Claude Vivier’s 1980 opera Kopernikus is subtitled Rituel de mort and that’s perhaps how it’s best approached. It concerns the transition from life to whatever comes after of the young woman Agni. There is no linear narrative; rather, there are a series of encounters with various characters including Lewis Carroll, Mozart, the Queen of the Night and so on. There are also references to the cosmos, various constellations and a pantheon of astronomers. Some of the opera is sung in French, and a bit in German, but mostly it’s in a language of Vivier’s own invention. It’s for the audience to ascribe meaning to what they see and hear.

Bruno Roy © Darryl Block Photography
Bruno Roy
© Darryl Block Photography

None of us know what, if anything happens after death. To Vivier, it seems a dream state. And if, as Jung and Freud would have it, dreams have common elements for all of us, each of us dream our own dreams. Relating to that seems to me the key to interpreting Kopernikus. The experience is different for each of us. Each of us must find our own meaning.

Musically it’s a complex piece with lots of extended vocal technique and no tonal anchor points. It's ethereally beautiful rather than abrasive. The instrumentalists are part of the action and play the complex score from memory. It’s quite a challenge to perform and to conduct.

Danielle MacMillan and ensemble © Darryl Block Photography
Danielle MacMillan and ensemble
© Darryl Block Photography

Against the Grain Theatre’s new production is directed by Joel Ivany with choreography by Matjash Mrozewski. Yes, if things weren’t already complicated enough, two dancers are added to this staging. It’s staged on a multi-level gantry/scaffolding that links to the upper level of the two tier Theatre Passe Muraille. It’s quite a deep stage with stairs and ladders linking the levels and multi-coloured LEDs fronting some of the scaffolding. The effect is that characters – singers and instrumentalists – appear and disappear out into and out of the gloom. It’s effective and, in this small theatre, immersive. I really think it would be hard to stage this effectively in a much larger house.

Krisztina Szabó © Darryl Block Photography
Krisztina Szabó
© Darryl Block Photography

Against the Grain Theatre has assembled an outstanding cast of established and up-and-coming singers supported by some of Toronto’s best young chamber musicians. Mezzo Danielle MacMillan sings Agni, a haunting performance. She really conveys the sense of being adrift, alone and desperate for answers. Baryton martin Bruno Roy plays the nearest Agni has to a psychopomp. It’s a very fine performance. He has a lot of extended vocal technique, some of it set quite high, and he’s creepy as heck, the best thing I’ve seen him do. Veteran bass Alain Coulombe is a booming Merlin and an accomplished percussionist when required. The remaining roles are split between sopranos Jonelle Sills and Anne-Marie MacIntosh, mezzo Krisztina Szabó and baritone Dion Mazerolle, all are most impressive. Anisa Tejpar and William Yong are the dancers, appearing to good effect all over the set as required. The instrumentalists are heroic. Topher Mokrzewski conducts and somehow manages to coordinate music and action in what sometimes feels like more than three dimensions.

Taken as a whole, it’s 75 minutes of immersive and mesmerizing music theatre. Vivier, arguably Canada’s greatest composer, gets a worthy production of one his most important works.

*****