By Nikita Gourski, Development Communications Officer
In 1994, Canadian film director Atom Egoyan won international recognition for his film Exotica, a provocative meditation on erotic obsession and psychological trauma explored through the relationship of a nightclub dancer and her male client.
Shortly after Exotica’s release, the Canadian Opera Company approached Egoyan with an offer to direct an opera, a story so thematically saturated with voyeurism it seemed ideal for the young filmmaker’s sensibility: Richard Strauss’s Salome.
Unveiled in 1996, Egoyan’s production simultaneously recognized the deeply disturbing matter of the opera – a work that has inflamed scandal since its 1905 world premiere – while offering a fresh reading responsive to our contemporary culture. Rather than a first-century palace in Judea, Egoyan set the action in an abstract and foreboding environment, something between a spa and a sanatorium. Derek McLane’s set design is built around a diagonal plane tilted at a dangerously steep angle, with Jochanaan (John the Baptist) imprisoned underneath the floorboards instead of the subterranean cistern in which he’s traditionally kept.
Egoyan’s approach focused on the complex circuitry of voyeurism, made explicit in the libretto, and followed it to its disconcerting psychological depths. From the first lines of the opera – “How beautiful the Princess Salome is tonight,” repeated obsessively by the young Syrian Narraboth – the process of looking is established as a dominant psychological theme in Salome. Characters are compulsively observing others, or else being looked at themselves, held visually as objects within a matrix of frustrated desire. “The Page is obsessed with Narraboth, who doesn’t return her gaze; Narraboth is obsessed with Salome, who doesn’t return his gaze; and Salome is obsessed with Jochanaan, who doesn’t return her gaze,” Egoyan says, describing the opera’s gridiron pattern of erotic fixation.
To get at the heart of all this looking, Egoyan’s production makes use of surveillance equipment, as well as projected film and video images. The guards, for example, become camera-wielding soldiers, whose official “watching” is less about patrolling the perimeter and more about deploying modern technology to direct a collective gaze onto objects of sensual interest: usually Salome. In fact, before we ever see the teenaged princess onstage in the flesh, we encounter a filmed image of her in a series of unsettling shots set in a spa’s mud baths.
Similarly, when Jochanaan berates members of Salome’s family from offstage, a large video screen positioned behind the singers shows a live feed of his mouth in close-up. The disembodied projection anticipates Salome’s fetishistic dissecting of Jochanaan’s body parts – skin, hair, mouth – into isolated objects of lust, but it also prefigures the actual, physical decapitation of the prophet. Incorporating film projection in this context elaborates the thread of continuity that runs between the predatory look and the act of unimaginable violence.
In this opera, looking is never benevolent. From Salome’s opening remarks about the lascivious gaze of her stepfather Herod – “those mole’s eyes… under his quivering eyelids” that look at her “like that” – to the Page warning Narraboth that it’s “very dangerous to look at a human face in such a way,” the desiring gaze has a throbbing underside that threatens to devour and consume.
Nowhere is this truer than the opera’s narrative pivot: the Dance of the Seven Veils. Egoyan’s innovative account gives a dramatic weight and clarity to Salome’s psychology that few interpretations could rival. On a screen created by the billowing skirts of the princess, who is lifted on a swing high up into the rafters, we see “home movies” of the young Salome. In these moments, she is a girl in a world of paper dolls, living through childhood. But we also catch silhouetted glimpses of a disturbing act committed in the shadows, possibly in the near past, but maybe right now: she is being raped by a gang of men. We realize that Salome’s stepfather Herod oversees the entire sexual atrocity, watching it and thereby giving it licence.
“[Violence] doesn’t come out of nowhere,” Egoyan observes, “and we’ve seen that with abused victims: there is a repetition of the way that they have been treated.” Using the dance to chronicle a history of terrifying acts makes Salome’s subsequent demand for Jochanaan’s head psychologically credible and dramatically focused. Instead of showing the prototypical femme fatale – “an unbridled sexuality that leads to ruin,” as Egoyan says – the production depicts an “abused, traumatized character."
