Pyramus and Thisbe
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In Review > North America

Pyramus and Thisbe

Canadian Opera Company

IN REVIEW Pyramus lg 116
Szábo and Addis, stars of a world premiere at COC
© Chris Hutcheson

ON OCTOBER 20, Canadian Opera Company presented the world premiere of Barbara Monk Feldman’s Pyramus and Thisbe, the first Canadian opera the company had mounted on its main stage since The Golden Ass, by Randolph Peters, in 1999. Pyramus and Thisbe also marked the first time COC has staged an opera by a female Canadian composer. Monk Feldman’s opera was preceded by two pieces by Claudio Monteverdi—the “Lamento d’Arianna,” the sole remaining music from the composer’s lost 1608 opera Arianna, and Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, a narrative scena from 1624. The evening included extraordinarily beautiful music and uneven drama: Monk Feldman’s new opera was near static and confusingly directed by Christopher Alden.

Paul Steinberg’s set provided a unified design for the three works. It consisted of a long, shallow platform and back wall placed off-center on an otherwise empty stage. The back wall was painted in large blocks of color, reminiscent of paintings by Mark Rothko. Most notably, two squares of color—one square yellow and light green and one dark blue-green—were separated by a rectangle of blood red; the painting expressed abstractly the separation of Pyramus and Thisbe by a wall, as well as their eventual union in death. 

For director Alden, the set seemed to symbolize the world, and the area in front and around it indicated the void. During the “Lamento,” Krisztina Szabó’s Arianna was exiled to a place near the set but not on it, as was Owen McCausland, who would take on the role of the narrator Testo in Combattimento. Only Phillip Addis, as the silent Theseus, was seated on the set. When Addis and Szabó became Tancredi and Clorinda, both interacted on the set, and when, as Pyramus and Thisbe, they committed suicide, they both jumped off the set onto the stage, where they lay until they rose again as spirits just before the piece ended. 

Barbara Monk Feldman was once the student of famed American composer Morton Feldman (1926–87) and married him shortly before he died. She published Pyramus and Thisbe, her only opera to date, in 2010. Her note in the score states, “This opera is about the subtlety of the unconscious which substitutes for the wall in Ovid’s original, uniting as it separates the two lovers.” Not only is there a deliberate lack of drama, but Monk Feldman has constructed her libretto from works that relate only in the most attenuated manner to the story. The first part uses a portion of William Faulkner’s story “The Long Summer”; the second part a portion of The Dark Night of the Soul, a poem by the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross; and the third, in German, one of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonette an Orpheus.

The action of Pyramus and Thisbe begins when Pyramus already believes that Thisbe is dead and moves backward in time to Thisbe’s confrontation with the lion. In Monk Feldman’s reimagining of Ovid, both lovers confront death and then move on to live and love. Alden’s approach was to present the action as a type of ritual, but with no text—as in Combattimento—to guide us as to what was occurring, it was unclear throughout the forty minutes of Pyramus what was happening, or why. Even if one knew the story from Ovid or from the comic play-within-the-play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there was no way to interpret the onstage action until the lovers’ double suicide at the very end—an action that contradicted Monk Feldman’s notion that they continue to live.

Monk Feldman’s musical idiom resembles that of Arvo Pärt. Throughout Pyramus and Thisbe, various instruments sounded the notes of a chord in sequence. Those notes were then passed on to other instruments sustaining the same chord until the chord died out and another one began. The interest lay in the forming and reforming of the chords and their gradual changing of timbres. The tempo remained slow and unchanging. In reality, the opera was primarily a choral work, with the soloists’ lines often blending into one of the notes of the chords forming in the orchestra. This made the music for the soloists similar to liturgical chant, with most words sung over a range of only one or two notes, with little variation in volume. It was a pity that Addis, unlike Szabó as Arianna or McCausland as Testo, did not have a solo piece as Pyramus. Then he could have shown off his powerful, dark baritone to greater effect.

Monk Feldman’s music for Pyramus is imbued with an ethereal beauty and calmness, but it has, as she wrote in her note to the published score, “little or no drama.” Torn between telling the Pyramus and Thisbe story clearly and presenting Monk Feldman’s abstract interpretation of it clearly, Alden succeeded in doing neither. In the end, the narrative of Combattimento turned out to be the most emotionally and intellectually involving of the three works, since there was some relation of the words and music to the onstage action.

Szabó’s performance of the “Lamento” was exquisite. Her voice had even more luster and richness than usual, and her word-pointing was impeccable. In the context of the other works, Arianna’s fear of being eaten by savage beasts linked her to Thisbe. McCausland was an admirable Testo in Combattimento. Alden may have encouraged McCausland to become too emotionally involved in Testo’s own narrative, but McCausland’s clear, unwavering tenor was ideal for Monteverdi’s taut sound world. Addis and Szabó have very little to sing as Tancredi and Clorinda, but they displayed their dramatic skill in miming a tightly choreographed modern-dress battle of the sexes that vaguely followed the outlines of Testo’s narrative. For both Monteverdi pieces, Johannes Debus conducted a small section of the orchestra from the harpsichord.  —Christopher Hoile 

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