Stage Door Review

A Poe Cabaret

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

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by Tom Allen & Lori Gemmell

Tom Allen & Freinds, Community Studio Theatre, Burlington Performing Arts Centre, Burlington

November 8, 2020

“There were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the ‘Red Death’” (from “The Masque of the Red Death”)

While most of Ontario’s many performing arts centres have simply shut down for the 2020/21 season in the wake of Covid-19, a few have boldly remained open. One of these is the handsome Burlington PAC. (Since this sentence was written the BPAC has had to close November 16.) One of the varied shows it hosted was A Poe Cabaret conceived by CBC host, musician and storyteller Tom Allen and his wife, harpist Lori Gemmell. The show commissioned for the Luminato Festival in 2009. For those who missed it then or who wished to see it again, its Burlington outing provided engaging and stimulating entertainment.

The title A Poe Cabaret is somewhat misleading since the show is not solely about Edgar Allen Poe nor is it characterized by the satiric song, word and dance that most people associate with the word “cabaret”. The two key features of cabaret that it does include are a host (Tom Allen) and seating at small tables where patrons are allowed to drink.

A Poe Cabaret is primarily about the rediscovery of the works of Poe by the French Symbolists of the previous turn of the century and of their influence on the Impressionist composers of the time and of the present. As we learn from Allen’s pointed, insightful comments, Poe’s works were popular in his own lifetime, 1809-49, but were thought to be outmoded by the rise of American Transcendentalists like Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman in the second part of the 19th century. The great French poet Charle Baudelaire (1821-67), however, felt a great kinship with Poe’s atmosphere of dread and the macabre and his translations of Poe stimulated interest in the American writer even as it waned in his home country.

At first glance A Poe Cabaret begins rather oddly with a look at French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918). The first two music selections of the cabaret are by Debussy – a lovely arrangement for harp (Gemmell) and cello (Kerri McGonigle) of Debussy’s chanson “Beau Soir” (1891) and the first two movements of Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor (1893).

The first piece sent a shudder down my spine not only because it was so beautifully played but because I suddenly realized it was the first live classical music I had heard since January. Recorded or amplified music simply cannot reproduce the physical sensation of sound on ears and body made by instruments in a shared physical space. The lines of “Beau Soir” are so sinuous and alluring that I felt my brain was being cleansed of all the recorded music I had consumed over the past nine months.

While I would have preferred to have heard the entire string quartet, the first two movements of Debussy’s work did suffice to illustrate the point that Allen made about the affinity Debussy felt with Poe. According to Allen both writer and composer believed in two sides to everyday reality – the seen and the unseen – and were fascinated by how unseen forces could overpower what is seen. The key piece of evidence linking Debussy to Poe is that after the success of Debussy’s only opera, Pelléas et Mélisande (1902), the Metropolitan Opera in new York commissioned Debussy to write an opera on any subject he wished. His chosen subject was Poe’s famous tale “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), with which he had long been fascinated. Debussy worked on the score between 1908 and 1917 but never finished it. According to one biographer, “Debussy began increasingly to identify with Roderick Usher, whose mental breakdown Poe had identified with the crumbling House itself”.

The string quartet – Bethany Bergman (violin), Ryan Davis (viola), Sheila Jaffé (violin) and Kerri McGonigle (cello) – seemed to perform as if imbued with Allen’s interpretation of Poe’s influence on Debussy. It gave one of the most gripping accounts of the work’s first two movements that I’ve heard. The quartet announced the opening chords of first subject with grandeur, but it clearly showed how as Debussy develops this subject  it dissolves as the four instruments gradually go their own way trailing off into indeterminacy.

The music which can seem charming and whimsical in some hands, here comes off as disturbing and threatening. The same is true of the long pizzicato section of the second movement. Often this section can seem delightfully playful. Here it felt as if the grand initial theme were being insidiously picked apart.

After Debussy, Allen’s cabaret moves on two two works directly connected with Poe. The first is Conte fantastique (1924) by Debussy’s lesser-known contemporary André Caplet (1878-1925). The work was first conceived as a tone poem for harp and orchestra, but Caplet later adapted it for string quartet and harp or piano. We hear the harp version. In the chamber version Caplet states explicitly that the work is based on Poe’s short story “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842) and gives a minute description of what each portion of the music describes.

One sees why Allen is in such demand as a host for classical music concerts because his summary of Poe’s story focusses on every element that Caplet emphasizes and he alerts us to various events in the score and what they signify so clearly that when we listen to the work we immediately grasp how Poe’s writing is reflected in Caplet’s music.

