.

“Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda” gave tenor Owen McCausland, cast as Testo, the narrator,  an opportunity to shine. Dressed in a rumpled trench-coat (like Columbo) he sang in a clear, natural parlando style. Cast in what might have been a purely utilitarian role as a narrator describing a great battle between two warriors, he burst forth with an urgency that evaporated the “fourth wall” between the stage and the audience.

Tancredi (Addis) and Clorinda (Szabó) in combat. (Michael Cooper)
Designer Paul Steinberg’s abstract mural was the backdrop for all three works.
Tancredi (Addis) and Clorinda (Szabó) acted out an elaborate combat. (Michael Cooper)

As the two warriors (the Christian Tancredi and the Muslim woman Clorinda), baritone Phillip Addis and Szabó acted out an elaborate pantomime that at times looked like a fight to the death and at other times resembled something more amorous. When Monteverdi’s score offered Addis a few phrases to sing, he displayed a warm and rich baritone. Szabó sang even fewer notes, but always with precision and finesse.

After Monteverdi, Monk Feldman’s Pyramus and Thisbe was a sonic jolt, thrusting the audience forward four centuries. From the opening notes – scored for an expanded orchestra with winds and plenty of percussion – the composer established her modernist bona fides: Her static, slow-moving cluster-chords bore the stamp of her husband and teacher. As well, in its poised and refined use of orchestral and choral color, it reminded me of another opera that’s making waves these days: George Benjamin’s Written on Skin.

(l-r) Addis as Pyramus, McCausland as the Narrator and Szabó as Thisbe. (Gary Beechey)
(l-r) Addis as Pyramus, McCausland as a non-singing presence and Szabó as Thisbe.
(Gary Beechey)

Pyramus and Thisbe is based on a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It presents two lovers who cannot marry because of strife between their families. They communicate in secret, but when they arrange to meet at night, confusion ensues. Each believes the other to be dead, and they both kill themselves. However, this fairly straightforward account of star-crossed lovers is rendered cryptic by Monk Feldman’s own libretto. The text consists of fragments cobbled together from Ovid, William Faulkner, Rainer Maria Rilke, St. John of the Cross, and other writers.

Addis was cast as Pyramus, and Szabó was Thisbe (with McCausland left to wander the stage as a non-singing presence). There are no real arias for either of them to sing; in the program notes, Monk Feldman describes her piece as a “non-opera.” Yet there were plenty of challenges for the singers in such a tonally diffuse and arhythmic score. Here, Szabó was in her element, and Addis also rose to the occasion with a secure and nuanced performance.

Additional performances of this triple bill run through Nov. 7. For details, click here.

Colin Eatock is a Toronto-based composer and critic. He is the author of Mendelssohn and Victorian England and Remembering Glenn Gould. He has written for Toronto’s Globe and Mail, The New York Times, The Houston Chronicle, and many other publications.

Szabó as Thisbe, Addis as Pyramus, McCausland as narrator in Pyramus and Thisbe (w. Lamento d’Arianna and Il combatti(Michael Cooper)
A scene from Barbara Monk Feldman’s ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’  in the Canadian Opera triple bill. (Michael Cooper)