Sacred Heart Oratory, Abbotsford Convent
Thursday January 31
(L to R) Piaera Lauritz, Ashley Dougan, Luke Fryer (Photo: Kate J. Baker)
This is the first time that the Midsumma Festival has offered me a review ticket in its 20 year history. Admittedly, previous programs have given little room to serious music, the organizers being usually content to present bands and solo artists of limited ability or musicianship. All the more remarkable, then, that this ambitious project got off the ground under the Festival’s umbrella, and that its character impressed both for its compressed clarity of content and for a happy avoidance of obtuseness.
Evan Lawson has composed a dance opera which pays an elliptically expressed duty to the myths surrounding Orpheus’ marriage to Eurydice and his relationship with fellow Argonaut, Calais who was one of the Boread twins. To supplement a libretto of gnomic brevity, the work involves three dancers to propose a potent extra dimension to the story-line as sung by Raymond Khong (Orpheus), Kate Bright (Eurydice) and Joseph Ewart (Calais). These roles’ respective dancers – Ashley Dougan, Piaera Lauritz, Luke Fryer – operated in a central area of the Oratory room, the audience positioned on three of its fringes while Lawson’s orchestral decet made a bulwark at the fourth.
The composer has found the constituents of his text in Calzabigi’s libretto for Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, Striggio’s verses used by Monteverdi in L’Orfeo, and, for a coda, the second sestet from Shakespeare’s song Orpheus with his lute made trees from that furiously neglected drama, Henry VIII. Lawson also claims that as a prologue, he made use of a Greek sea hymn by Phemocles, about whom I know nothing and could find out even less. At an informational impasse, I thought that there might have been a confusion with Phanocles, who wrote about Orpheus’ paederastic relationship with Calais; or, more improbably, the playwright Philocles might have been involved. Was it possible that Phemocles had some relation to the Orphic or Homeric Hymns? We are left gasping for direction right from the start where the marine salutation is meant to occur but nothing rang any bells, even in the printed libretto.
Lawson’s singers seemed to be static but in fact moved around, singing in oratorio style from the front of the instrumental ensemble, or behind the band, eventually in the central arena. His dancers made exits and entrances with similar flexibility. As with so many of these multi-platform operations, I found it hard to focus, especially at the work’s opening where the sound-world proved attractive, even if it consisted in the main of sustained notes and chords, both teetering between post-Monteverdian chord progressions and not-too-astringent dissonance. To be honest, the sounds won out over the dance action much of the time because the abstract nature of Dougan’s choreography seemed to move simply from attitude to attitude. But then, I don’t know much that would weather informed scrutiny about the language of contemporary dance.
Still, the sonorities that emerged often proved extraordinary, in particular a passage highlighting Erica Tucceri’s bass flute later in the drama which impressed for its full-bodied power in this hall’s resonant acoustic. Harpist Samantha Ramirez spent a fair amount of time bowing her strings, which is a device that didn’t seem that different in its results from the product of an orthodoxly addressed cello. More successful were the various briefs allocated to Alexander Clayton’s percussion, his battery employed with determination and sometimes exemplary drama.
Of the singers, Kate Bright gave a splendid reading of the hero’s unfortunate wife, vitally powerful in the Part II duet and then mounting a bravura performance at Eurydice’s death which focused for a remarkably long period on the interval of a 2nd before the character was allowed to enter a more wide-ranging arioso, much of the scene unaccompanied. Lawson set his bare-bones text with a wide-ranging compass for all three singers, but Bright alone managed her line’s top and bottom reaches with precision and thrilling vigour.
Khong’s tenor came across with similar force and a security that was questionable only at a few points where Lawson had used a note above the artist’s comfort zone, possibly negotiable with a switch to falsetto although that’s a dangerous ask in a vocal part that comes over as otherwise well-crafted and centrally positioned for the interpreter. A similar moment hit for baritone Ewart, who enjoyed more courteous treatment and who produced a firm level of enunciation and clarity: a promising exhibition from the youngest member of this trio.
While the instrumental component of Orpheus tends to an alternation between portentous and sibilant, the vocal work is quite unpredictable: for whole stretches, as static as Glass; then suggestive of the placid leaps of Berio. While you wouldn’t find it difficult to follow the emotional decline in Eurydice’s gasping, brittle death shudders or trace the fearful regret of Orpheus in Hell, it seemed to me that the score came into full flowering at ensemble moments, most obviously in the Shakespeare-utilizing epilogue where Lawson found a striking compositional vein that promised a sort of catharsis; in this tragedy, you find a consolation that broadens out into a generous efflorescence before the inevitable descent to darkness.
As I say, the dance impressed me most for its physicality more than for its expressive power. Dougan was gifted with a remarkable solo at the work’s centre which I assume was intended to underline the struggles of Orpheus with his life after the final loss of his wife and his rejection of all women, climaxing in his confrontation with the Bacchae and their destruction of his body in a Maenad frenzy. Lauritz’s pre-death solo gave the dancer a fine opportunity to demonstrate her unflappable solidity of gesture and positioning, and I found plenty to admire in the opening terzett where all three dancers interwove with considerable athleticism and not a trace of overt sexuality, a restraint also found in the final appearance where the dancers worked in unison as three discrete entities, all passion spent.
Orpheus is to be welcomed on several fronts. Yes, it’s a new opera – and welcome for that – with a solid musicality behind it. The production uses the talents of a fine group of professionals from within the Forest Collective organization and outside it; pretty much half and half in the instrumental desks. It has a relevance to Midsumma through its re-examination of the Orpheus-Calais connection, taking matters some steps further by juxtaposing and interweaving it with the poet’s tragic marriage. As well, Lawson and his forces handle the twin myths with dignity, taking key points and working with them rather than hammering the relationship triangle into flattened obviousness. Best of all, the enterprise gives you a freshness of vision, even new insights into an old tale which both Monteverdi and Gluck felt obliged to end with a deus ex machina plot manipulation. In this new telling, the central tragedie a trois remains intact. You leave feeling that you have been involved in a ritual, human in its essence and recounted with a scouring freshness.