How it Storms; music by Allen Cole, libretto by Maristella Roca, is a chamber opera for four soloists and gamelan ensemble. It was premiered last night at the Array Space and is co-production of Array Music and the Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan. It’s a really interesting piece. The libretto is allusive (at times even elusive) rather than being a straight forward linear narrative. There’s a soon to be wedded couple, her sister and a very strange beggar. There’s a hunting scene and a curse but what’s really going on is never entirely clear. The libretto is beautiful to listen to with repetitive elements and non-English elements. It’s clearly as much the work of a poet as a playwright(1). Using gamelan to accompany this makes so much sense. The instruments mirror, amplify and transcend the rhythmical, shimmering nature of the words. The solo vocal parts too give the singers an opportunity to sing beautifully as well as tell the story.
It was presented in a semi staged format in the tiny (and very hot!) Array Space. There were some vestigial props and costumes but the main visual interest came from video projections; mostly nature scenes matching the mood but segging, in the hunt scene, to something reminiscent of the rat videos in Neuenfels’ Lohengrin production. I’d like to see the thing fully staged. I think it would add a layer of depth, maybe even clarity. That said the semi staging is very effective and one of the better ones of its kind that I have scene.
Danielle MacMillan, making a welcome return to the Toronto music scene, sang Coco; the bride to be. She was wonderful. The voice has power enough and a really gorgeous colour palette which she used to convey the emotional turmoil of the conflicted bride to be. Her sister Molly, and the Doe in the hunting scene, were sung by Claire de Sévigné. Claire’s accurate, bright soprano and superb diction brought this character to life and contrasted beautifully with Danielle’s darker timbre. Christopher Mayell was the Beggar and the Stag. He has the capability of being really creepy and he was in the beggar role. Quite disturbing actually. Superb diction as always too. Keith O’Brien sang Pascal; Coco’s intended and the instigator of the events leading to the hunt and its aftermath. He’s accurate and musicianly but I did feel, even in the small space, that this role needed a little more power. There’s something a bit sinister about Pascal which O’Brien couldn’t quite bring off.
The ECCG is the first gamelan group in Canada. It’s clearly a serious band of great skill. Consisting of fewer instruments than a Central Javanese gamelan such as the one at Toronto’s Indonesian Consulate General, ECCG plays a “degung.” It’s a type of gamelan indigenous to the Sundanese culture of West Java. In addition to the bronze metallophones, hanging gongs, gong-chimes, drums and xylophone instruments typical of Central Javanese gamelans, the degung also features two kinds of suling (ring flutes) and a kacapi (20-string plucked zither). It produces an impressive and very atmospheric range of colours, amply exploited here by composer Allen Cole.
This is a really intriguing show and well worth seeing. There’s one more performance tonight at 8pm at the Array Space, 155 Walnut Avenue. Tickets are $15. I’d advise getting there early as they were packing the punters in like the Tokyo subway last night.
fn1: In this respect and its general non literalness this piece meets many/most of the criteria for operatic success that I played with in this piece.