Canadian Opera Company brings mad, mad modern world to life

05.08.15
Johannes Debus
The Globe and Mail

A century ago, two avant-garde works of musical theatre, neither really an opera, opened up for European audiences a phantasmagoria of darkness, death and despair that shockingly sketched out a world that was about to burst upon them. But where Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung (Expectation), drenched in the language and spirit of Sigmund Freud, penetrated an inner darkness, Bela Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle touches on the darkness of the world, of the crime and horror that lies at the base of worldly greatness.

For the fourth time, the COC is reviving Lepage’s discreet but effective imagining of both these works and, despite their age, these productions still work, still tear at the heart, and distress the imagination. Lepage, in the 20 years of his career since his original Erwartung/Bluebeard, has become notorious for the immense, complex and sometimes recalcitrant stage mechanics of his productions. But nothing fancy is in evidence here. With simple, effective sets, clever lighting and minimal stage business, Lepage has been able to enter deep into the meaning of these works, and illuminate them for us.

For Erwartung, Lepage has literalized the many Freudian hints in the work (the libretto reads like a Freudian case study) by placing a psychiatrist on stage, thus framing the story of the unnamed Woman who tells a tale of murder, deception, hallucination and despair in a medical context. What this allows Lepage to do is shift in and out of reality, hallucination, dream and fiction on stage in a clever and fluid way, defeating our attempts to pin this intense exploration of a disturbed mind into a neat package.

And with Lepage’s relatively minimal stage theatrics, we are also forced, as an audience, into the heart of the music, and both these scores are remarkable and complex – and both played with such dexterity and conviction by Johannes Debus and the COC Orchestra. It’s been said before, but worth repeating: Johannes Debus may be the single greatest gift Alexander Neef has given us over the past eight years or so of his tenure at the COC. In the Bartok, Debus plays up the drama in the music – and it is an intensely dramatic score – with the orchestra perfectly providing the main emotional arc in the piece. In the Schoenberg, despite its immense orchestration, Debus approached the work as a piece of chamber music, highlighting the hundreds, if not many hundreds, of crystalline moments of quiet beauty in the score. Erwartung seems to be a 30-minute, high-octane roller-coaster ride of extreme emotional intensity – and its text is just that. But behind the text, despite the anguish, lies a score that is often pastoral, quiet and full of pristine beauty.
 
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