I’ve learned not to dismiss Romeo Castellucci’s work on first watching because it has a nasty habit of starting to make sense on reflection. His 2018 production of Richard Strauss’ Salome for the Salzburg Festival may be a case in point. Castellucci seems determined to destroy any preconceptions we have about the work and Franz Welser-Möst in the pit is a willing accomplice.
Hockey Noir; music by André Ristic, words by graphic novelist Cecil Castellucci, is a piece presented by Montreal based ECM+ and brought to Toronto in collaboration with Continuum and The Toronto Comic Arts Festival. It’s described as a “graphic opera” which I suppose is OK as far as it goes. I saw it as a theatre piece incorporating, and sometimes parodying, opera, musical theatre, film noir, the graphic novel and animation. It’s set in the 1950s and riffs off the old tropes of Montreal/Toronto hockey rivalry and the entanglement of local government and organised crime in Montreal.
Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron is a very peculiar opera. It’s pretty much an extended debate about the nature of God cast in highly abstract terms. So who better to direct it than the almost unbearably cerebral Romeo Castellucci. Previous encounters with his work have been puzzling, thought provoking (and WTF provoking) but never dull. All those terms could be deployed to describe the production recorded at L’Opéra nationale de Paris in 2015.
Well not so much “best of” as the good stuff that really made my year. It was a pretty good year overall. On the opera front there was much to like from the COC as well as notable contributions from the many smaller ensembles and opera programs. The one that will stick longest with me was Peter Sellars’ searing staging of Handel’s Hercules at the COC. It wasn’t a popular favourite and (predictably) upset the traditionalists but it was real theatre and proof that 250 year old works can seem frighteningly modern and relevant. Two other COC productions featured notable bass-baritone COC debuts and really rather good looking casts. Atom Egoyan’s slightly disturbing Cosí fan tutte not only brought Tom Allen to town but featured a gorgeous set of lovers, with Wallis Giunta and Layla Claire almost identical twins, as well as a welcome return for Tracy Dahl. Later in the year Gerry Finley made his company debut in the title role of Verdi’s Falstaff in an incredibly detailed Robert Carsen production. I saw it three times and I’m still pretty sure I missed stuff.
There’s a bit at the end of the first act of Parsifal where Gurnemanz looks at Parsifal and says “you haven’t understood anything have you?” or words to that effect. Watching Romeo Castellucci’s 2011 production for Brussels’ La Monnaie theatre my sympathy was very much with the Pure Fool. This is one of the most incomprehensible productions I have seen. Act 1 is very dark. Most of the time only a tiny fragment of the stage is lit. The first thing we see is a snake in its own tiny patch of light. Then we are in a forest and the Grail Knights appear to be part of the forest. Whether they are just wearing suits of leaves or are actually plants is unclear. Kundry, in a white hoodie, and Parsifal in street clothes are recognisably human. Titurel and his squires wear overalls and hard hats. One of them carries a chain saw. The “swan” appears to be a lit up tree branch though later it appears as a very decomposed skeleton. The Grail Scene is played out with a white curtain, with a small black comma on it, across the entire stage. The curtain is withdrawn and we see fluorescent lights above the greenery, which takes up much less space than one has so far imagined. Is Monsalvat a grow-op and the knights marijuana plants?