Pomegranate, opera in two acts. Music by Kye Marshall. Libretto by Amanda Hale. Jennifer Tarver, director. Rosemary Thomson, conductor. Production by the Canadian Opera Company. COC Theatre, June 2, 2023.
Most operas go through stages before reaching their final form. Pomegranate, which got what was billed as its world premiere Friday night at the Canadian Opera Company Theatre, in fact, started life in 2014 as a song cycle by Kye Marshall (music) and Amanda Hale (words).
By 2019 it had evolved into a chamber opera telling the tale of two young lovers who connect in ancient Pompeii as initiates to a female mystery cult and then find themselves reincarnated in the Fly By Night, a Toronto bar that served as a centre for lesbian activism in 1981. A successful staging by Buddies in Bad Times Theatre attracted the interest of the COC.
It would be natural to expect the embrace of the largest company in the land to lead to many enhancements. The orchestra is indeed larger. Now there is a chorus of six. A preamble having something to do with a school trip has been added to the libretto. But inflation is not a synonym for value. What Pomegranate has gained in magnitude, I fear, it has lost in clarity and freshness.
One reason for the miscarriage was the puzzling decision — by the company that did more than any other to establish surtitles in the opera house — to deny spectators this basic aid to comprehension. It can be argued that opera audiences (and creators) have become too reliant on text flashed overhead but the truth of the matter is that sopranos in full career, especially in a so-so acoustic environment, are difficult to understand. Too often in Pomegranate we were reduced to recognizing a word here and there and attempting to construct meaning retroactively. In the midst of the 75-minute first act this became an exhausting exercise.
The dilemma also put us in the paradoxical position of listening with rapt attention to Teiya Kasahara 笠原貞野, a performer of formidable stage presence, communicating passionately as the priestess but not having much of an idea of what was on this character’s mind. Likewise, the couple at the centre of the story (mezzo-soprano Adanya Dunn as Suli/Suzie and soprano Danielle Buonaiuto as Cassia/Cass) spun their lyrical duets but left us with little more than the general understanding that they longed to be together. Given the scads of notes they were required to sing, they made a strangely thin impression.
There were nevertheless performances to savour, from baritone Peter Barrett (the lone male on stage) as Marcus the centurion and (later) Salvatore the scandalized uncle; and the mezzo-soprano Catherine Daniel, whose warm work as Suzie’s distraught mother represented the opera’s height of pathos.
Kasahara as the barkeep Jules had a memorable aria in a high-end Broadway style reminiscent of Kurt Weill. Music in the first act was modally classical, in keeping with the setting. If Marshall relied heavily on that “antique” standby, the harp, there was still plenty of colour in the score, which began with an old-fashioned overture. Cello and violin had heartfelt solos. Dramatic timpani rolls alerted us to the peril posed by Mount Vesuvius.
The chorus, as marshalled by director Jennifer Tarver, struck appropriate poses in Act 1. An energetic dance in the Fly By Night earned the only spontaneous applause of the evening. The lovers sometimes got physical but there was little in the way of inventive interaction. The attack on Marcus by a swarm of bees, so memorable in 2019, went for nothing. Sets and costumes were adequate.
Several performers were making COC debuts. Notable among them was the conductor Rosemary Thomson, who led the 27 or so members of the COC Orchestra with authority and panache. It was interesting to watch her incisive work on the sidelines. Opera conductors are usually sequestered in the pit. The COC Theatre, a brickwork former warehouse space, has no pit.
Pomegranate, which had a sold-out run of three performances, was endorsed by Pride Toronto as a Major Cultural Event and billed by the COC as boundary-breaking. Well, we are living in 2023. Same-sex love is fully established as a subject for operatic treatment.
Which is to say that Pomegranate, even in its problematic expanded form, has the raw materials of a success. It is scheduled to be revived in Vancouver in August 2024. There is time.
[Update: June 5, 2023] A previous version misspelt Teiya Kasahara’s 笠原貞野 name.
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