Gayan De Silva: Suspected of intention to defraud The State educational system by providing student medical care in Sri Lanka.
Marina Navolska: Arrested for participation in civic protest unauthorised by The State.
Kelly Davidson: Found guilty of breaching State gender laws prohibiting transition from birth gender to other.
Ahmed Habib: Interrogated by The State following emigration from the U.S. and subsequent conversion to Islam.
Samantha Melrose: Detained as possible enemy of The State. Brother, a known terrorist. Evidence and charges pending.
Paul Muller: Investigated in accordance with The State doctrine of familial complicity. Great-uncle, a Nazi in wartime Germany. Citizen denies any and all present-day Party affiliation.
Noor Haddad: Accused by The State of forbidden cultural practice for wearing a hijab.
The characters may be fictitious; The State, an imagined antagonist; but the stories, though admittedly realigned from real-life to varying degrees, are all too familiar.
Against the Grain Theatre presents Bound, a spare, disquieting musical docudrama, raw and inflamed, ringing with the echo of today’s headline news. Unapologetically presented as a work in progress, director Joel Ivany’s searing profile of democracy turned savage blazes with anger. Precious human values are weighed and tested, personal rights systemically shredded one by one in a nightmarish Orwellian portrait of hyper-government in action, all-seeing, all-computing, insidious and perverted.
There is no single unifying narrative in effect here, no simplistic, predictable arc, no feel-good denouement. Dramatic resolution is as elusive as plot line. All that exists for us as witnesses to the horror of institutionalized bigotry and persecution are seven disparate sketches, ragged remnants of broken lives.
A trail of pseudo-official signage, State-sanctioned pronouncements extolling the rightness of obedience and conformity, guide us through the Canadian Opera Company’s grimly institutional Tanenbaum Centre where AtG has temporarily taken residence. Caged in a freight elevator, we rise to a cheerless rehearsal studio. Blackness descends. The State commences a harrowing 60-minute series of interrogations, its victims helpless and confined in LX designer Jason Hand’s cell blocks of stark white light. There is no escape. The realization is excruciating.
Yet, for all its omnipresence, and it is considerable, for all the power of The State’s voice, chillingly embodied by actor Martha Burns in a darkly brilliant performance, the focus of Ivany’s attention remains elsewhere. Again and again, the director returns us to the central beats in his horror tale. Habib. Navolska. De Silva. Davidson. Melrose. Muller. Haddad. Their stories break free. It is this quality of expression flowing from repression — pain, despair, rage — that Bound channels with such force.
Enter George Frideric Handel, an irascible 18th century genius with enormous heart, perennially preoccupied with issues of suffering and abuse, demonstrable and subtextual both, throughout his career. Suddenly the Baroque morphs into the Millennium. Bound takes musical flight.
Repurposing a singularly satisfying handful of arias drawn from the composer’s extensive inventory of operas, semi-operas and oratorios, Ivany sends his otherwise austere, largely expository libretto soaring, rewriting lyrics to suit dramatic context. Partnered by music director and pianist Topher Mokrzewski and musical advisor Kevin Lau, Bound assumes a marked timelessness and quite unexpected sense of grace.
Mokrzewski’s exquisitely sensitive, nuanced approach at the keyboard to an essentially found score is stunning, a superbly molded, passionately rendered conveyance of mood and emotion, colour and tone.
In the role of Gayan De Silva, tenor Asitha Tennekoon targets his character’s complexity, his clear, ringing instrument piercing layers of shock, bitterness, defiance. His Dread the fruits of liberal folly voiced to Dread the fruits of Christian folly from Handel’s Theodora opens the evening on boundless strings of high notes, a dazzling virtuoso display of impossibly quick runs.
Appearing as Marina Navolska, singer actor Danika Lorèn greatly impresses, her strong, vibrant soprano approaching spinto dimensions. There is an urgency to this voice, a commanding resolve ideally suited to Navolska’s stubbornly rebellious spirit.
In one of Bound’s most soulful turns, counter-tenor David Trudgen gifts us with an intensely moving Kelly Davidson, his phrasing and pitch perfectly measured, his legato endlessly heartbreaking. I have fought who I am, he sings, evoking Tolomeo’s stirring Stille amare, già vi sento. Tears flow.
Singing with shining beauty and warmth, baritone Justin Welsh offers up a brave Ahmed Habib, spiritual, unbowed, eternally centred.
Mezzo-soprano Victoria Marshall is Samantha Melrose. No! No! I’ve done nothing wrong!, she cries, voicing arguably the nimblest lyric of the evening. A centrepiece of Semele, Handel’s tripping Iris hence away is utterly reoriented here, delivered by Marshall with persuasive authority accented by Mokrzewski’s pulsing arpeggios.
Michael Uloth is Paul Muller. It requires no small amount of courage on the part of a bass to sing a piece originally written for castrato. To his abiding credit, Uloth enthusastically embraces the challenge, tackling George Frideric’s deservedly celebrated Ombra mai fu, repurposed for his character as What more can I say?, with a fine sense of proportion.
Soprano Miriam Khalil is Noor Haddad, simultaneously vulnerable and proud, reflective and defiant. Her haunting air, Ah! My soul is trembling with fear, memorably set to Ah! Mio cor, schernito sei! from Alcina glows with lustrous expression. Wrapping the piece in an extraordinary melismatic Middle Eastern-tinted coda, Khalil entrances.
We live in increasingly shattered times. Opera cannot end hate and violence. But it can sound a loud, reverberant note of resistance. Hope trumps hopelessness. The human spirit will prevail. Listen. Bound has something to say.
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Photo: Miriam Khalil, David Trudgen, Darryl Block Photography