Nov 18, 2015

Sex, Power, Freedom (and still no happy endings)

Lucia Cervoni as Julie. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Happy endings are yearned for, but they are increasingly rare.  Things don't end well all the time; it's this ugly fact Hollywood and the advertising industry don't usually (if ever) acknowledge. And yet happy endings in culture are not, as some studios might have you believe, the perennial norm. Many of the best works in music and theatre have dire endings that, with the right production and handling, make one feel something by the closing of the curtain: sadness, wistfulness, a kind of quietude, an absolute tumult. Miss Julie, the 1888 play by August Strindberg, provoked shock at its premiere. At the closing of its operatic adaptation in Toronto lastnight, there was that same sense of shock, as well as confusion, sadness, disturbance. It's that distinct mix that makes the chamber opera such a powerful work, and well worth seeing.

Sharleen Joynt (Christine, L) Lucia Cervoni (Julie, R)
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Director and Canstage General Director Matthew Jocelyn has brought Philippe Boesmans' Julie to North America in collaboration with Soundstreams (an organization dedicated to programming new music), following a highly successful tour of the piece through Europe in 2009. As well as offering a night of dark laughs and deep thoughts, the work is a meditation on the nature of power between the sexes, and a fascinating portrayal of desire that, when mixed within the toxic boundaries of history and class structure, can be deeply destructive. The titular heroine (or perhaps anti-heroine is more appropriate), passionately performed by Canadian mezzo-soprano Lucia Cervoni, is celebrating St. Johan's night (also called St. John's Eve, or Midsummer) by dancing and flirting with her servants, specifically the valet Jean (Clarence Frazer), who is engaged to the maid Christine (Sharleen Joynt). Julie and Jean eventually consummate their flirtations, and later plan to run away together, but don't; the psychological machinations and manipulations between the two escalate, and the work ends with Julie committing suicide.

The work, which uses elements of naturalism, was influenced by elements of social Darwinism, though it has been interpreted in various ways onstage, through the lens of the American South (at CanStage in 2009) as well as the indigenous experience. The play lends itself well to explorations of power, both overt and subtle, and it's here that composer Boesmans and director Jocelyn find their most compelling expression onstage. The scenes between Julie and Jean, in Christine's shabby kitchen, are shot through with a heat that isn't coming off any stovetop; the two alternate between seducing and slapping, insinuating and insulting,  coercing and commanding. Performers Frazer and Cervoni play off these contrasts nicely, seamlessly blending singing and acting into one satisfying whole. Boesmans' jagged, icy score offers a beautiful contrast to the sexual heat, one that heightens the drama without sacrificing momentum, and utilizing a rhythmic interplay that propels the action forwards. As Music Director Leslie Dala notes in the program notes, Boesmans "creates a remarkable amount of contrast with only 18 instruments." These instruments blend perfectly with the sparse, almost Baroque-like score (which was complemented by Alain Lagarde's spare set and Michael Walton's plaintive lighting), and more than once, the conversational nature of Boesmans' work brought to mind Monteverdi's Lamento d'Arianna, recently performed at the far larger Four Seasons Centre as part of the Canadian Opera Company's Pyramus and Thisbe production.

Sharleen Joynt (Christine) & Clarence Frazer (Jean). Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
There's a power in conversation, whether it's with one's own self or with another; putting that conversation to music in a way that clearly, concisely conveys situation and emotion, and indeed, marries the two in a dramatic embrace, is an art, one Boesmans has mastered, whether in his 1993 opera Reigen (based on Arthur Schnitzler's play La Ronde) or 1999's Wintermarchen (based on Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale), another work concerned with power that lends itself to various onstage interpretations. So much of Boesmans' work is powered by a sense of intimacy coupled with the dramatic, and here, Julie's three performers rise to the challenge, combining a strong sense of timing, compelling physicality, and very good singing to create a powerful and intimate operatic experience.

This sense of intimacy was aided in no small way by the venue. With its cozy design and seating for roughly 800 or so, Toronto's Bluma Appel Theatre offered an immersive and immediate experience of Boesmans' work, making the evening's final image (a hanging staged in silhouette) all the more disturbing. Certainly, some unfamiliar with the Strindberg weren't expecting it, especially in light of the dark laughs the piece had enjoyed just moments before. Others, possibly, were so taken with Cervoni's passionate portrayal of the character, in all her dazzling contrasts — sexual power, timid girlishness, haughty snobbery, begging desperation, loudmouth demands, soft admissions — that it seemed a pity to lose her.

Lucia Cervoni (Julie) & Clarence Frazer (Jean). Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
But that unease is, I suspect, rooted in an audience desire for happy endings, something Strindberg has violently denied. Rather, one is never allowed to get too comfortable with the characters, the situation, or the work's swirling sub-themes of erotic submission and sadomasochistic power plays. Jocelyn effectively uses this discomfort by consistently underlining sharp contrasts (between characters, reactions, even visual textures) and utilizing effective blocking that highlights the character's relationships to both each other and their surroundings. With a drum consistently beating, the quiet staging of the ending — certainly unhappy but also entirely inevitable — offers a final statement that is at once disturbing, poetic, profound. Justice, or just a waste? Unlike Armide (who has her own unhappy ending of sorts), Julie isn't changed by love, or the experience of it, but rather, seems destroyed by the awareness of its harrowing absence. Her choice at the end is driven by an outside force, a symbolically male one she's always looked to and given her power over to, for validation, acceptance, a strange sense of what she thinks of as freedom. Julie may be powerful in play, but she's not power-full in life. This, perhaps, is Julie's greatest tragedy, though the opera suggests that making peace with the sharp and contrasting desires of life and our human desires is not the easy, blissful path we may believe, much less actually want. Happy endings? No, merci. Harrowing drama? Oui, encore!


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