Carl Heinrich Graun isn’t exactly a household name today but he was court composer to the extremely musical Frederick the Great who was fond of both his flute and the opera when he wasn’t too busy being beastly to the Austrians. Anyway, Graun composed a ton of opera and based on the arias on this disk it’s surprising that they are almost completely neglected. The only Graun opera I have seen is Montezuma which got a video recording in Bayreuth about thirty five years ago so I was quite keen to see what else he had done.
Century Song is a 50 minute show combining music, movement and video projections as it takes us on an aesthetic journey through the last hundred years. At the heart of the show is soprano Neema Bickersteth who does the singing and dancing. The singing consists of vocalises by Rachmaninoff, Messiaen, Cage, Aperghis and finally, a piece composed for the show by Reza Jacobs. The songs are accompanied Gregory Oh on piano and Ben Grossman on percussion and computer. The musical interludes are structured improvisations originally devised by Reza Jacobs, Gregory Oh and Debashis Sinha. The dance elements are choreographed by Kate Alton and use a very wide kinetic vocabulary. Bickersteth’s constantly changing costumes further illustrate the time travel element of the narrative.
There are umpteen operas based more or less closely on the legends surrounding Medea, Jason, the Golden Fleece and the events afterwards in Corinth. Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s 1693 version to a libretto by Corneille deals with the events in Corinth subsequent to Jason and Medea’s return with the fleece. The plot, in essentials, is simplicity itself. Jason is scheming to secure his future, and that of his children, by ditching Médée and marrying the king’s daughter Créuse. Médée is not having this and wreaks revenge on just about everybody else in the piece. Somehow Charpentier and Corneille string this out over five acts and the obligatory prologue glorifying Louis XIV, wisely omitted by director Marshall Pynkowski.
There are a few things I didn’t mention in my back half of April post. Century Song opened a couple of nights ago at Crow’s Theatre. It’s a live performance hybrid, inspired in part by Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, Soprano Neema Bickersteth melds classical song (music by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Oliver Messiaen, John Cage, Georges Aperghis and Reza Jacobs) and movement to inhabit a century of women whose identities are contained within a single performer. Details here.
So here is the promised review of last night at the Four Seasons Centre. I have to phrase it that way because it was more than Somers’ opera Louis Riel though that of course was the major event. The evening kicked off with a performance in the RBA by the Git Hayetsk Dance Group. This is a west coast group and I’m not going to try and get into the complexities of nation, lineage and clan involved but it was a moving performance of traditional songs and dance with a brilliantly witty piece involving the trickster raven and a lot of stolen handbags. This was also the beginning of the public conversation about the use of the Nsga’a mourning song in Louis Riel. That conversation continued when the same group made a brief appearance on the main stage immediately before the opera performance. I understand that the intent is for the leader of the dancers to report back to the matriarch of the clan that owns the song on what happened and for the conversation to continue from there.
Harry Somers’ Louis Riel is iconic. It was the first Canadian opera to be performed by the COC (in 1967) and with its uncompromising musical modernism it stands out quite distinctly from the general corpus of Canadian operas. Even after 50 years it retains an “edgy” quality musically. It’s also iconic in that it uses the story of the Métis rebellions of 1870 and 1885 to explore the nature of Canadian identity. It’s also hugely problematic in that the libretto, quite naturally, sees that issue in 1960s terms; i.e French vs English with a side of Ottawa versus the West. There’s little room for Métis or First Nations sensibilities and the original production, recorded by the CBC in 1969, exacerbated that with a hyper-realistic treatment that made unfortunate use of a number of derogatory stereotypes of Aboriginal people. This was compounded by the use of a sacred Nisga’a mourning song with new words as a lullabye; the most famous part of the opera – the Kuyas – without acknowledgement or permission.
Bicycle Opera Project and Toronto Masque Theatre have announced plans for their upcoming seasons. BOP will be touring Juliet Palmer and Anna Chatterton’s Sweat across Ontario in July and August (details in May). It’s a work about sweatshop labour in the garment industry and is scored for nine voices and no instruments. Sweat will be directed by Banuta Rubess, conducted by Geoffrey Sirett and designed by Sonja Rainey. The cast includes: Catherine Daniel, Caitlin Wood, Stephanie Tritchew, Christopher Enns, Larissa Koniuk, Justine Owens, Emma Char, Alexandra Beley and Cindy Won. For more information, visit bicycleopera.com