Pyramus, Thisbe, and Canadian opera history

Pyramus, Thisbe, and Canadian opera history

Greg Finney
Photo: Owen McCausland as Testo in Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda from the Canadian Opera Company’s world premiere production of Pyramus and Thisbe (with Lamento d’Arianna and Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda), 2015. Photo by Chris Hutcheson

Sunday night I got to witness a dress rehearsal for an amazing thing happening here in Toronto. For the first time I saw a Canadian composer take a curtain call on the Canadian Opera Company stage after the performance of what will be a world premiere Canadian work.

Pyramus and Thisbe is a deftly compiled triple-bill that tells the story of three pairs of “star-cross’d” lovers (10 points to anyone who gets why I SPECIFICALLY chose that quote #rosaline), we are shown a juxtaposition of styles and pieces that we all knew went hand in hand sonically, and now we have a very tangible experience.

All under 90 minutes…

The first two pieces by the grandfather of opera Claudio Monteverdi told the story of Arianna (not that one, but Ariadne - which we probably remember better from Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos). The piece is an excerpt from Monteverdi’s second operatic composition, and also the only part of it that remains to this day. It’s a monologue for Arianna where she exclaims “Let me die,” as she’s just been abandoned on Naxos by Theseus who claimed to love her, and used her help to defeat the minotaur in her father’s labyrinth.

The second scene tells the story of Tancredi and Clorinda. Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda tells the story of the Christian Crusader encountering his love, Clorinda, who is disguised as a Saracen warrior. He challenges her to a duel, not knowing her true identity, and is victorious, only to turn tragic when he removes her helm to discover who this was. In her last moments, she begs to be baptized Christian, so they may share their love in the afterlife.

Then finally - what is probably the most exciting - we have Barbara Monk Feldman’s world premiere of Pyramus and Thisbe. A more abstract presentation of the ill-fated love story that is so hilariously mangled by the mechanicals in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this is an amalgam of several different sources with regard to the libretto. English, Latin and German are found in this piece which draws from Ovid, Faulkner, St. John of the Cross, and Rainer Maria Rilke; the text is poetic and abstract. The piece was primarily inspired by a painting by Nicolas Poussin called Stormy Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe, and you will hear this inspiration in Monk Feldman’s orchestrations.

Nicolas Poussin, Landscape during a thunderstorm with Pyramus and Thisbe.

This is a great moment for Canadian opera. It’s the first main stage world premiere that the COC has produced since 1999’s The Golden Ass. It is long overdue and the first one to be staged at the stunning Four Seasons Centre here in Toronto. Hopefully we get to see the COC stick to its commitment of bringing a lot more Canadian works and Canadian singers on to the premiere opera stage in the country.

These pieces are being performed by 3 of the best voices in the Canadian biz. Mezzo Krisztina Szabó (I’m fairly certain she’s now my favourite mezzo - sorry ladies, I still love you all though), baritone Phillip Addis (#swoon) and Owen McCausland (if you don’t know this guy’s work, you’re missing out big time).

Pyramus and Thisbe opens officially tonight, Tuesday, October 20th. Be a part of Canadian opera history and get your tickets here!

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