New Zealand Festival of the Arts
Kopernikus: Opéra – rituel de mort by Claude Vivier
Directed by Peter Sellars and curated by Lemi Ponifasio
Singers: Roomful of Teeth
Instrumentalists: Ensemble l’instant donné
Opera House, Wellington
Sunday 1 March, 7 pm
It hasn’t been hard to have missed references in the international musical press to a very unusual opera by an unorthodox, fairly obscure composer.
Think again if you imagined you would be presented with a kind of operatic biography of the great astronomer, for he is merely one of a number of disparate historical and fictional figures that feature in Canadian composer Claude Vivier’s work. A work that that is dominated by the contemplation of death, subtitled: the Ritual of Death.
It was composed in 1978/79 and premiered on 9 May 1980 at the University of Montreal where it has had several subsequent productions. Vivier was killed, apparently in a homosexual encounter in Paris in 1983.
Peter Sellars directed its first United States production in 2016 at the Ojay Music Festival in California, in the production that has since been seen in various places including Bilbao, New York, Paris … and finally in Wellington. The work seems not to have been much revived, if at all, through the 1990s apart from in Canada, but has more recently seen several productions, which I enlarge on in an Appendix. One of the co-production names, apart from the Paris Autumn Festival at the Théâtre de la ville, is the KunstFestSpiele Herrenhausen, in Hanover.
The richest variety of reactions have emerged from critics and the general audience, about Kopernikus. It’s been described as a transition from life to death, transcendental, mystical, disorientating, atmospheric, ethereally beautiful, immersive, stirring, mesmerizing, evocative.
Were he alive, Vivier would claim that complaints about the obscurity and the disorientating impact of the work miss the point. It is not perhaps incoherent; but to take a sympathetic view of it, very unusual in its context, its style and language. Its subject matter which can be felt as philosophically and intellectually pretentious, suggest the sort of creation that a gifted undergraduate might produce to show a wide-ranging though recent familiarity with disparate eras and aspects of philosophical, religious notions; a juxtaposition of science, orthodox philosophical ideas laced with varieties of mysticism such as in the role of Agni, the Vedic god of fire.
The words and the music
One unusual, though plain element arises with Copernicus whose then-revolutionary findings about the movement of the planets and the sun is delivered in normal speech. Vivier suggests that “as he transformed understanding of the universe, death changes our understanding of our lives”.
Similarly pertinent, are later brief references to major philosophers, from Thales and Plato, through Averroes in the 12th century, to Copernicus himself.
We are not confronted however, by music that is problematic. There is nothing wildly dissonant and incoherent such as was favoured by the avant-garde through the latter years of the century. The character of the vocal and instrumental music is unusual, original, even bizarre, yet it has an emotional impact that marks it as genuinely imaginative. It arouses curiosity and much of it can be listened to with simple pleasure. Harmonies are usually conventional though employed in strange ways.
One review from Canada described it as ‘…a surreal experience for the audience’. And continued: ‘The work’s intimate power, manifest weirdness, sublimely sonic harmonies, meditative incandescence and above all, ritualistic remembrance of all universes past and future’.
The ‘staging’ was a curious matter; need it really have been in an opera house? For it didn’t use the pit, and the disposition of players and singers was simply functional, influenced by whoever was performing from time to time. Players mingled with singers, and they all moved about, not in a way that suggested a plot or actual events, but simply to position themselves for their next individual offering. That casualness contributed to the agreeable impression that the entire performance generated.
And there’s a dead man lying on a slab in the centre of the stage; at one point he is spoken to directly, “Eternity comes to speak to us and we must listen; sublime revelation is the voice of time…” He rises miraculously at the beginning of the second part. It wasn’t clear to me whether he then took a particular part or even spoke or sang at all.
Singers and instrumentalists
Both singers and instrumentalists have worked with Sellars elsewhere. All are dressed in white and are together on a partially raised stage with no sets other than chairs and a bed on which a dead man lies.
