A bit of Canadian history happened at the Jane Mallett Theatre in Toronto on Sunday afternoon. The brief version of the backstory is this: Late Canadian composer Charles Wilson (1931-2019) wrote his opera Kamouraska in 1975, grand in style and intended to have its world premiere at the Canadian Opera Company. That premiere never came, for reasons that remain mysterious – although the timing does seem to fall in the transition of general directorship from Herman Geiger-Torel (1960-1976) to Lotfi Mansouri (1976-1988). In any case, Kamouraska never went up at the COC, but it did receive an overdue world premiere in 2009, with another Toronto-based company, VOICEBOX: Opera in Concert (OiC).
The 2009 performances came with some reworking; OiC general director Guillermo Silva-Marin encouraged Wilson to revisit Kamouraska not as a full-sized grand opera, but pared down to a chamber piece. Ten years later, Opera in Concert has remounted Wilson’s opera in this more svelte form, commemorating both the piece and the composer, who passed away in June of last year.
Kamouraska, based on the French-language novel by Anne Hébert, is named for the region of Quebec where the action unfolds in 1856. At just 15 years old, Elizabeth d’Aulnières marries Antoine Tassy, the seigneur of Kamouraska; Tassy is abusive and likely mentally ill. After bearing three children and a body full of bruises, Elizabeth seeks an out. She finds it in Dr. George Nelson, with whom she has an affair and conspires to kill Antoine.
The opera is part-flashback, part-love triangle. Elizabeth is portrayed by two singers, one as a young woman, contemporary to the action, and one nearly 20 years older, remarried as Mme Rolland and recalling the murky details of how she poisoned her first husband – and how he perhaps deserved it. Jumping back and forth from past to present, we witness glimpses of Elizabeth’s trial – subjective and incomplete as a trial would be in the 1850s in rural Québec – and a few pertinent details of her life with Antoine, like the affair with Dr. Nelson that she nudged along, and the surprising ease with which she lies to save her own skin. In the end, Elizabeth is acquitted of wrongdoing through lack of evidence.
VOICEBOX: Opera in Concert is fairly self-explanatory in its mandate. The company has a rich history of presenting rare and little-heard operas, often by Canadian composers, in an in-concert setting. Traditionally, that means the opera is presented without sets or costumes, simply the singers and orchestra offering up the music. When done well, in-concert opera is like a thrilling blank slate, where the real stuff of the piece – the music and the words – gets the full spotlight, with one’s imagination creating the visual scene based on this source material.
I was surprised, then, that there was so much directorial input for this presentation of Kamouraska. The event, as billed, seemed to be beautifully focused on showing off Wilson’s opera, so rarely heard and such a pleasant piece of novelty for Toronto’s opera lovers. So, it was frustrating to be distracted by the flimsy staging by Silva-Marin, which did little to help us further enjoy the piece. It was despite Silva-Marin’s work that Kamouraska and its singers shone.
Jennifer Taverner (younger Elizabeth), Jennifer Routhier (older Elizabeth), Matt Chittick (Antoine) and Cairan Ryan (Dr. Nelson) brought out what’s intriguing about this opera. The score is padded with ominous harmonies, conjuring bits of Debussy, Britten and Canadian John Beckwith in its aesthetic. There is unease in the sound, almost constantly, like a nagging pit in one’s stomach – whether it be from fear or from guilt. The vocal writing challenges the singers in that stubborn, 20th-century Canadian way; it is a look back to the time when disjointed melodies and needlessly complex rhythms acted like a composer’s nerdy flex that only his fellow composers would appreciate. Yet these four singers found the operatic story buried in the difficult details of Kamouraska, smoothing over the bumps and cracks of an opera that never got a proper workshop process.
Through it all, I was itching to hear these four singers and their castmates free from direction. I would have traded most of the bland blocking for the stillness of a classic in-concert performance, where even a subtle glance from one singer to another can carry enormous dramatic weight. Their storytelling skills were clearly mature, and I wished there had been more trust placed in their individual instincts. Still, it was a treat to hear Kamouraska, not as a Canadian masterpiece, but as an operatic attempt, rich in potential and light on detail work. For an opera fan – and a nosy one like me – an offering like this from Opera in Concert is a rare gem.