Opera has been popping up in Toronto in the most unlikely places. Last month we had A Synonym For Love , a modern-day interpretation of an early Handel cantata staged in the rooms and corridors of the Gladstone Hotel. Now there’s Julie Sits Waiting, a new chamber opera premiering in Theatre Passe Muraille’s tiny Backspace – a venue better known for fringe-type theatrical fare.
It turns out to be the right hole-in-the-wall place for this avant-garde oddity: the tale of a sordid love affair set to a jagged electroacoustic score and garnished with mind-blowing visuals. The experience is a bit like watching Tosca during an acid trip.
Joseph Kerman’s infamous description of Puccini’s opera – a “shabby little shocker” – comes to mind as playwright Tom Walmsley’s hour-long libretto unfolds. It concerns Julie, the restless wife of a cop named Rick, who falls in lust with a priest named Mick. Having met online, the two come face-to-face for the first time for an assignation in a house that Julie’s husband is renovating. “Face-to-face” is just a figure of speech, since directors Heidi Strauss and Alex Fallis like to have the performers address the audience instead of one another. It’s a Cubist approach to staging that complements the fragment motif of the show’s set and projections – more of which later.
Julie and Mick, played by veteran singers Fides Krucker and Richard Armstrong, respectively, continue to meet in the empty house and engage in crazed, violent sex. Last Tango in Paris comes to mind, except in this case both lovers are morosely middle-aged. When not absorbed in their self-described “dirty love,” Mick wrestles with his conscience as an Anglican clergyman, while Julie wrestles with hers as a married woman and doting mother of a 13-year-old daughter.
The potential here is for a gripping melodrama about a late-blooming passion and its tragic consequences. The trouble is that the showy vocal performances – half spoken, half sung – put you at a distance from the characters’ emotions. Mick launches into a sermon-like aria justifying his behaviour in religious terms, but I couldn’t follow it for the life of me, being too distracted by Armstrong’s strange, shape-shifting voice. His technique is impressive but better matched with inarticulate passages, when brutal Mick emits menacing animal growls and hisses.
Krucker is less flashy as Julie, preferring simply to fill the narrow little Backspace with her powerful, piercing mezzo-soprano. With her close-cropped grey hair, she resembles British actress Tamsin Greig from the Showtime comedy Episodes, only with a tragic demeanour. Her face is often etched with real agonized feelings even if the libretto she sings deals in florid clichés.
Krucker, a devotee of new opera, is the driving force behind this project and she’s assembled some strong collaborators. Montreal composer Louis Dufort’s recorded music is the production’s chief pleasure. Dufort, known for scoring the weird and wonderful choreography of Marie Chouinard, creates a riot of textures: stormy love provokes a downpour of white noise; the detumescent aftermath of sex is conveyed in gently swirling strings. The music is enjoyably familiar in its dissonance. Smatterings of percussion recall Varèse, while squiggly reeds tip their hat to free jazz.
Jeremy Mimnagh’s mesmerizing psychedelic projections, meanwhile, could have been lifted from a drug-drenched 1960s rock concert. At one point they offer a witty cosmic variant on the old fireworks metaphor for an orgasm. The explosion imagery is continued in Teresa Przybylski’s surreal set of wires and triangular shards, while Rebecca Picherack’s knife-point lighting carves figures out of an enveloping darkness.
In short: The characters are shattered, the music is shattered, the design is shattered. The audience on the opening night, however, came through the performance disappointingly intact. The polite applause at the end was clearly for an intriguing curiosity, not a real work of art.