The Killing Flower is an opera by Salvatore Sciarrino. Both Italian and English versions exist and it was the latter that was given, in semistaged form, at Walter Hall as part of the Toronto New Music Festival last night. It’s a very distinctive work and not easy to form a full appreciation of on a single hearing. The plot is straightforward enough. There’s a duke and duchess. She falls in love with a guest. They are betrayed by a servant. He kills the guest and then her. But all this happens in a highly abstracted way (made even more abstract by not being fully staged). As the composer puts it:
My theatre is ‘post cinema’ theatre, beginning with the way the scenes are laid out – they proceed by dry blocks that ‘subtract’ in order to get the point across.
Got that? Nor me but what I saw was a succession of scenes in which two characters exchanged fragments of text repeated multiple times. This was actually quite useful as there were no surtitles and it made it easier to grasp what the (very few) words actually were.
Amanda Smith was responsible for the staging. Walter Hall offers very limited scope for a director, especially when the singers are singing off music stands. There were a few bits of fabric symbolising a rose garden. Use was made of the various auditorium entrances to suggest some action and there were some quite atmospheric projections. (Enquiring minds want to know why if projections are possible in Walter Hall, surtitles aren’t). There were a couple of places where considerable imagination was needed to fill in what was going on but mostly the plot is so abstracted it hardly mattered.
The musical language is very unusual. For a start it’s very, very quiet and sparse. There are 18 players but I’ve heard piano accompaniment that was much louder. The instruments are given tiny fragments to play that combine in a sort of ripple effect. Sometimes these are notes, though not on any recognisable structure or scale, and sometimes they are taps or key clicks or other “instrument playing” noises. Sometimes it’s quieter than the audience at the Four Seasons Centre. Perhaps the mot juste is “susurration”(1). Only in the intermezzi does the volume rise above about pp. The vocal music is not dissimilar. It’s mostly a pitched whisper or murmur with very little projection. Both parts have a rhythmic structure of great complexity. It’s a very unusual soundscape and one I think one would have to experience more than once to fully grasp.
I think it’s almost impossible to evaluate the performances. I assume that what the players and singers did is what the composer intended. He was there and he was at some rehearsals. Geoff Sirett and Shannon Mercer as the duke and duchess seemed to have fully grasped the idiom. Scott Belluz, as the guest, and Keith Klassen, the servant, were equally competent and the band and conductor, Chad Heltzel, seemed to know what it was doing.
There was also a pre-show talk which might have shed some light on the work. That is if there had been chairs enough for the audience and amplification so that the composer could be heard beyond the front row and if it hadn’t been placed in a high traffic hallway. What were they thinking?
fn1: I have long wanted to use “susurration” in a review.