The seven singers, Roomful of Teeth, cover the full range from coloratura soprano to bass; they each have conspicuous roles and displayed remarkable sympathy with the music, both its coherence and its incoherence. For the most part they sing individually, but there are occasional ensembles that reveal interesting, engaging harmonies, which might technically be dissonances, but they are so beautifully used that they are heard as good examples of intelligent dissonance with genuine artistic purpose. The singers take roles: Copernicus himself and his mother, Lewis Carroll, Merlin, a witch, Mozart and the Queen of the Night, Tristan and Isolde, and a central character: Agni. But the programme notes spell out a great number of subsidiary roles taken by each singer, drawn from Vivier.
Much of the singing is in Vivier’s made-up language and most of the rest is in French and surtitles covered the latter. But it was rarely possible in a single hearing, to identify singers of individual roles, nor is there a story line to create any semblance of a normal opera.
The seven orchestral players the Ensemble l’instant donné comprise a violin, 3 clarinets – – one doubled on a bass clarinet, an oboe, trumpet – not usually visible, and trombone, and there’s a collection of percussion. It was a lively, always energising performance by these seven musicians, conspiring brilliantly with the singers throughout.
Also included in a well balanced programme book, is an excellent, short essay by Clarissa Dunn (of ‘Concert FM’, at least for the moment).
A New York Times review commented: “The best Vivier performances capture his delirious, jewelled grandeur but also his modesty — the earnest intensity of his desire to communicate, even through nonsense syllables.”
After its initial performances in Montreal it has been revived there in 1985, 1986, 1988 and 1989; in London in 1985 at the Almeida Festival, in Paris in 1989, and in Vancouver in 1990.
It’s remarkable that it had taken 41 years for it to be heard in New York, and 38 years for the United States generally (at the Ojai Music Festival in California in 2016); but does that say something about relations between the US and Canada, and even more with Quebec: not least about the cultural condition of a country where opera, and classical music generally, are in the hands of the private sector rather than of enlightened state institutions.
It’s fared better in Europe. In Amsterdam in 2014; in 2018 it was performed in the Théâtre du Capitole in Toulouse; at the Staatsoper unter den Linden in Berlin, in January 2019. And as remarked above, this production was shared with KunstFestSpiele Herrenhausen, in Hanover. While it’s now, perhaps as a result of its espousal by a director as famous as Sellars, being seen more widely, it has clearly not been eagerly taken up by any of the major opera houses. Its first appearance in New York, last year, was at a minor Brooklyn theatre, the production have been premiered in a planetarium in Buenos Aires; in Paris it was at the normally non-music Théâtre de la ville, which is opposite the major operatic, Châtelet theatre.
A review of a 2001 performance in Montreal in London’s Opera magazine commented that Kopernikus had become Canada’s most frequently performed opera. And it remarked that the performance seen in Montreal came at the end of a cross-country run of performances by Toronto’s Autumn Leaf Productions.
It was that production that ran in Huddersfield in 2000, and was reviewed by Opera magazine’s editor John Allison in February 2001. His very measured review included this observation: “It could easily irritate even the mildest of sceptics, and the compelling grip of this performance was thanks in part to the simple and poetic staging by the Toronto-based Autumn Leaf Performance company”.
It was the simplicity and unpretentiousness of the Sellars’ production in Wellington that moderated the degree of scepticism that I too felt about the ‘story’ aspect of the work.
And I found myself somewhat, by no means entirely, in sympathy with critic Robert Markow’s remark in Opera magazine about the Toronto performance:
“Kopernikus is rich in potential, yet the opera is maddeningly unfulfilling. Beyond the score’s obviously imaginative and original instrumental sound-world, a giant leap of faith is required to connect with Vivier’s autobiographical display of self-indulgence masquerading as a universal initiation myth.”
And I do not share a peremptory dismissal such as this: “Yet within three minutes of the 70-minute ‘opera-ritual of death’, it was evident that Mr. Vivier’s inspiration came from a senseless jumble of eclectic paraphernalia.”
By the way, the name has become an EU issue. There has been a move to change the spelling of the name to the German version, which is as spelt in Vivier’s opera (though in French it’s Copernic). Poland has protested; it is Kopernik in Polish. Copernicus was born Torun which is now in Poland but which over the centuries has been in either Poland or Prussia. One Polish authority has recommended a compromise using the Latin spelling which is Copernicus, which if course has long been the international name.