Orchestra Brings First Nations Culture To Stage

Kent Nagano led the Montreal Symphony Orchestra in the chamber opera ‘Chaakapesh, The Trickster’s Quest.’ The cast included, from left, Florent Vollant, Geoffroy Salvas, and Owen McCausland. (Concert photos: Antoine Saito)

MONTREAL – There are a few ways of making an opening night seem special. Last year Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra opted for Mahler’s foolproof (if demanding) Eighth Symphony. On Sept. 6 they took a different tack, presenting the premiere of a 45-minute chamber opera sung in Cree and ending the evening with the perhaps-not-so-odd couple of Stravinsky and Ravel.

The opera, Chaakapesh, The Trickster’s Quest, describes the adventures of the eponymous Aboriginal mythological figure, who sets out to find sturgeon oil as a balm for his balding grandmother but is commissioned by the great god Mantoo (more often rendered as Manitou) to travel to Ann Kaakaa (Cornerbrook, Newfoundland) and teach the miserable (and murderous) white Europeans how to laugh.

Playwright and novelist Tomson Highway wrote the libretto.

It is not a simple passage as imagined by the librettist, the veteran Indigenous Canadian playwright and novelist Tomson Highway. Chaakapesh (the name of the Trickster is rendered differently by different nations) is transported in the belly of a whale, where he resides, Jonah-style, for three days and three nights. Coughed up on shore, he walks the rest of the way and performs the mandated standup routine. That his punchlines include references to sunglasses and a hippopotamus indicates that Highway’s libretto is not fastidiously traditional. Much of the language, even when uttered by a deity, is joltingly off-colour. Longfellow this is not.

It all might have scanned as salty humour had Highway not taken such pains to call Europeans “the Moony-ass,” ascribe to them no humour and no religion, and ask aloud whether they do not “make pigs of themselves wherever they go.” Surely “European” settlers have something to answer for, but this sounds to me like the kind of speech worth avoiding regardless of context. As for the disappearance of the Beothuk people in Newfoundland in the early 19th century, this is a hard subject for comedy from any perspective. Or am I addled by my supposedly Eurocentric earnestness?

Composer Matthew Ricketts: Ravellian mode. (matthewricketts.com)

All the same, the story of a reluctant hero sustained interest, as did the turbulent semitonal score of Matthew Ricketts, a non-indigenous composer born in British Columbia who is now based in New York. Resourceful in his use of the midsize orchestra, Ricketts kept things moving and shimmering in something like a Ravellian mode. He summoned more solemn tones to represent Mantoo (who also embodies the spirit of the whale) but perhaps did not take full advantage of the pictorial potential of the storm and dirge sequences.

Where he succeeded fully was in finding a lyrical and fluid style of vocal composition that made the most of the bright tenor of Owen McCausland (Chaakapesh) and the warm baritone Geoffroy Salvas (Mantoo and the whale). While Highway (a musician as well as a theater entrepreneur) did not provide many aria-worthy soliloquies, the dialogue was lively and the voices had distinctive character. Florent Vollant, an Innu singer-songwriter, furnished what sounded like steady narration in his native tongue.

Innu singer-songwriter Florent Vollant gave the narration in his native tongue.

There was no Hollywoodish attempt to make indigenous music. Akinisie Sivuarapik, an Inuit performer, provided a touch of authenticity with an unexpected solo drum song about 10 minutes into the first of three scenes. She was also the narrator in Inuktitut for the second performance. Innu and Inuktitut are languages understood in the six communities in Nunavik and other regions of northern Quebec through which the production will tour from Sept. 10 to 19. Singing in all performances is in Cree.

Only a few visiting First Nations dignitaries in the Maison symphonique could be expected to understand any of the words. Other spectators had to consult surtitles posted rather high above the choir loft. Still, it was possible to appreciate the direction of Charles Dauphinais, which incorporated the rear of the stage as well as the apron, and the subtle design of Lisandre Coulombe, who made a few pieces of driftwood and strands of fishnet go a long way. A good band for modern music, the MSO under Nagano seemed to capture all the color the score. If Chaakapesh, The Trickster’s Quest is something less than a roaring success, it offers an excellent template for chamber opera as presented on a concert stage. The money for the production came from the New Chapter program of the Canada Council of the Arts, a federal funding agency that is placing renewed stress on First Nations culture.

Music director Kent Nagano (Montreal Symphony Orchestra)

Having performed a heavy load of repertoire only a few days earlier during the high-intensity Classical Spree festival, the orchestra was perhaps not as tanned, rested and ready as are most ensembles in September. Despite much athletic cuing from Nagano, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring sounded scattered. Good bits (such as the trumpet articulation near the end of Part 1) stood out as exceptional. The dynamic range was limited and forward impetus from the podium was lacking. You know there is trouble when you are tempted to look at your watch during the “Mystic Circles of the Young Girls” episode.

There is no way of knowing whether the Rite has ever been followed immediately by Ravel’s Bolero. It does seem much of a muchness. Yet the scores are united by their use of insistent rhythm (Nagano decreed two snare drummers rather than one) and astoundingly creative orchestration. The bassoonist who sounded mellow in the Stravinsky was tangy in the Ravel. The saxophone was the most alluring soloist of all. Possibly the strumming of the strings lacked something in lucidity. At any rate, the crescendo was steady and the desired standing ovation was secured.

French and Russian works were pillars of the MSO repertoire in the 1980s and ’90s under Charles Dutoit. It is interesting that Nagano (now in his penultimate season as music director) and the orchestra will tour Europe in March with the Rite, Stravinsky’s Petrushka (1947), Debussy’s Jeux, and excerpts from Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust as the orchestral offerings. Of course the regular season reflects Nagano’s personal interests and proclivity for unusual mixes. There is a cycle of Brahms Symphonies in February tied to screenings of silent film with commissioned pieces as accompaniments. The rationale? Film technology, Nagano argues, was nascent at the time the symphonies were premiered.

Yet Nagano will end the season next year with a clearly MSO-ish coupling of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique with its less popular sequel, Lélio. Actor Lambert Wilson delivers with the French narration of the latter – as he did the last time this combo was heard, in 1996, under Dutoit. Whatever the international status of this conductor, his influence remains intact.

Arthur Kaptainis writes about music for the Montreal Gazette and Musical Toronto.