It might have taken 16 years, but the Canadian Opera Company has finally released a Canadian opera. This one comes courtesy of composer Barbara Monk Feldman, who first became inspired to write the opera when she came across Nicolas Poussin’s “Stormy Landscape with “Pyramus and Thisbe” in Germany in 1983. More than 30 years later, the Canadian Opera Company debuted it on October 20 — and, well, it didn’t exactly go over terribly well with the audience.
That’s not to say the opera was poorly performed or directed — far from it, actually — but that perhaps the audience at the COC is used to a particular type of opera and were a little confused as to what they saw that night. They started streaming out as soon as the stage was plunged into blackness, left in greater numbers when the performers took their bows, and clapped in such a way, “lukewarm” would be too strong a word to describe it.
Monk Feldman’s actual part of the opera, “Pyramus and Thisbe”, only runs 40 minutes so COC Artistic Director Alexander Neef paired it with two Monteverdi works, “Lamento d’Arianna” and “Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda”. The roles were performed by Krisztina Szabó (Thisbe/Arianna/Clorinda), Phillip Addis (Pyramus/Tancredi) and Owen McCausland (Testo), but it was Szabó who truly shone that night. She was able to pull together emotions from opposite ends of many spectrums and deliver it with singing that was sublime, eerie and filled the house, proving that she can perform equally well in a large venue as a smaller, more intimate one.
She and Addis were tasked with the difficulty of filling a vast and minimally-designed stage while captivating the audience’s attention. Paul Steinberg designed the set, which was made to look like a giant, come-to-life Mark Rothko canvas, slowly slid to the left throughout the performance. It contained three sides, which, when mixed with the lighting work of JAX Messenger, alternated between funereal and luminous, vaporous and transparent. Save for two chairs that Szaboó and Addis wrestled with — the scene in which he lowered her on the chair onto his chest was especially powerfully performed — the set was nothing more than a barely 3D representation of a painting, and yet the minimalism proved to be just enough for the rest of the opera to stand entirely on its own.
It can be argued that Peter Sellars’s opera from last season, “Hercules”, veered too wrongly in the direction of minimalism, but Monk Feldman, along with director Christopher Alden and house conductor Johannes Debus, hit all the right notes. This is an opera that really takes its time to unfold and yet never languishes, with both orchestra members and opera performers savouring each and every note and giving it the attention it deserves.
Szabó, in particular, performed splendidly. Her soprano was at times spiritual and at times the stuff of abject heartbreak, but there was never mistaking exactly which emotion she was trying to convey. Addis and McCausland were solid, but when paired next to Szabó, there was only ever one performer on stage.
“Pyramus and Thisbe” is far from your typically conventional opera, but the way Monk Feldman’s designed it, this is a very good thing. It’s a performance full of emotion that’s taut and tense without ever going off the rails, and with the gorgeously restrained set design, lighting and music, it just may be a sign of what the future of opera can hold.