The new COC creation Pyramus and Thisbe with music by Monteverdi and Barbara Monk Feldman opened last night at the Four Seasons Centre. I was expecting abstract and cerebral, which it is, but I was rather expecting that I might admire it more than enjoy it. As it turned out it was a remarkably satisfying show on many levels.
We open with a set with three abstract colour panels and the three soloists distributed in chairs in the middle and at the extreme edges of the stage. Krisztina Szabó, at extreme stage right, sings Lamento d’Arianna from Monteverdi’s lost opera L’Arianna. It’s a dramatic story of love, loss and betrayal and the drama is all in the voice accompanied only by harpsichord, cello, bass and theorbo. Phillip Addis, presumably Theseus, comes in and out of frame. The frame here being the rather sickly yellow and green panel of the set.
We move straight through into the very dramatic Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. The same small continuo band accompanies the narrator, Owen McCausland, in macintosh and spectacles at extreme stage left. There are occasional vocal interjections from the other two soloists but mostly they play out the deadly combat of the Christian knight and his, unrecognized, Muslim lover in mime at centre stage in front of the red panel. It’s very well choreographed with use of a veil in various guises; veil obviously, tug o’ war object, weapon, screen etc. It’s a motif that will recur later and has a certain obvious topical relevance as well as conveying many senses of concealment and confused identity. All three soloists show themselves at home in the Monteverdi style compensating for the sparseness of the accompaniment with extremely dramatic vocalisation; from very beautiful to snarling.
The Monk Feldman piece takes us to a very different place. There’s no linear narrative here. Text fragments suggest metaphors for stages of a relationship but no more. The chorus, sixteen strong, appears. Owen is still on stage but it’s not clear why until he produces a curiously realistic and friendly looking picture of a lion and pins it up stage left. From then on he’s prowling in the background. I was definitely missing something here. The first half of the piece is chorus heavy and the green/grey clad chorus operates in front of the green grey panel which by now has slowly been translated to centre stage. The music too is green/grey or so it seems. It’s a big orchestra but it’s used with extreme constraint. Notions of tempo and rhythm don”t help explain what’s happening. We get notes, sometimes cluster of notes, at regular intervals with much of the interest being in the way the sounds of different instruments decay between notes. It’s all about colour. It’s also quite beautiful and meditative and, frankly, very accessible. The vocal “lines” are equally abstract and ethereal.
Eventually the set migrates further stage right taking the chorus, by now largely spectators, with it leaving more than half the width of the stage completely empty right to the back of the cavernous Four Seasons stage area. Pyramus and Thisbe, in white, occupy small brightly lit areas in a sea of nothingness. Now, in terms of text, we are in winter, in death and in transfiguration. The vocal burden is back on the two soloists and the effect is quite mesmerizing and so we slowly transform to and cut!
The successful stringing together of the three pieces by director Christopher Alden is masterly. The visual unity of Paul Steinberg and Terese Wadden’s sets and costumes helps a lot and JAX Messenger’s lighting plot is really brilliant. The Chorus and orchestra manage the very unusual musical language very effectively and Johannes Debus transitions from harpsichord continuist to conductor of the full orchestra with aplomb.
Phillip Addis and Krisztina Szabó have a lot to do here too. The music is unusual and challenging to sing and they have to do it while moving in a highly choreographed way. It’s in no way conventional acting but the demands are considerable and they look and sound terrific.
This is a show like nothing I’ve ever seen before and I really enjoyed the experience. It’s the nature of the thing that at times one sort of zones out and lets music and visuals wash over one. I think that’s fine but it means I probably missed a few things. I wasn’t sure 24 hours ago that I would want to see this twice in a week but, after last night, I’m really looking forward to seeing it again on Friday.
Pyramus and Thisbe is playing at the Four Seasons Centre. There are six more performances between now and November 7th. Tickets from the COC box office and coc.ca.
Photo credits: Chris Hutcheson (2,7); Michael Cooper (3,4,5); Gary Beechey (1,6)