Stage Door Review 2019

Kopernikus

Apr 7, 2019

✭✭✭

by Claude Vivier, directed by Joel Ivany

Against the Grain Theatre, Theatre Passe Muraille, Toronto

April 4, 5, 6 ,11, 12 & 13, 2019

“L’avenir veut te parler”

Against the Grain Theatre’s production of Kopernikus is a triumph. AtG Artistic Director Joel Ivany thinks that this, the only opera by Claude Vivier (1948-83), may be Canada’s greatest opera ever written. By the end of the performance you will likely agree with him. It is in no way a conventional opera, but that it precisely why it is great. It pushes the boundaries of what opera is and what it can be. It’s no wonder then that this is the Canadian opera that has received the greatest number of new productions, though, as is typical, these productions have been in Europe, not in Canada. AtG’s production is the first one in Canada since 2001. It is easy to imagine Kopernikus being performed differently than AtG does it, but it is difficult to imagine it being performed more expertly or with greater insight.

When you enter the Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace, you are immediately confronted by a conundrum. The set conceived by Yannick Larivée and Joel Ivany and designed by Jason Hand takes up the entire stage and looks like ordinary industrial scaffolding of metal pipes and wooden planks. Strangely, however, the musicians and some of the singers, all clad in workmen’s clothes, are intent on cleaning and polishing the scaffolding. The design brilliantly embodies many of the questions inherent in Vivier’s opera.

Given that the subtitle of Kopernikus is Rituel de la mort, we assume that the set is a representation of the afterlife. By their design do Larivée and Ivany mean that this scaffolding is supporting eternity? Or do their mean that eternity is constantly under construction? The fact that the figures on stage are so keen on the upkeep of the scaffolding suggests the latter. The scaffolding is permanently there and thus needs continual maintenance. But what, then, is this scaffolding? In the course of the opera the main character meets various figures from history and myth who seem to inhabit this realm of pipes and planks. Perhaps, Larivée and Ivany are suggesting as Vivier seems to do, that our perception of the afterlife or of eternity is conditioned by narratives, real or imagined, that have come before.

As the music begins, into this realm wanders the main character Agni (Danielle MacMillan), named for the Hindu goddess of fire. As Vivier writes in his “Note de programme”:

Le personnage central est Agni ; autour d'elle gravitent des êtres mythiques (représentés par les six autres chanteurs) tirés de l'histoire : Lewis Carroll, Merlin, une sorcière, la reine de la nuit, un aveugle prophète, un vieux moine, Tristan et Isolde, Mozart, le maître des eaux, Copernic et sa mère. Ces personnages sont peut-être les rêves d'Agni qui l'accompagnent dans son initiation et finalement dans sa dématérialisation.

Agni is costumed by Marissa Kochanski is a bright orange party dress that both suits her name and completely contrasts with the range of greys of the musicians, singers and dancers on stage.  Halfway through the work, the performers remove her bright outfit and dress her in black.

Agni is greeted by none other than Lewis Carroll (Bruno Roy), who guides Agni through the world on stage and thus serves as psychopomp. Because of his two famous children’s book about Alice, Carroll is the ideal mediator between two realms just as he guided Alice from this world into the world “Underground” and later into the world “Through the Looking-Glass”. 

As Vivier’s “Note” continues, “Il n'y a pas à proprement parler d'histoire, mais une suite de scènes faisant évoluer Agni vers la purification totale et lui faisant atteindre l'état de pur esprit. Ce sont les personnages mêmes de ses rêves qui l’initient”. Thus, the various figures that Agni encounters represent various stages in her initiation into the world of the dead or, more in line with how Vivier expresses it in his libretto, the world of eternity. This journey can also be viewed from a psychological point of view. In Hinduism Agni is viewed as a goddess within the cosmos but within a human being is viewed as consciousness. From a Jungian interpretation a psychopomp represents the mediator between the realms of consciousness and unconsciousness.  Thus Agni’s journey towards “dématérialisation”, as Vivier puts it, can be seen as a journey into death, the unconscious or both.

Agni’s journey consisting of meeting various characters who represent stages of her initiation is like an extremely compressed version of Dante’s Divine Comedy in which Dante’s various discussions with people in the Inferno, Purgatory and Heaven also represent stages in the perfection of his knowledge and faith. 

Though Vivier mentions many characters that Agni encounters, Ivany reduces that number to only a few whom we actually see on stage. The first is Lewis Carroll, who introduces Agni to Merlin (Alain Coulombe) and later Agni imagines she sees Tristan and Isolde (Dion Mazerolle and Anne-Marie MacIntosh), who sing together. All the other characters that Vivier mentions, like Mozart, are viewed as if somewhere over the heads of the audience.  This includes the title character Copernicus, whose name is the only one that all seven singer salute en masse in what is probably the principal unifying musical event in the score. 

