Canadian Opera Company & Against the Grain Theatre/Mozart’s Requiem, composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, (completed by Franz Xaver Süssmayr), conducted by Johannes Debus, directed by Joel Ivany, streaming Nov. 27, 2021 to May 27, 2022. Free, but registration required at coc.ca or atgtheatre.com.
This production of Mozart’s Requiem certainly has a chorus on bleachers behind an orchestra, with soloists in front, and a conductor at the head. But, it also features the Scarborough Bluffs, Lake Ontario, Woodbine Beach, a walk in the woods, spoken commentary by the soloists, dining room chairs, and lighted globes. In other words, this is a Joel Ivany treatment of a beloved music classic. Of interest is the fact that COC music director, Johannes Debus is listed as a co-creator.
Ivany and his Toronto-based Against the Grain Theatre have garnered an international reputation for radical rethinks of opera and choral music. As a director, Ivany always begins with some kind of metaphor.
The throughline in this case is a film of an empty beach with waves lapping on the shore and the bluffs towering behind, which is pictured on a giant screen behind the chorus. Add in the soloists — soprano Midori Marsh, mezzo-soprano Marion Newman, tenor Andrew Haji and bass Vartan Gabrielian — wearing casual clothes, who are perched on dining room chairs facing in different directions on the beach.
Cut to the Four Seasons Centre, where we see the soloists on those same chairs wearing formal dress. Beside each of them is a little table with a lighted globe. Ivany sometimes has the soloists lift the globes out of their cradles and hold them aloft. He also has the singers react with each other, even to the point of tears.
Other times he moves them around the stage. At one point he has them in a pose that duplicates one they had on the beach, with Marsh and Gabrielian kneeling on the floor, Newman sitting on a chair, and Haji standing behind, touching Newman’s shoulder.
And then there are the spoken statements. In black and white closeups, after certain musical sections of the Requiem, the singers talk about everything from acts of kindness, to memories of ancestors, to the meaning of water, to hope for a better world. The ending, which is quite moving, involves both writing in the sand (outside), and writing on cards (inside), but I’ll let the surprising final image be revealed to those who stream this production.
So, what does all this metaphorically mean? Collectively, the visual and spoken elements certainly conjure up a sense of loss and isolation. In their introduction, Debus and Ivany talk about a time of healing. The Requiem, as the men point out, contains elements that speak both of hell and paradise, of both darkness and light.
The lighted globes conjured up for me images of fortune-tellers. Is this Ivany’s sly way of telling us that the future is uncertain and unpredictable? I also think that some purists might object to interrupting the music for the spoken clips, but I thought that was gutsy. This is a production that embraces many theatrical elements to broaden the context of the Requiem, and that’s how it should be treated.
Does this production give us hope? I’m not sure. The four soloists leave the beach going in different directions, but there is that startling ending……
Which brings us to the music.
I’ve always admired Debus as a conductor because he never goes to extremes. Rather, his measured and careful approach is designed to capture the intentions of the composer. His musical interpretations are rich for that reason because they bring out the emotional subtext. The Requiem has many moods — fear, terror, pleading, resignation, hope, peace — and they are all there as performed by the COC orchestra and chorus.
Now the chorus has not been together for many pandemic months, and I found the women, in particular, a bit scratchy at the top. The men were more cohesive, but that being said, it was a heartfelt performance on the part of the singers, which is the most important thing, after all.
The COC chorus is simply one of the best acting ensembles around, and that element was very present in their singing. By the time Madama Butterfly comes around in February, I’m sure chorus master Sandra Horst will have whipped them into perfect singing shape.
Three of the soloists come from the COC Ensemble Studio — soprano Marsh, tenor Haji and bass Gabrielian, but even though they are just at the beginning of their careers, they prove to be marvellous talents.
Marsh has a voice that is sweet and pure, but it also has heft when needed. It is a gorgeous bright sound. Haji has a romantic, Italianate veneer to his singing, and is clearly headed for the Puccini and Verdi repertoire down the line. With a voice that is powerful and passionate in character, what a career he has ahead of him. Gabrielian possesses a large, manly, rolling bass with lusty bottom notes that command the ear. He is an impressive singer.
The import is First Nations mezzo-soprano Marion Newman, who has been gracing opera and oratorio stages for almost two decades. She is one of the first break-out Indigenous opera singers in Canada, and her voice has only grown in stature. Her sound remains rich, opulent and powerful, with a lustrous sheen.
Taylor Long is listed as director of photography, and I assume he did the editing as well, with input from Ivany. (No one is listed as editor.) With emphasis on the soloists, the film cuts between the outdoors and the indoors, but includes shots of the chorus faces, Debus, and the stage as a whole.
Taken as a totality, this film is a compelling mix of music, text, and visual elements that makes you focus on the actual words of the Requiem more closely, helped, of course, by the subtitles. As a result, Mozart’s masterpiece, which is already a powerful commentary on life and death, becomes even more sweeping in its impact.
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