La Scena Musicale

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Luminato Opening Weekend: Dark Star Requiem

Image from Dark Star Requiem

REVIEW: Dark Star Requiem (Staniland & Battson)

by Joseph K. So

Dark Star Requiem (Staniland and Battson)
Presented by Tapestry New Opera Works and the Luminato Festival
Wayne Strongman, music director/conductor
Tom Diamond, director
Beth Kates, design and projections
Ben Chaisson, design and projections
Neema Bickersteth, soprano
Krisztina Szabo, mezzo
Peter McGillivray, baritone
Marcus Nance, bass-baritone
The Elmer Iseler Singers
Gryphon Trio

The Fourth Annual Luminato Festival of Arts and Creativity opened this weekend with a multitude of events in many venues across the city of Toronto. I attended the world premiere of Dark Star Requiem, staged by Tapestry New Opera Works in conjunction with the Festival. As Battson and Staniland explain in the program notes, the genesis of this piece began when they met at Tapestry's LibLab five years ago. Together they have created a chamber opera, two electro-acoustic sound projects, an art installation and an art song. Three years ago they decided to create this oratorio dealing with one of the most weighty subjects of contemporary society, that of AIDS tragedy. A sequence of 19 poems charting the history of the disease was incorporated into 14 movements. The musical movements are unified through a haunting melody and driving rhythms.

This is a most daunting subject on which to create a large-scale piece, that of a universal epidemic that resulted in immeasurable human suffering. Staniland and Battson are to be applauded for their efforts. It was obviously a labour of love for everyone involved, led by the four excellent soloists - soprano Neema Bickersteth, mezzo Krisztina Szabo, baritone Peter McGillivray and bass-baritone Marcus Nance. In the 70 minute piece - which went closer to 80 minutes last evening - they sang and acted multiple roles with passion and conviction. Contemporary vocal writing is sometimes not the most grateful for the voice, and on this occasion the singers were occasionally stretched by the demands of the music. But they unflinchingly tackled the difficulties head-on, and the result was impressive. Top vocal honours go to Szabo and McGillivray for having to deal so well with music of either extremely low tessitura or sustained passages at the top of the range. Neema Bickersteth's clear high soprano made a strong impact; and bass-baritone Marcus Nance's mellifluous voice lent the proper gravitas to anchor the quartet.

As mentioned earlier, the work is divided into fourteen "movements" roughly detailing the history of the disease from the very earliest days to present. The score is percussive, dissonant yet lyrical and evocative, greatly enhanced by some very well done lighting and projections. I also liked Tom Diamond's direction very much, using the available staging area with economy of means and uncommon fluidity. Cellist Roman Borys played magnificently and his work basically anchored the ensemble, supported by the rest of the trio and two percussionists. The singers, especially the lower voices, had excellent diction, but that said, the text would have benefited from surtitles. Occasionally, as in the "Black Lion" movement, the words were obscured by the very loud percussions. Conductor Wayne Strongman was most impressive, leading the ensemble with power and nuance. The Elmer Iseler Singers showed once again why it is one of the glories of the Canadian choral scene.

I find myself moved at the end of the evening, when the oratorio concluded with a very powerful and haunting Requiem. I have to say there were moments earlier in the work when it did not touch me as I had expected. Why? I find that often in the case of contemporary compositions of a weighty subject, sometimes the complicated intellectual discourse would take over, and the approach becomes rather didactic. There were moments, like in the "Theory" movement, that I felt I was in a history class. "Cuba Libre" with its rather forced humour revolving around the cocktail of medications didn't really work for me, although it did give an opportunity for Szabo and McGillivray to show off their comic flair. But the work has its greatest power and impact when the focus is on the personal, on their emotional response by the individual character to this tragedy. These quibbles aside, I am glad I saw it. CBC-2 taped the performance for broadcast on World AIDS Day on December 1, but I feel this work with its excellent production needs to be seen to be fully appreciated. There is a second performance this evening (Saturday June 12) at 8 pm in Koerner Hall, Royal Conservatory of Music. For anyone who cares about this 20th century tragedy, it should not be missed.

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