Why is Copernicus so important? It was he, as most people know, who in De revolutionibus orbium coelestium of 1543 proposed a heliocentric model of the universe rather than the geocentric model favoured by the Catholic Church. The reason the Church objected so strongly to Copernicus’ views was that if the earth was not the centre of the universe, then neither was mankind. From Vivier’s point of view, that is exactly the revelation that Agni receives. Neither she nor any individual is at the centre. All are peripheral. She, like the others on stage has to learn to let go of any notion of the centrality of the self in order to merge with the eternal.     

The soundworld than Vivier has created is utterly fantastic. While Agni and some of the characters communicate in French, they also speak a nonsense language invented by Vivier that Agni comes to learn. Musically, Vivier’s music is most closely related to that of Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007), who was his teacher. As it happens Stockhausen’s seven-opera cycle called Licht (“Light”) derives its concept of light in part from from the philosophy of Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), for whom the goddess Agni was a central symbolic figure of the Will of the Divine manifesting itself on earth in matter. 

Vivier follows Stockhausen’s technique of structuring the various tableaux of the opera as portraits of contrasting musical elements. Thus, against the low continuous chant reminiscent of Tibetan monks, we hear hectic, jazz-like exclamations from the winds. The tableaux don’t develop in a conventional musical way but rather simply stop, halted while in progress by a spoken work or an intrusive sound like a gong. In this way Vivier’s music for Kopernikus is rather like a modern version of Anton Bruckner’s symphonies which use the same technique of sudden juxtapositions of thematic material which people have often compared to walking inside a cathedral and experiencing the same massive structure from different points of view. That notion perfectly suits the idea of the opera as an initiation as Agni sees eternity from the different points of view of the characters she meets.

Also quite prominent in Vivier’s musical vocabulary is the use of Sprechstimme, perhaps best known from works like  Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (1912), in which words are spoken on given tones and distorted through upward or downward glides. Lewis Carroll is particularly given to this mode of expression. One technique Vivier enjoys is having singers interrupt their flow of breath either through rhythmically closing their mouths with their hands or even using an index finger to burble their lips. Strange as this may look, the sound Vivier achieves is very similar to the shimming pulse music of Steve Reich in a work like The Desert Music (1983).

The movement of the seven singers, seven musicians and two dancers has been minutely choreographed by Matjash Mrozewski down to every gesture the performers use. This naturally enhances both the otherworldliness of the world on stage and the work’s ritual nature. A duet for dancers Anisa Tejpar and William Wong and later solos for each suggest that remnants of individuality still linger in the strange antechamber to eternity.

There are no arias so it is difficult to comment on individual performances. Yet, Danielle MacMillan employs a rich mezzo-soprano as Agni and portrays perfectly her character’s surprise and fear at first encountering this new world as well as depicting her gradual acceptance of it and, one might even say, the joy of losing her self to conform with the others in song and movement.

Bruno Roy, made up as a kind of decrepit vaudevillian, is an extremely expressive Lewis Carroll, whose upward swoops in speaking both French and Vivier’s invented language make him appear almost like the embodiment of Carroll’s Cheshire Cat. In contrast, Alain Coulombe’s warm, velvety bass as Merlin feels comforting. Dion Mazerolle and Anne-Marie MacIntosh use their rich, full voices to make their brief appearance as Tristan and Isolde create a great impact. The two characters suit Vivier’s vision because of their yearning for a blending of love, death and oblivion.

Never have I seen the Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace used to better effect. The space feels purposely constructed to hold the the two-storey set and Ivany’s direction uses every part of the set and of the auditorium so that Kopernikus becomes an immersive experience. Jason Hand’s lighting through haze creates one magical stage picture after another.

And, indeed, that is what Kopernikus really is – opera re-envisioned as an experience of a psychological and mythic ritual. Opera, especially works by Richard Wagner like Tristan und Isolde (1865) and Parsifal (1882) or like Mozart’s The Magic Flute (1791), which Vivier’s echoes, had already been conceived with the notion of the opera as a secular ritual. Vivier’s Kopernikus merely makes this notion explicit and uses the opera to communicate his own world view that, following ancient Greek precedent, sees life as a moment between two eternities. 

The Against the Grain production is such a success because when the 70 minutes of the opera is over, you feel like you have actually visited another alien yet strangely familiar world. You may find it difficult to adjust to the harsh banality of the world outside the theatre after having had an experience at once so ethereal and so profound. Let’s hope that Against the Grain remounts Kopernikus in future since one performance is not enough to absorb all its mysteries.        

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Scene from Kopernikus; Anisa Tejpar, Krisztina Szabó, Danielle MacMillan as Agni and Anne-Marie Macintosh; (from back) Alain Coulombe, Bruno Roy, Krisztina Szabó, Anisa Tejpar, William Yong, Anne-Marie MacIntosh, Dion Mazerolle and Jonelle Sills. © 2019 Darryl Block.

For tickets, visit againstthegraintheatre.com.