Tapestry Opera: Wall of Gould. Composed by Brian Current; Libretto by Liza Balkan; Directed by Philip Akin. From August 4 to 12, 2022, 8:30 p.m. Atrium of the Royal Conservatory of Music. Tickets here.
Many are the risks taken and borders crossed these days in the name of opera. Tapestry, a Toronto-based company that sees innovation as its business, has combined something like psychoanalysis and rock climbing in Gould’s Wall, which is coming to an end in the Atrium of the Royal Conservatory of Music. An entertainment for the eyes if not the ears, the play will surely be remembered as a success, but not for what an operatic traditionalist would consider the right reasons.
The subject is Glenn Gould, played with surprising visual verisimilitude by tenor Roger Honeywell. With a cap, a crumpled trench coat and open-fingered gloves, he is a constant if relatively static presence on stage, sometimes standing, sometimes sitting in his famous folding chair. The natural invitation is to consider Liza Balkan’s strictly non-linear libretto as a stream of consciousness and the vast sandstone west facade of the former RCM building as a metaphor for the pianist’s spirit (which remains, of course, the institution’s most famous alumnus).
Various characters sing from the windows and balconies of this wall, at the behest of director Philip Akin, but the central figure is Louise, an aspiring pianist who summons Gould’s spirit and becomes something like his alter ego, joining the pianist in the opening minutes of an adversarial exchange with The Teacher, and later engaging Gould on topics as relevant as audience applause and as insignificant as Fran’s restaurant menu.
However, Louise’s main feat, played by soprano-soprano Lauren Pearl, was climbing the wall and swinging from window to ledge to window, singing all the while. With a harness and lanyard, of course, but in a way that seemed to defy death and was often uncomfortable to watch. The goal was to create another metaphor, for struggle and achievement. The effect felt from a seat at balcony level was anything but abstract.
The Canadian cast projected solidly, albeit with amplification, the high-altitude Atrium (effectively the space between Koerner Hall and the original Conservatory building) not having been designed with acoustics in mind . Baritone Justin Welsh as The Teacher and mezzo-soprano Andrea Ludwig as Gould’s overly concerned mother (“watch out for germs”) made a big impression.
But it was not a bel canto evening, with composer (and bandleader) Brian Current preferring a declamatory style. Much of his rambunctious instrumental music (for five pianos and a set of 13 on the lower level) consisted of ever-climbing scales that evoked the hubbub of the halls of the Conservatory, but seemed only intermittently connected to the pathetic elements of the text. . Credit Current without succumbing to the temptation to use the Goldberg Variations or other Gouldiana pieces as easy soundtrack material. Still, it was surprising not to hear traces in the score of the music the pianist loved so much.
As for the text, there were a few references to well-known events in Gould’s life. “The Brahms was a fiasco,” say some petty onlookers, obviously referring to the infamous 1962 rendition with Leonard Bernstein of the composer’s work. Piano Concerto No. 1. Other scenes seemed imaginary, such as the meeting with another young piano student (The Girl, played with emotion by Alice Malakhov) who seeks Gould’s advice.
Balkan and Current achieve a climax in this final scene, but for much of its 55 minutes the opera portrays the main character as fragile, indecisive and troubled. It doesn’t fit the genius and provocative spirit of Canada’s favorite musical child or, it must be said, the profile of a major character in an opera seriously claiming repertory status.
A mixed evening therefore, especially for opera lovers, but a theatrical undertaking worthy of Tapestry in its audacity and technical panache. Maybe that’s all Gould’s Wall need to be. Wednesday night’s spectators, many of whom bought standing tickets, certainly expressed their approval.
It should be noted that Maniac Star, the RCM, Toronto Summer Music and the Glenn Gould School (where Current is director of the New Music Ensemble) have all been credited as production collaborators.
Another footnote: the original airing in January, scheduled as part of the 21C Music Festival, has been postponed due to COVID. The last performance of Gould’s Wall is Saturday.
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