Breathe: the latest recordings from James Rolfe

Breathe: the latest recordings from James Rolfe

Jenna Simeonov

October 20 and 21, Toronto Masque Theatre presents an intriguing double-bill of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, and the 2007 masque by James Rolfe and André Alexis, Aeneas and Dido.

Following the October 21st performance at Trinity-St. Paul’s is also the release of Breathe, Rolfe’s latest CD (Centrediscs) which features three works for voices an early instruments: Aeneas and Dido, Breathe (2011) with texts by Anna Chatterton and Hildegard von Bingen, and Europa (2013) with libretto by Steven Heighton).

Rolfe spoke with us about writing new music for “old” instruments, and his long-standing relationship with Toronto Masque Theatre.

What can people expect from this collection of new music written with old instruments in mind?

While the instruments are old, and the music makes some reference to the baroque and mediaeval sound worlds, these pieces are very much of our time and place, looking at stories deeply embedded in our ancestral past through a 21st-century lens. The musical language is very lyrical and often tonal, so expect some lovely melodies and harmonies. And the performances are top-notch, with some of Canada’s finest singers and players, including Suzie LeBlanc, Alex Dobson, Monica Whicher, David Fallis with the Toronto Consort, and Larry Beckwith with the Toronto Masque Theatre.

I’m proud to say that the librettists for all three pieces have recently been recognized with major awards (André Alexis with The Giller Prize; Steven Heighton with The Governor General’s Award for Poetry, and Anna Chatterton with a Governor General’s Award nomination for Drama). Their excellent writing made for excellent collaborations, and for pieces which tell memorable stories, ones which resonate with us, connecting us with what it means to live here now.

How do you approach familiar and “traditional” material like Purcell/Virgil’s Dido and Aeneas, or the Greek myths that make up your Europa?

We always try to make the characters come alive, to give them reasons to sing! They plead, they love and they fight, they mourn and regret, just as we do in our own lives. In Aeneas and Dido, André Alexis decided to focus on Aeneas’s emotional journey, rather than the focus on Dido in the Purcell version. In Europa, Steven Heighton explores the human pain (and its transcendence) which ensues from the immortal Zeus’s rape of Europa. And in Breathe, the verse of Anna Chatterton is joined to that of Hildegard von Bingen in a lyrical exploration of heavenly and earthly love.

Can you tell us about your professional history with Toronto Masque Theatre, and how you feel about your music’s being a part of their final season?

I was part of TMT’s inaugural season in 2004 with my masque Orpheus and Eurydice (also written with André Alexis; an excerpt will be performed on May 12, 2018, the final TMT concert). They went on to commission two of the works on the CD, Aeneas and Dido (2007) and Europa (2013). So I’m both flattered and sad that I’ll be part of their final season. I will miss TMT greatly, as these pieces have marked some of my most artistically satisfying experiences. But I’ll also miss the wonderful people who made these collaborations so enjoyable—starting at the top, with Larry Beckwith, always so sunny and generous, and Vivian Moens, their wonderful manager, and through to the many excellent singers and players, and a very dedicated and loyal audience.

Breathe is released on Centrediscs, and is available via the Canadian Music Centre.

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