Pyramus and Thisbe

The COC’s first main stage production of a contemporary Canadian work in over fifteen years; Barbara Monk Feldman’s Pyramus and Thisbe, is now in the early stages of rehearsal and, yesterday, some of us got a bit of a preview by way of a working rehearsal.  What seems to be happening here is that the COC is creating a show of a kind that has not previously been seen on the Four Seasons stage and will shake up a lot of preconceptions of what a company like COC can offer.

First thing to note is that the show is rather more than Monk Feldman’s new work.  It’s prefaced by two pieces by Monteverdi; the lament from Arianna and Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda.  This is not just to round out the bill.  The three pieces are being staged as a continuous, integrated, “drama”.  Having seen only a fraction of the staging of the Monteverdi, plus some sketches, I’m really curious how that is going to work but I think it’s possible to see it as a journey that explores the tension between man and woman and between the ideal feminine and the ideal masculine which, perhaps, can only truly be united in death.  That’s a pretty abstract idea for a stage work and I think one has to be prepared for there being no “narrative” as such.

This is very much reinforced by the nature of the Monk Feldman piece.  It’s not a straightforward, even a serious straightforward, version of the Ovid story that Shakespeare used in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  It sets text fragments from diverse sources.  Ovid is there but so is St. John of the Cross and Rilke and several more.  The music too is fragmentary and impressionistic.  It suggests Debussy without being at all like Debussy.  It’s as if time and space themselves are suspended.  This, of course, follows some of Monteverdi’s most dramatic music so the contrast and the transition is going to be intriguing and much will depend on how well director Christopher Alden can project an appropriate sense of continuity and coherence.  Sets and costumes seem heavily influenced by Rothko (go research the Feldman/Rothko connection!) and reinforce the abstract nature of the piece.

2015-09-18-COC-Pyramus-036By now the reader may have noted that the word “opera” has not appeared so far in this piece.  That’s because I’m not sure it’s helpful to think of this show in operatic terms at all.  It’s more like a meditation through music and drama.  It’s also quite short.  It will, in final form, run maybe seventy minutes without interval.  I think, if one can get one’s head into the right space it will likely be a very rewarding seventy minutes but anyone coming expecting an “opera” may spend most of that time worrying about what they are seeing and hearing rather than experiencing it.  Come prepared!

2015-09-18-COC-Pyramus-101The photographs used here are by Chris Hutcheson and show Philip Addis, Krisztina Szabó, Christopher Alden, Johannes Debus and Rachel Andrist in their various roles during yesterday’s staging rehearsal for the Combattimento portion of the show.

I don’t usually reproduce vast swathes of company press releases but for this one I think the reader might want to read Chris Alden and Barbara Monk Feldman’s notes so here they are:

Composer’s Note

The opera Pyramus and Thisbe is based on the story from Ovidʼs Metamorphoses about a boy and a girl who fall in love but are forbidden to marry by their parents. They communicate through a crack in the wall that separates them and decide to meet secretly outside the city at night, but they miss one another in the darkness. The boy takes his life in the mistaken belief that the girl was killed by a lioness. The girl discovers the dying boy and also takes her own life. The families reconcile and bury the ashes of the lovers in the same urn.

The opera was inspired by the painting of the same title by Nicolas Poussin which I first saw in Frankfurt in 1983. I thought then about making this ancient love story into a modern one. It occurred to me that men and women might have had a very different perception of time in that ancient mythological age, a time before there was reason like the kind of rationality we have in the post Enlightenment sense. When we look into the rolling sea waves or walk in wilderness landscapes I think we get a sense of the earlier feeling for time that existed in the old mythological period. I decided to use very little action in the dramatic sense but to use constant motion in the way the music alternates between what I imagine as an ancient feeling for time and a modern one.

I thought about the light and dark in the Poussin painting and the way music instead of pigment could convey the same feeling. The opera was in the back of my mind until 2008-2010 – by then I had found the literary excerpts I needed and composed the music. I wanted the music to fill the emotional spaces and embrace the interior landscape of the characters’ unconscious in a non-dramatic way. The music unfolds in a sustained manner, not following the arrow of time in the story, but inevitably, like the ocean.

