La Scena Musicale

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Pyramus and Thisbe : A Preview

Pyramus and Thisbe: A Sneak Peek

Joseph So

It's that time of year again - cooling temperatures (though not so much  this year in Toronto), kids back to school, garden furniture, tank tops and shorts back into storage, and most of all, the heating up of the new musical season. Opera fans in TO can look forward to two productions at the Canadian Opera Company, a warhorse, La traviata, and a rarity, or should I say two rare fragments framing the centerpiece, a new opera, Pyramus and Thisbe, the first Canadian work on the mainstage at the COC since Randolph Peters' The Golden Ass in 1999.  This new work was composed by Canadian composer Barbara Monk Feldman in 2010. Monk Feldman hails from Quebec. She studied at the Hochschule fur Musik in Freiburg, followed by a doctorate in composition from the State University of New York at Buffalo, where she studied with the late American composer and professor Morton Feldman (1926-1987), to whom she was married.

Composer Barbara Monk Feldman (Photo: Jeff Higgins)

According to the composer's note on this work, Pyramus and Thisbe is based on the story from Ovid's Metamorphoses, about a boy and a girl who fall in love but are forbidden to marry by their parents. Sounds familiar?  Of course this archetypal story of the star-crossed lovers is also the basis for many literary and musical creations, from Shakespeare's and Gounod's Romeo et Juliette to Bernstein's West Side Story.  Monk Feldman, who was not present at the Media Preview yesterday, writes in the notes that the opera was inspired by a painting by Nicolas Poussin which she saw in Frankfurt in 1983. She had wanted to write a modern piece based on this story, which she eventually composed in 2008-2010. This is a short opera involving two soloists, in this case baritone Phillip Addis and mezzo Krisztina Szabo.

Baritone Phillip Addis and mezzo Krisztina Szabo at rehearsal (Photo: Chris Hutcheson)

Pyramus and Thisbe is presented together with two short Monteverdi fragments, Lamento d'Arianna, and Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. The whole evening is a short one, lasting an hour and ten minutes with no intermission.  But it's an intense 70 minutes, based on what I saw and heard at the rehearsal yesterday.  Due to its unfamiliarity, the COC invited members of the media to a sneak preview yesterday. Similar media previews took place with productions of Stravinsky's The Nightingale and Handel's Semele a few seasons ago. These previews are excellent opportunities for the press to learn about the unfamiliar works. It is still early in the rehearsal process, so things will continue to evolve and develop in the next three weeks, but what I saw and heard yesterday was illuminating. 

Conductor Johannes Debus speaking to the journalists at the press preview (Photo: Chris Hutcheson)

The creative team, conductor Johannes Debus and  stage director Christopher Alden, gave us their thoughts on what it's like to bring a new work to the stage. The two singers then rehearsed a passage from the Monk Feldman opera, in a sitzprobe without stage action, with piano accompaniment from Rachel Andrist.  Based on the music at the rehearsal, I find the work chamber-like, quite sparse (at least with piano accompaniment), a bit dissonant but tonal and accessible, with a soundscape that's ethereal and evocative, even hypnotic. One shouldn't come to the show expecting hummable tunes, but one can expect to be drawn into the work through Monk Feldman's singular musical and harmonic language.  This was my earliest impressions, but since we didn't have the benefit of an orchestra, chorus, or sets, it's impossible to gauge the impact of Pyramus and Thisbe in a larger space like the 2,100 seat Four Seasons Centre.  This question can only be answered after we've seen the finished product at the FSC.

(l. to r.) Krisztina Szabo, Christopher Alden, Phillip Addis, Owen McCausland (Photo: Chris Hutcheson)

After a short break, the rehearsal resumed with the beginning of Monteverdi's Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, a short piece for three voices that lasts under 20 minutes. The only voice heard was that of Testo, essentially the narrator and not involved in the action. Former Ensemble artist Owen McCausland takes on Testo, his robust and clarion tenor, complete with a nice trill, sounded great. The staging involved Szabo (Clorinda) and Addis (Tancredi), and it was fascinating to see Christopher Alden work with them on the movements, tapping into the emotional depth of the character and bringing it to the surface with just a few gestures. This nearly 500 year old work deals with issues of love and religious conflict, something that's as relevant today as it was then. There are several recordings of this piece, including a recent one with Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon under the baton of Emannuelle Haim. Here is another recording, led by Baroque specialist William Christie and his Les arts Florissants, available on Youtube.

The production runs for seven performances from October 20 to November 7 at the Four Seasons Centre.

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