The results carry a sobering impact. Egoyan’s production issues a challenge: it asks us to treat seriously – and understand – how anyone, including a young girl, could instigate such horrific violence.
This article is published in our spring house program. Click here to read the issue online.
Photos: (top) (l – r) Hanna Schwarz as Herodias and Erika Sunnegårdh as Salome; (middle) (l – r) Nathaniel Peake as Narraboth, Maya Lahyani as the Page of Herodias, Evan Boyer as First Soldier and Sam Handley as Second Soldier; (bottom) Dance of the Seven Veils scene. Photos from the Canadian Opera Company's 2013 production of Salome. Photos by Michael Cooper.
Posted by Danielle D'Ornellas / in 2012/2013 / comments (0) / permalink
By Suzanne Vanstone, Senior Communications Manager, Editorial
Gothic romance. Scottish wildness. Early-Victorian repression. Director David Alden showcases his riveting production of Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor at the COC this spring. Based on Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor, the opera follows a young girl’s descent into madness. Lucia is embroiled in a conflict between her brother, Enrico, and her lover, Edgardo. Barely a woman, she is treated as a mere possession, and those who should have her best interests at heart are the same culprits who gradually chip away at her fragility.
Internationally renowned director David Alden is excited about mounting this production in Toronto and directing in our opera house for the first time. “Lucia is amazing – it’s one of the very strongest pieces in the bel canto repertoire. This production is set in the early-Victorian period, where society was very strong, rigid, hierarchical and patriarchal. Obviously underneath those rigid codes and societal structures there was passion and love and madness which burst through these very strong repressions. That’s what this opera is all about.
“Implicit in this work is the terrible buildup of tension on Lucia – the slow hammering away of a girl who is really just a child. She is totally isolated with her brother, and there is almost an Edgar Allan Poe sense of an incestuous brother-sister relationship which is close and passionate, but turns violent and explodes into madness.”
Alden says that madness was often the climax of operas from that period, but to not mistake madness and florid cadenzas as superficial. He says that the stereotypical view of Donizetti operas, especially Lucia, as purely bel canto vehicles for the “canary” of the day is somewhat outdated. Certainly the music exploits the beauty and flexibility of what the human voice can accomplish, but he maintains that Lucia is a very well written piece of drama and there is nothing frivolous or amusing about the madness. “Donizetti was a storyteller and Donizetti was a theatre person – the dramaturgy is very tight.
“I have always taken the musical aspect of this opera very seriously. There are no cuts in the production. Lucia has been abused over the decades, the structure of it not taken seriously. Obviously there is a certain freedom in the bel canto music which is part of the tradition, but we are getting back to the basics.” He says the overall structure of this piece is brilliant. The tension keeps mounting, first with Enrico, who then turns it upon his sister and the manipulation becomes more desperate and extreme. Alden says, “The final eruption into the mad scene is justly famous because it’s incredibly well timed. It’s very shocking but it’s also deeply satisfying. The audience is released into this other dimension, the way Lucia is released into another corner of her mind.”
Photos: (top) A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor, 2013. Photo by Chris Hutcheson; (middle)
Brian Mulligan as Enrico and Anna Christy as Lucia in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor, 2013. Photo by Michael Cooper.
Posted by Danielle D'Ornellas / in 2012/2013 / comments (1) / permalink
By Claire Morley, Communications Assistant
Director Robert Carsen and set designer Michael Levine created their production of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites for the Netherlands Opera in 1997. Since then, it has been performed in numerous cities
across the world. Carrying “overwhelming emotional force” (Chicago Tribune), this is the first time their production of Carmélites will be seen in Toronto, an exciting venture for Carsen and Levine, both Toronto-born.
According to Carsen, the unique power of Dialogues des Carmélites lies in its ability to “speak to humanity in a very particular way. You don’t have to be Catholic to be moved by the sacrifice that these 16 Carmelite nuns made. It’s very powerful because of both the spiritual and intellectual quality of the work; these are people who have dedicated their whole lives to their beliefs, and achieve some kind of good through them.”