At the beginning Pyramus is alone and just before he decides to take his own life he becomes immobilized and traumatized by the thought of approaching death. I used Faulkner’s words here.

In the next section Thisbe is alone in the wilderness and encounters a lioness which I thought of as representing the spirit of nature. The lioness symbolizes Thisbeʼs fear of inner transformation and of the unknown and in a dream-world sense the lioness symbolizes Thisbeʼs decision not to run from her fears. I wanted the music to reflect a very concrete feeling about the nature of time, especially in the characterization of Thisbe whose modern courage in the encounter with the lioness changes the outcome of the story. The poem of spiritual crisis Dark Night of the Soul by the sixteenth century mystic St. John of the Cross is quoted in this section.

Throughout the opera I avoid dramatic climax and definitive resolution. For the ending my intention was for the sustained quality of the music to reflect the poetry of Rilke. I wanted the music mainly to show that the line between inner and outer reality is ragged, and that through opening oneself to fragile moments of the present there is also an opening to something of the feeling that what one does not know is the measure of being. In this opera the love story does not end in death: rather, it was my intention to end with the love continuing in time and with our questioning the nature of that time.

Barbara Monk Feldman

Director’s Notes and Synopses on Three Musical Tales

During the past 400 or so years since it was first “invented” in Renaissance Italy, the operatic art form has always had an intriguingly schizophrenic nature. On one hand, it has always depended for its survival on the support of the rich and powerful patrons for whom a night at the opera is just as much a social as it is an esthetic experience. But on the other hand, with its magically alchemical mingling of words and music, opera has managed to penetrate into dark, mysterious and even painful realms of human experience, soothing its audience with sweet sounds while it tells its subversive stories.

The three musical tales which share the stage in tonight’s “exotic and irrational entertainment” (as Dr. Samuel Johnson described it) span the entire history of opera , but share similar themes. Claudio Monteverdi and Barbara Monk Feldman’s pieces, all drawn from classical/mythological sources, address the spikily ambivalent nature of male/female relationships, the societal forces which conspire to throw roadblocks in the way of the deep human need to find spiritual and physical connection with another human being, and the eternal quest of us mortal beings to move beyond our ego fixations and find a richer and more organic relationship with existence.

Lamento d’Arianna, the only existing fragment from Monteverdi’s second opera, became the composer’s most celebrated and emulated piece in his day. Drawn from Ovid and other classical sources, the story tells of the Cretan princess, Ariadne, who falls in love with Theseus of Thebes, then helps him escape from the Labyrinth and kill her half-brother, the monstrous Minotaur. After this betrayal of her culture, Ariadne flees her homeland with Theseus, who rewards her by summarily dumping her on the first island they come across. He sails victoriously back to his kingdom as she laments her abandonment, alternating between extremes of sorrow, anger, fear, self-pity and desolation.

From a modern feminist perspective, Ariadne’s predicament is the perfect metaphor of a woman’s position in our patriarchal world. She trades her heritage, throne and power for a relationship with a powerful man. Worried that his people will not accept a foreign princess as their queen, he leaves her in the dust after she has given up everything for him, placing a higher value on his societal role than on hers. Ironically, audiences of Monteverdi’s time might well have perceived Ariadne’s story as teaching a moral lesson wherein a dangerously proud woman is justly punished for defying gender roles, betraying her father and choosing her own mate.

In Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, the “heroine” confronts the Christian patriarchy head on. Taken from an episode in Torquato Tasso’s epic poem, Gerusalemme Liberata, the piece thrillingly enacts the encounter of the Christian crusader knight Tancredi by the walls of Jerusalem with a mysterious Saracen opponent. They fight and the unknown infidel warrior is mortally wounded. Dying, the stranger asks to be baptized and is ultimately recognized by the traumatized Tancredi as his beloved Clorinda.

