I caught the second and final performance of Isis and Osiris – Gods of Egypt presented by Voicebox:Opera in Concert yesterday. It’s a new piece with a libretto by Sharon Singer and music by Peter-Anthony Togni. It tells the story of mythical ancient Egypt under the rule of sibling consorts Isis and Osiris and there struggle with their brother Seth who embodies violence and chaos. In the process Seth disposes of Osiris in fourteen pieces but Isis manages to gather up all save the phallus. A golden replacement is made, Osiris is revived and the cosmic order restored. It’s quite a promising premise but it never really comes off.
The biggest problem is the libretto. Rather than let the stage action unfold and tell us the story, much of the time it’s just narrated by the characters. It’s not even interesting language. Mostly it’s prose that could have been lifted from an EU directive on sausage manufacturing. There are places where it aspires to more and some of them succeed. Isis gets a rather good aria early in Act 2 for example but often even these attempts fall flat, either through cliché or over earnestness. The “Hymn to the Phallus” in Act 2, for example, is unintentionally hilarious. There are also weird continuity problems. We are dealing here with a bunch of gods who have gone to some length to explain their divinity and their divine origins so how on earth can one of them come out with a line like “Only fools believe in the supernatural”?
It’s not much redeemed by the score. Basically what we get is a tonal numbers opera with spoken dialogue, accompanied recitative for the prosy story telling, a few arias and duets and some choruses. It’s also retro, startlingly so. It could have been written in 1916 rather than 2016. Some of the devices, like using fake “ethnic” tunes for effect, should have died with Puccini. There are echoes of English country dances, Anglican church music and operetta but it mostly settles into an approach that seems somewhere between Rudolph Valentino and Disney. To be fair, I’m not sure what one could do with the prosy bits of the libretto but writing a pretty unvarying vocal line and backing it with the orchestra repeating variations on little figures maybe isn’t the answer, Especially when, as often as not, the little figure is a sort of snake charmer cliché. (It’s probably a good thing that Osiris’ cobra head crown didn’t put in an appearance) I liked that there are real arias and duets but if one is going to do that in such a retro manner some real melody might not hurt. The choruses are pretty decent too, perhaps reflecting the composer’s experience and reputation as a composer of church music.
I did like the set and costume designs (mostly variations of gold on black) and the very effective lighting designs. And within the constraints of it technically (very technically) being a “concert” performance, the crowded stage and the limited rehearsal time I thought the blocking and use of the chorus was pretty effective. Credit to Guillermo Silva-Martin for all those elements. The performances were really good too. There was a very strong quartet of soloists playing the siblings. Michael Barrett was in fine voice as Osiris and Lucia Cesaroni’s darkish soprano was perfect for his sister consort. She looked stunning too. Michael Nyby, as Seth, pretty much stole the show. It’s maybe easier to incarnate Evil than Good but he certainly made the most of it. Julie Nesrallah as Nepthys was also very effective and I could happily have seen more of her. The other parts were well cast and the largish chorus performed admirably. Robert Cooper led the small chamber ensemble in the pit with verve.
All in all, it was an odd and disappointing experience. Toronto has a vibrant contemporary opera scene and there’s lots of good work being produced, mostly at the intersection of the opera and contemporary instrumental music scenes. This piece just seemed to come out of a completely different creative universe.
Photo credits: Gary Beechey