As Allen mentions, when he first conceived of this cabaret in 2009, he never imagined how relevant Poe’s story would become. It tells of Prince Prospero, who with a thousand other nobles, seeks to escape a deadly plague known as the Red Death by finding refuge in an abbey. There they hold a debauched masquerade ball to celebrate their escape, but at midnight a shrouded, uninvited guest enters and Prospero dies when attempting to kill him. But there is nothing in the shroud.

The music is full of  glissandos and minor key harmonics to convey the lugubriousness of the evening. Caplet switches to the major key for the nobles’ dances which are still given an aura of uneasiness. He uses the harp for significant effects – the three knocks (on the soundboard of the harp) that signify the arrival of the guests and the repeated chords representing the chiming of the twelve strokes of midnight when Prospero confronts the guest. Conte fantastique is a rarity and I felt privileged to have heard so fine a performance.

The final work was commissioned for the cabaret in 2009. This is Canadian composer Alexina Louie’s setting of Poe’s famous poem “The Raven” (1845) for string quartet, harp and narrator. The piece is a modern example of melodrama in the original meaning of the word, i.e. spoken word accompanied by music. Toronto has seen two major examples of this form of melodrama in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Pygmalion et Galatée (1770) performed by Opera Atelier in 1990 and more recently in Richard Strauss’s Enoch Arden (1897) performed by Toronto Masque Theatre in 2016. The melodrama was a popular salon entertainment in the 19th century but eventually grew out of fashion. Louie’s work reinvigorates this older genre and shows it still has power.

As part of Allen’s well structured cabaret, it allows Allen at the conclusion of the show to doff the role of host and finally become an active participant in the music. In contrast to Strauss’s Enoch Arden, Louie’s music almost always rather than only occasionally underscores the narration. “The Raven” may be famous but with its relentless trochaic octameter and restricted rhymes, it requires a skillful reciter, or skillful setting, to prevent the piece from sounding melodramatic in the modern sense of overblown.

Keeping the focus on the meaning of the poem is exactly what Louie as a composer and Allen as a reciter beautifully accomplish. Louie’s music fits in quite well with that of Debussy and Caplet to such an extent that her work could be called “Neo-Impressionist”. She concentrates primarily on atmosphere, tension and sonic effects to illuminate the text. Besides glissandos she has at her command a range of more modern techniques to create a sense of unease. The harpist runs a finger up and down a string or plucks the strings with the dorsal part of her fingernails rather than the pulps of her fingers. The string players slide their bows over the strings with minimum pressure to to create ghostly sounds.

Most importantly, Louie breaks up Poe’s six-line stanzas with short interludes so that we are not caught up in the regularity of their structure as much as by the words themselves. This is particularly important when the final word of the last eleven stanzas is the same word – “Nevermore”. Louie realizes that this word takes on slightly different and more menacing connotations every time it is repeated. She therefore isolates it from the rest of the stanza and sets it differently every time to make us feel the increasing horror of the speaker as he perceives the progressively more dire implications of the word.

For his part, Allen gives a fine account of the poem. He begins with the same genial manner and sonorous voice that he previously used as the show’s host. He remains in this generally undisturbed mode for the first seven stanzas of the poem. Stanza eight ends with the first “Nevermore” and with this stanza, Allen begins to leave behind the calm familiarity we had known in him as host. We now begin to see him more fully as the tortured character Poe has drawn. Allen’s delivery closely follows the course of Louie’s music as dissonance and odd pauses enter the score as the tension and volume increase. So gradually we hardly notice, Allen moves from initial calmness and self-possession to shouting out the syllables “Ne-ver more!” when Poe’s speaker reaches his mental crisis. Louie’s setting, and Allen’s delivery, wind down in both tension and volume as Poe’s speaker seemingly perceives the arrival of his own death.

Thus ends a powerful 75 minutes that takes the audience over a wider range of emotion than it could initially have expected. What Allen tells of the unhappy lives of both Poe and Debussy, the image of the Red Death and the experience of losing one’s beloved and dying in isolation speak to us now even more tangibly than they would have in 2009.

We sit at cabaret tables physically distant. The strings and the harpist wear masks throughout. Allen does not wear a mask but is separated from the strings by a plexiglass wall. The very nature of experiencing A Poe Cabaret in this setting gives it extraordinary impact. The show was to been part of a tour, but it was cut short by the pandemic. I don’t know whether Allen and company plan to tour it later during the pandemic, but should A Poe Cabaret arrive at a nearby venue, know that it is a gripping, sensuous entertainment no classical music lover should miss.

For more about Tom Allen & Friends, visit tomtomallen.com.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Kerri McGonigle, Tom Allen, Lori Gemmell, Emily Eng, Sheila Jaffé, Bethany Bergman and Edgar Allen Poe; rehearsal for A Poe Cabaret at the Burlington PAC. © 2020 Tom Allen & Friends.