Stage Door Review
Of the Sea
Friday, March 31, 2023
by Ian Cusson, directed by Philip Akin
Tapestry Opera & Obsidian Theatre with TO Live, Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto
March 25-April 1, 2023
Dfiza: “Water is the god that makes us free”
Tapestry Opera and Obsidian Theatre have combined forces to produce Of the Sea, billed as the first large-scale Canadian opera with an all-Black cast. This is an historic step for opera in Canada that should be applauded in its own right. While Tapestry and Obsidian have mustered a fine cast and Métis composer Ian Cusson has composed an attractive and vibrant score, it is a pity that librettist Kanika Ambrose has not come up with an engaging or even comprehensible story for the opera to tell.
As fate would have it Tapestry and Obsidian cannot claim that Of the Sea is the first Canadian opera with an all-Black cast. That honour goes to La Flambeau with music and libretto by Haitian-Canadian David Bontemps that premiered on February 7, 2023, in Montreal, with a second performance on February 13, 2023, in Hamilton. La Flambeau is a four-character opera with an orchestra of 17. Of the Sea is a three-character opera with three comprimario roles and an orchestra of 19. What makes Of the Sea “large-scale”, as opposed to La Flambeau, is that it has a chorus of nine (including the three comprimario singers).
As we enter the Bluma Appel Theatre we see the figure of a man falling slowly from the surface of the ocean to the ocean floor in Laura Warren’s effective animated projection on the back wall of the set. The opera begins after he lands on the floor and is discovered by a character named Yaakaar (Paul Williamson). The man has landed in the Kingdom of Ireti, the territory of Queen Dfiza (Suzanne Taffot) who is the only one who can wake him from his torment and introduce him into her underwater realm. Once he is able to speak we discover he is Maduka (Jorell Williams) who has jumped off a slave ship on its way from Africa to the Americas while holding his infant daughter Binyelum. His greatest worry is about Binyelum, but Dfiza assures him all is well. The people of her realm accept that they are all water. As she says, “Water is the god that makes us free”. All Maduka, however, wants to see is the Igbo sun god Chukwu. (Igbo is the name of the people who live chiefly in what is now southeastern Nigeria.)
Maduka is not happy with having to submit to a lesser god like the one Dfiza promotes and does not like the idea of submitting to a life of aqueous incorporeality. As it happens, when Maduka asks for time alone to consider his plight, he meets a fellow Igbo-speaker Izunna (Justin Welsh), who takes Maduka to the Kingdom of Enweghi ruled by Queen Serwa (Chantale Nurse), who is actively encouraging her followers to return to the surface, hijack a passing ship and sail it home.
Serwa’s plans are meant to be taken seriously but it’s hard not to find them ridiculous. Apparently, her people have constructed a giant slingshot and have tried to project people to the surface with it. When it is clear that that plan has failed, Serwa’s Plan B is simply to build a bigger slingshot. What makes even less sense is that, as we discover later, Serwa somehow has the power to create storms. So why not capture a ship with a storm?
Maduka’s own plan (also ridiculous) wins everyone over. It is to have 1000 people stand on each other’s shoulders to reach the surface and people would thus climb up this human ladder. Ambrose the librettist seems to view the ocean as a stagnant lake rather than a real ocean beset with currents and cross-currents. Nevertheless, Maduka’s method somehow does allow him and Serwa to come very close to exiting the water only to discover that they cannot since, as Dfiza had said, they are already all water.
It’s very difficult to know what to make of this story. When Maduka jumped off the ship in mid-ocean and sank to the bottom, what did he expect – death or another chance at life on land? And who are all these people moving about on the ocean floor and singing? They are all supposed to be “all water” yet instead of merging into each other and their surroundings they appear as individuals and all sport Rachel Forbes’s extremely colourful individualized costumes.
There is only one way that Ambrose’s plot makes any sense and that is that it is following the so-called “dead all along” trope. It so happens that since at least 1930 a number of movies have been made in which the main characters or, indeed, all the characters turn out to have been dead from the very start of the movie. The first of these movies was Outward Bound from 1930, although for most film fans Carnival of Souls (1962) is the epitome of the “dead all along” trope. In a movie like Outward Bound the action concerns the characters’ gradual realization that they are not an ocean cruise but actually heading for the afterlife. In a movie like Carnival of Souls the question is put to the audience of whether the main character is or is not dead from the start of the movie.
Kanika Ambrose does not seem clear about which version of the “dead all along” trope she is following. Maduka should be dead, but why is he moving and singing? Ambrose has not constructed the story as a group realization as in Outward Bound, nor has she framed it fully in the “is he or is he not dead” mode of Carnival of Souls. The most like characterization of the action is that Ambrose is portraying Maduka’s last thoughts before dying, the temptation to give in as represented by Dfiza versus the temptation to fight against dying as represented by Serwa.
