Kopernikus At the MacMillan Theatre in Toronto, on Thursday 'There is no story." This statement, flashed on the wall at the start of Claude Vivier's Kopernikus, is both true and false. No boys meet girls, no crimes of passion occur in this "ritual opera of death." But there's no bigger human narrative than the one at the heart of this work, which is about the awakening of the soul to the meaning of mortality.
Vivier, who was born in Montreal in 1948 and died 35 years later, was a religious man whose entire oeuvre reaches toward the sacred. The new Autumn Leaf Performance production of his only opera, which he wrote in 1979, is as close to a perfect expression of this work's mystical charm as we are likely to see.
The opera has many characters, who form and dissolve in the mouths of the seven singers. The central persona, Agni, is like a medieval representation of the soul, recollecting itself and its understanding of the world on a sea of thought made audible. This production projects a translation of the French elements of the text on the back wall, though much of what the singers perform is a stream of phonemes intelligible only as music. The true language of Kopernikus is melodic.
Vivier's conception of melody was profound and original, and gave his music a unique sense of purity and spaciousness. There are only eight instrumentalists in this production, but the sonic environment, under Pascal Rophé's superb music direction, is vast. Emmanuel Clolus (set design) and Axel Morgenthaler (lighting) have made the stage feel limitless as well. Three fixed grey walls contain or expand the scene as light is projected or withdrawn, and the singers are lit almost as planets moving in their own orbits.
In order to represent visually the opera's strange mixture of solemnity and playfulness, Stanislas Nordey (stage direction) and Raoul Fernandez (costumes) have drawn from the European circus. Except for Agni, all the characters wear costumes whose puffed shoulders, padded hips and bejeweled embroidery recall the ornate garments of white-faced clowns. Their movements are rhetorical, comic, mimetic -- in a word, clownlike. Particularly in the first act, they seem to deliver each line of text with their hands.
There is no characterization in the ordinary sense, because none is needed. The absence of fixed personae only enhances Vivier's remarkable ability to characterize intervals of sound, such as the repeated perfect fourths that give the opening scenes such a feeling of purity, serenity, pathos and yearning. You can often feel Vivier exhibiting his sounds as marvellous objects in themselves. And yet the work always moves forward, sometimes explosively or cathartically, as in the crystalline solo for coloratura soprano (Patricia O'Callaghan) in the second act.
This Franco-Canadian co-production has been flawlessly prepared. The cast -- Patricia Green, Isabel Soccoja, Shaunaid Amette, Michiel Schrey, Ian Funk, Simon Fournier and O'Callaghan -- is first-rate. Eight previous performances in four other venues in Canada and Europe have helped to forge an extraordinarily tight link with the instrumental ensemble, and with the astute contributions of the creative team. This is how every contemporary opera -- every worthwhile opera of any period -- should be performed: with sympathy, courage and wonder.
Autumn Leaf Performance's international touring production of Kopernikus concludes tonight at the University of Toronto's MacMillan Theatre.