Opera

New twists on old songs

John Bemrose February 3 1997
Opera

New twists on old songs

John Bemrose February 3 1997

New twists on old songs

Opera

JOHN BEMROSE

The first act of the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict concludes with a scene that is sheer perfection. On the night before her wedding, Héro (soprano Nancy Allen Lundy) and her companion Ursule (mezzo-soprano Anita Krause) sing the opera’s famous nocturne, a sensuous, melancholy duet in which Héro bids adieu to her girlhood and confronts the uncertainty ahead. Not only is the singing superb—the young women’s voices harmonizing with all the fluid synchronization of two swallows in flight—but director Robin Phillips’s staging is so fine that the two appear, almost, to be dancing in slow motion.

Operatic acting is not usually this good. In North America at least, the whole visual aspect of opera often comes off a poor second to the music. Confronted with overweight, middle-aged Romeos, stilted direction, and sets and costumes that do not seem to have changed in a century, many opera lovers prefer to close their eyes, or listen at home to the stereo. But over the past few years, some North American companies have taken up an approach long established in Europe, where it is common to invite noted film and theatre directors (Luchino Visconti, Franco Zeffirelli) and artists (Marc Chagall, David Hockney) to lend a hand to the operatic enterprise. The Canadian Opera Company has sporadically taken the lead in this area: while some of its productions are hardly groundbreakers, it turned heads four years ago when it hired the country’s hottest

theatre director, Robert Lepage, to shape new productions of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Schoenberg’s Erwartung. Lepage’s startlingly original approach—at one point water flooding the floor of Bluebeard’s castle seemed to turn to blood—made for a huge popular and critical success.

This season, the COC’s artistic director, Richard Bradshaw, has continued the trend by signing noted film director Atom Egoyan, who in the fall mounted a daring version of Richard Strauss’s Salome. He has also enlisted veteran theatre director Diana Leblanc to present Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites Qan. 25-Feb. 7). Bradshaw has commissioned another innovative film-maker,

François Girard (Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould), to direct a double bill of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Oedipus Rex later this year. And in hiring Phillips, the former artistic director of the Stratford Festival and Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre, Bradshaw has enlisted a visionary talent with a reputation for eliciting detailed, nuanced performances from his actors.

For the bluff, English-born Bradshaw, updating opera is crucial to its survival. “We have a new generation of people who grew up on film and television, and whose visual acuity is quite different from previous generations,” he told Maclean’s. “It only seems natural that an audience of such people will be more excited by a director like Atom

Egoyan, who has a similar way of seeing things.” But getting such an audience to come can be difficult, Bradshaw adds. “I think I know what 15,000 people in Toronto have wanted for 25 years,” he says of his core audience of opera lovers. “But I’m principally concerned with why the other five million people in this area don’t come. I don’t think it’s because what we’re doing is uninteresting, or because they’re stupid, or because they’re £ not potentially interested. § I think they’re put off by an I image of what opera is.”

I Bradshaw believes that œ image—opera as an elitist I art form appealing mainly “■ to upper-income people over 55—is slowly strangling its future. That is why he is so scornful of organizations such as New York City’s Metropolitan Opera that steadfastly refuse to innovate: ‘They justify their lack of enterprise by saying they’re a museum, a repository for all that’s happened in the past. But to me that’s a recipe for death.”

There are hopeful signs that the COC’s attempts to update itself—it has also commissioned new works by Canadian composers, including 1995’s Red Emma by Gary Kulesha—are bearing fruit. ‘We’re certainly getting a younger audience,” Bradshaw says, citing market research conducted by the company. “A third of those who saw Salome were under 30, and that is exciting.” As for Béatrice et Bénédict, which opened on Jan. 21 and runs until Feb. 9, Bradshaw is betting that Phillips, whom he calls “one of the world’s great directors,” can repeat the success he wrought in directing the COC’s 1993 version of Mozart’s The Marriage oj Figaro. The Berlioz, Bradshaw admits, is a risk, because it has a weak narrative structure. “I’ve never seen Béatrice et Bénédict work dramatically,” he confesses. “Never.”

To make it work, Phillips has taken some bold steps. The opera is written in French, and is usually performed with English surtitles projected above the stage. But that re quires re-translating Berlioz’s crude version of the original Shakespeare—the opera is based on Much Ado About Nothing—back into serviceable English. That was more than Phillips could stand. “I thought, This is awful. It isn’t going to be Shakespeare up there in the surtitles.’ ” So, for the opera’s dia-

Film-makers and theatre directors give opera a facelift

logue, Phillips has reinstituted Shakespeare’s blank verse (the song lyrics are still in French, something he feels an officially bilingual country can tolerate). But that created a new problem: how were opera singers going to manage Shakespeare’s verse? Phillips himself was skeptical. He remembers going over a speech of Béatrice’s with lead singer Jane Gilbert and thinking, “She’ll never get it. But maybe in two weeks she’ll have a passable reading of the line.” But to his delight, Phillips recalls, “she went to it like a dart.”

Phillips is renowned for grounding actors solidly in their parts by creating a sense of context for them. In the past, he has brought relevant paintings or photos into rehearsals, or talked at length about the period a play or opera is set in. “He tells you stories during rehearsal,” says Gordon Gietz, the young Canadian tenor who plays Bénédict, Béatrice’s sparring lover, “and sometimes you wonder what they have to do with the opera. But they help you achieve a depth in your performance.” Gietz says he is astonished by the thoroughness of Phillips’s direction. “With Robin, it’s not simply enough to walk out on stage. You have to know where your character’s just been, and what he’s thinking about. He’ll make us go over an entry 15 times.” Adds Gietz: “I don’t think I’ll be content again to have something simply thrown on stage.” Phillips has also taken the unusual step of adding two characters to the opera: older versions of Béatrice and Bénédict (played by Fiona Reid and Barrie Ingham) who, from the perspective of 1918, watch and occasionally comment from the sidelines as their younger selves of 1869 bicker and fall in love. The device gives some badly needed structure to the opera, though not even Phillips’s masterly touch can entirely save Béatrice et Bénédict from its inherent disjointedness. But he has succeeded in coaxing some charming, if not exactly Stratford-quality, performances from his neophyte Shakespeareans. The singing, meanwhile, is solid enough, rising to brilliance in the haunting duet and a couple of other spots where Krause and mezzo-soprano Gilbert, as Béatrice, touch the deep melancholy in Berlioz’s subtext. Aided by Christina Poddubiuk’s costumes in rich earth tones (offset here and there by the scarlet tunics of the soldiers), Phillips has done as much, dramatically, for Béatrice et Bénédict as it is possible to do. The localized beauties of this production may not add up to a sweeping, overwhelming vision, but they add a valuable touch or two to opera’s ongoing facelift. JOHN BEMROSE