Carsen and Levine, who have worked together for over 25 years on 26 productions, began their creative process by going directly to the score, paying careful attention to both Georges Bernanos’ libretto and Poulenc’s masterful setting, which Carsen argues is in a class of its own. “The quality of Poulenc’s writing is so beautiful and very seductive. The orchestration is brilliant, consisting of strange, electrifying moments, yet the whole work has a genuine and honest sincerity to it. It’s a very unusual piece of writing.”
The musical climax of the piece is saved for the final scene, in which the nuns sing the famous “Salve Regina” and, one by one,
are executed by guillotine until only Blanche is left singing, having finally accepted her faith. Intensely tragic though this ending
may be, Carsen felt strongly that Poulenc’s score also evoked a sense of something more profound taking place. “The music is remarkable for this ending, and we wanted to try to find a way to deal with what we
heard in it, which is both very powerful yet has a sense of something positive happening. You hear this in the music, which is so ravishingly beautiful. So we have treated this not just as a horror story with the guillotine, but in a more stylized way which I call a ‘dance towards the light."
Levine adds, “When Robert and I work, we always begin with the music and the story, and we try to find a way that will make it come alive for the audience. We take these pieces that were written anywhere from the 17th through to the 20th century and try to present them to an audience today in a way that is both accessible and exciting. That doesn’t necessarily mean turning it on its head and setting it in a Laundromat in Chinatown – it doesn’t have to be that. For us, it’s more about discovering the intention behind the piece.”
So much of this intention, Levine argues, is informed by the French Revolution. “We wanted to give the sense and feeling of what it would be like to be an aristocrat with revolution on the doorstep. That is a difficult story to tell and get across to an audience. Quite early, we decided the best way to illustrate that was to have a large group of revolutionaries on stage slowly close in. In order to give some sense of the anxiety within the piece, which is very apparent in the score, the revolutionaries slowly encroach on the aristocrats and
nuns. We realized that the way to define these spaces was by using people.”
These various senses of space are some of the most powerful aspects of the production. Carsen says, “It’s really a space in which the audience has to believe. We use people, not objects, to delineate it,
and I decided not to use any scenic elements that would describe where you are. I felt very strongly that it was wrong to have any theatricalized religious elements, so there are no crucifixes apart from on the rosary, and no religious scenery – it is all done in a much more abstract way. Religious scenic elements on the stage can very easily go kitsch on you, and I wanted to avoid that.
“I don’t think it’s possible to do it in a more minimalistic way, and I couldn’t think of the work as being anything other than an empty space – like the emptiness of a cell. If you think of a monk or a nun praying in a completely undecorated space, you can imagine this ‘faith space.’” Levine adds, “As soon as you bring an object into that space, it places great importance on that object. You can define it in other ways – we try to define the emotion of the scene in an empty space defined by the people on stage and the lighting.”
Carsen believes that these spaces will be complemented by the aesthetic of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (FSC). “Apart from Amsterdam, we have never done this production in a really
modern opera house,” he says, “and the FSC will be an incredible support to this production. Even the production’s colour tones are very much in harmony with the hall. And with one of the best casts we’ve ever had, I think it’s going to be very powerful to hear this in that theatre.”
Levine adds that he is particularly excited to bring it to Toronto because of his pride in the production. “It feels good to do something that, after 16 years, is still a very strong piece of work. That is very rare and I’m thrilled to see it finally make its way to
Toronto, to one of the best newly designed opera houses in the world, and one that I really love.”
Carsen is similarly enthusiastic about bringing it to Toronto audiences. “I think wherever one performs it, it inevitably has an extraordinary impact; Poulenc’s personal circumstances while he was writing the work are very much in the DNA of this piece. You feel his personal suffering very poignantly in the opera. I really believe this is Poulenc’s masterpiece, and I can’t wait for everyone to rediscover it.”
Photos: (top) Isabel Bayrakdarian as Blanche de la Force in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Dialogues des Carmélites, 2013.; (middle) Robert Carsen; (middle) Michael Levine; (bottom) A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Dialogues des Carmélites, 2013.. Photos by (top) Chris Hutcheson; (middle) Filip Sanguinetti; (middle) Michael Cooper; (bottom) Michael Cooper.
Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001