The main problem with Ambrose’s libretto is that watching a man take 90 minutes to realize that he is dead, when we assume he is so from the start, is not very involving. As portrayed by Ambrose and as directed by Philip Akin, the action does not look like we are seeing the world from Maduka’s point of view. Rather, it looks like Maduka has somehow landed in an underwater Oz where Maduka has to decide which of the two witches there he should believe.
The second problem with Ambrose’s libretto is that she has not created any characters to interest us. They are all two-dimensional at best. This very surprising since Ambrose created such moving, complex characters in her play our place just last year. All we know about Maduka is that he is strong, cares about his baby and wants to get back to the surface. All we know about Dfiza and Serwa is that, for unknown reasons, they are regarded as queens. In Act 2 Ambrose gives the women arias detailing their unhappy pasts but their past lives do not explain their present positions.
How what is basically a confused and undramatic libretto made it to the point of being set by a well-known composer is a mystery. Nevertheless, Ian Cusson has done his best to make the drama of his music compensate for the lack of drama on stage. His music sounds like an acknowledgement of the most famous orchestral sea music of the 20th century from Debussy to Vaughan Williams to Britten. One peculiarity is that his word setting for the characters is nearly same – a measured march of words over roiling background of the orchestra.
This changes when Ambrose allows a character enough lines in a row that Cusson shape an aria from them. High-points of the piece are all the choral sections, some a cappella, in which Cusson plays with gorgeous but unexpected harmonies. Also to be included as a highpoint is the simultaneous narratives of Dfiza and Serwa about their pre-suboceanic lives and the terrors they escaped by jumping or being thrown from their slave ships.
Considering the opera’s emphasis on Blackness it is odd that Cusson’s music does nothing to suggest the African origins of the opera’s undersea kingdoms. In contrast, Bontemps’s orchestration of La Flambeau includes both Yoruban and Latin American instruments to reflect the story’s Haitian setting.
American baritone Jorell Williams makes a fine Maduka, his firm, powerful voice fully conveys the strength of will and passion of the character. Cameroonian-Canadian soprano Suzanne Taffot, who happened to sing the sprightly role of Mademoiselle in La Flambeau, communicates all the moods of Dfiza from gentle to imperious with her strong, sometimes stormy voice. As Serwa, Guyanese-Canadian soprano Chantale Nurse sports a solid high soprano that captures the intense rage that motivates her characte
Among the comprimario roles, Canadian baritone Justin Welsh is the most impressive as the guide Izunna. His voice has only grown richer and deeper since his time with the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio and easily established his authority on stage. One wished Ambrose had allowed Izunna to remain with Maduka in Enweghi just so we could hear more of his singing.
Jamaican-Canadian spinto tenor Paul Williamson, who happened to sing the menacing role of Monsieur in La Flambeau, makes Yaakaar an ambiguous figure so that, at first, we do not know whether Maduka has arrived in a place that will be helpful or hostile to him. Canadian soprano Ruthie Nkut has a short time on stage as the grown-up Binyelum, but she makes very positive impression with her bright, agile voice.
Conductor Jennifer Tung kept tight control over the small orchestra completely mastering the ebb and flow of Cusson’s score and revelling in the varied nature of its influences. For moments of revelation, Cusson seems to reference the opening of the Fifth Door in Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle (1918). Tung manages to makes these moments thrilling even with only a third of the forces Bartók demands. Citing Bartók is appropriate since both concern a central character, whether Judith in Bartók or Maduka in Cusson, who comes to realize they are already dead.
Though the scene may change from one kingdom to another under the sea, Of the Sea is still virtually a static opera, as is Bluebeard’s Castle, concerned as it is with the main character’s slowly growing awareness that he is dead. Bartók manages to infuse this stasis with tension as each door uncovers a clue to the mystery of Bluebeard’s nature. In Of the Sea there is not even a succession of doors to be opened. All the activity that Hollywood Jade can muster in the scene of the Enweghi trying to capture a ship cannot disguise the fact that nothing is actually happening.
Regretfully, Of the Sea will have to be categorized as a noble effort. It will retain its historical status as the first “large-scale” Canadian opera for an all-Black cast. The fact that there is so much Black Canadian talent in opera is in itself a joy to see. Cusson has already given us a fine chamber opera in the form of Fantasma last year and in Of the Sea shows a love of ever-changing orchestral colour. I look forward to whatever project he has in store in the future.
Photo: Suzanne Taffot as Dfiza and Jorell Williams as Maduka; Jorell Williams as Maduka; Chantale Nurse as Serwa; Suzanne Taffot as Dfiza and Jorell Williams as Maduka. © 2023 Dahlia Katz.
For tickets visit tapestryopera.com.