The knock-out-drag-out fight to the death on the marital battlefield in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf has nothing on Monteverdi’s terse depiction of male/female aggression. It is the definitive dramatization of the Battle of the Sexes, portraying men and women as two separate species, forever unknowable to each other, locked in an enmity as everlasting as that of Christians and Muslims endlessly fighting for possession of the holy city Jerusalem. Tasso’s metaphorical joust functions on multiple levels, showing us in painstaking detail how each man kills the thing he loves. The Narrator tells us that “Three times the knight holds the woman/in his strong arms and as often/she escapes his tenacious embrace,/the embrace of a proud enemy and not of a lover.” Yet there is something undeniably erotic about this sadomasochistic encounter between ambivalent lovers, suggesting that the flip side of the fearful mysteries and secrets which men and women (or people in general) hide from each other is actually an intense attraction to the mysteriously seductive Other. From a modern cultural perspective, it seems a shame that Tasso’s gloriously fearless female Saracen Clorinda is not only put down by the male crusader Tancredi but, before dying, begs to be baptized so that she may convert to his faith (once again depicting the inevitable triumph of patriarchal Christianity). But who can deny the beauty of this denouement, which sings so exquisitely of forgiveness and transcendence?

Pyramus and Thisbe is all about transcendence, even going so far as to transcend a conventional narrative structure in order to work its subtle magic as a theatre piece built not on action but on contemplation, stillness, even silence. Barbara Monk Feldman was initially inspired to write the opera not so much by the Pyramus and Thisbe story (recounted by Ovid, then famously used by Shakespeare as the script mercilessly but mirthfully mangled by the mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream), but by Nicholas Poussin’s painting depicting a pivotal moment in the tragic story.

The composer’s libretto, a fascinating collage of fragments of disparate texts, does not attempt to recount the story in a literal manner, which concerns a pair of lovers separated by a wall which their fathers, mortal enemies, have constructed. The lovers, having found a chink in the wall, use it to communicate with each other, eventually devising a secret plan to meet by night. Thisbe is the first to arrive at the agreed upon location, but is frightened away when she sees a lioness approach. Escaping, she drops her veil, which the lioness rips apart, leaving it torn and smeared in the blood from a recent kill. After the lioness departs, Pyramus arrives, sees the torn and bloody veil, and assumes that Thisbe has been murdered. Grief stricken, he stabs himself only moments before Thisbe returns to find her dying lover. She then uses his bloody dagger to end her own life. This tale (which Shakespeare also used as the basis for the plot of Romeo and Juliet) is a classic reminder that “the course of true love never did run smooth.” With its warring fathers, veritable Berlin Wall and climactic Liebestod, the opera suggests that the true union of two souls is impossible in this imperfect world, achievable only after death.

Ovid’s story is used as a jumping-off point to address the wider issue of coming to terms with existence. The first section, using a Faulkner text about a man collapsing the moment after he has been fatally shot, shows us Pyramus in the moment of his suicide, struggling with his own death-wish. The second section is taken from the opening poem of Dark Night of the Soul, a religious text by the 16th-century Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross. It equates Thisbe’s secret nocturnal journey to meet Pyramus with the journey of the soul to its blissful union with God, achieved through spiritual negation of worldly things. The rapturous atmosphere of this episode is tempered by Thisbe’s awareness of worldly danger (the lioness). The pivotal moment in the opera occurs at the beginning of the third section, when Thisbe, in a text by the 20th-century German psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers, says to Pyramus, “Don’t sacrifice yourself, be yourself!” In doing so, she urges him to transcend the endless mortal cycles of desire, aggression and ego fixation which are exemplified in the stories of tormented human interactions, like those of Ariadne and Theseus and Tancredi and Clorinda. When, climactically, Pyramus responds with stanzas from Rilke’s ecstatic Orpheus Sonnets, he takes up Thisbe’s challenge and steps outside the box of traditionally dogmatic patriarchal assumptions to embrace a wider connection to existence, moving beyond his fear of the unknown, the unconscious, and finally of death itself.

 Christopher Alden

1 thought on “Pyramus and Thisbe

  1. Pingback: Array Ensemble in the RBA | operaramblings

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