Black paint on a blackboard
Turning Point Ensemble world-premieres Rudolf Komorous' Dada opera "Mute Canary"
It’s a century-old script set to a new recitativo opera score by a nearly century-old Canadian avant garde composer.
Yet the world premiere production of Rudolf Komorous’ Mute Canary, running this weekend in SFU’s Experimental Theatre, feels as bitingly contemporary today as it was when Dada pioneer Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes first penned the libretto in 1919.
Who could be more timeless, after all, than its central figure, Riquet (baritone Alexander Dobson)? He’s the self-described “Archiepiscope and Emperor,” the virtual Axis of the Universe.
The “great line…crossing my nose, my Adam’s apple, my navel and other vital organs” goes on to “penetrate the Earth below and the sky above.” On this meridian, “every dot…has its specific place…showing its exact value…And so it becomes Truth,” such that “I see all and know all.”
As far as Riquet’s concerned, “outside of oneself, there is nothing.” Thus, he enjoys the “convenience” of “mechanical government,” since “all I have to do is…tilt my head…to move the heavens.”
So it’s up to him, he’s convinced, to decide who is or isn’t included in “Europe,” i.e. the civilized world. Lesser breeds, e.g. Turks, who “refuse to recognize [the Riquet meridian] system as eminently favourable to progress, will be chased out.”
When not engaged in such statesmanship, Riquet exercises his entrepreneurial flair as a “talented hunter.” He’s after the Big Game – lions! – but all he ever actually bags are “ladybugs and beetles,” according to his scornful wife, Barate (soprano Anne Grimm), who bats away his hand every time he tries to touch her.
Does this power couple sound like anybody we know? The resemblance may be more than coincidental.
In his programme notes, UVic Music chairman Christopher Butterfield, who translated the libretto, notes that Ribemont-Dessaignes Dada diatribes can be seen as direct antecedents of such avant garde movements as the Theatre of Cruelty or the later Theatre of the Absurd. Hardly too much of a stretch, then, to project the lineage on through to the cruelties of Reality TV and the hackneyed viciousness of our post-modern politics.
Dada, at least, was funnier than our current headlines. Co-directors Jan Horák and Michal Pěchouček, who debuted the Canadian cast in the world premiere production of The Mute Canary at this past June’s New Opera Days festival in Ostrava, Czech Republic, share a fine-tuned instinct for Dada humour.
Deadpan is the key. The text, for all its shockers and absurdities, is delivered with all the stately pomposity of a church ritual. Kormorous’ score illuminates this ironic liturgy with jagged orchestral doodles in the margin.
For vestments, costume designer Tereza Hrzánová outfits Riquet and Barate in a toga and a safari suit, respectively. Choreographer Markéta Vacovská puts them through the strenuous paces of an Apache dance of mutual loathing.
Yet, throughout it all, Dobson and Grimm maintain a wide-eyed faith in their own delusions of grandeur, he as a Very Stable Genius “at the pinnacle of my Powers” and she as a femme quite literally fatale. Sexually voracious, she wishes her partners would just die after copulation, like praying mantises.
In her mind, she incarnates the famously licentious Roman queen, Messalina.
“I am free,” she declares. “I love nothing…to love love is like using black paint to write on a blackboard.”
But then, halfway through the opera, she meets “the first real man I’ve seen.” Well, not a man, exactly, but undeniably studly. With a momentous grinding of gears, the whole back wall of the stage slowly rises to reveal first the hooves, then the fetlocks, then the legs and tail, then the sleek white ribcage. And at last, we glimpse the russet brow and soulful eyes (embellished with inch-long lashes) of countertenor Daniel Cabena.
Barate swoons “I’m all yours!...tell me your name, you stallion.” To which he replies (in gloriously incongruous falsetto) “I am the composer Charles Gounod.”
Of all the 19th century romantic prigs to appear on the Dada stage! The devoutly Catholic Gounod (he wrote the opera Faust, the Ave Maria and the official anthem of the Vatican city-state) was obsessed with such vestals as Saint Cecilia, Goethe’s Marguerite and the Blessed Virgin herself.
This equine Gounod carries with him a caged muse, the opera’s eponymous canary, who, although mute, knows the composer’s entire repertoire by heart and sings it, soundlessly, non-stop. Barate/Messalina is thrilled, the horse-man is bemused; the two clinch in the underbrush.
Riquet, convinced he’s come upon a brace of panthers, fires into the bush, only to discover that, as far as he can see, he’s killed nothing but a couple of screech-owls – “bad luck.” The canary flutters free, only to get caught in the hunter’s snare.
In Riquet’s eyes, though, the silently lyrical bird is “an enormous, hideous hydra! A worthy prize for a ruler whose sovereign purpose, regardless of anything, is to remain above everything, an all-seeing macroscope.”
Alongside the brilliant physicality and vocalization of its three lead performers, The Mute Canary brings together a baker’s dozen members of B.C.’s Turning Point Ensemble under the baton of its music director, SFU professor Owen Underhill. It’s a rare convergence of talents; may these stars align again, and soon!