On the night of December 14, 2017, Toronto’s premier indie music collective, Against the Grain Theatre, unveiled a new work in progress. Presented in minimalist workshop format in a cheerless recital hall at the Canadian Opera Company’s Tanenbaum Centre, the stark one-hour profile of populism rendered vicious and paranoiac tore a ragged hole in our collective consciousness. Isolated and abused, seven suspected enemies of The State, each confined to a cramped ersatz cell, were brutally interrogated by a faceless inquisitor. Backstories unravelled against walls of darkness, innocent victims of bigotry snared in a vicious dystopian dragnet.
A recent medical graduate, his education funded by The State, is accused of fraud after applying to return to his homeland to treat residents.
A persistent activist is arrested without charge for unauthorised civic protest.
A fully trangendered man is accused of breaching laws prohibiting changes to sexual identity as anatomically defined at birth.
A recent convert to Islam is relentlessly interrogated.
The sister of a known terrorist is accused of complicity by virtue of shared family bonds.
An unwitting citizen is implicated in a long since deceased great uncle’s crimes despite never having known him.
A young Muslim woman is intimidated and harassed for wearing an hijab.
Bound sounded a piercing alarm — a one-act chamber of socio-political horrors, the day’s headlines glaringly posted on stage.
A scant twelve months later, engulfed in a swirl of increasingly disturbing local and US news, artistic director Joel Ivany has delivered AtG’s most recent edition of the company’s angry broad sheet, musically updated, eloquently articulated though arguably a good deal terser than theatrically ideal.
Stripped from seven to four concurrent stories — medical graduate, transgender target, religious convert, Muslim woman — Bound v. 2, for all its justifiable rage, looks, sounds and feels somewhat less inclusive than its earlier iteration. A balance of voice types, male to female, plus a wide scope of characterization gave compelling sweep to Ivany’s fundamental premise as initially conceived. The State’s intrusiveness knew no bounds. Resistance was futile. Minorities were particularly threatened.
Fast forward to today. The State’s enemies list has grown. Deplorables are everywhere. Leftists and liberals. Minimum wage workers. Journalists who speak truth to power. Virtually anyone in crisis or need. Two, perhaps three, more symbolic figures in the prevailing dramaturgical schematic here would help to restore a sense of urgency and depth. Adding even a single mezzo could be made to yield much richer, more fulsome resonance on multiple artistic and thematic levels. Women are more than slightly under represented in Bound’s current guise as witnessed earlier this week at the Great Hall.
With limited actorly input and essentially no staging, predictable consequences inherent in any concert setting, Bound v. 2, incomplete, narratively redacted — the omnipresent voice of The State, a vital source of exposition, was notably absent throughout the evening — still sharply engaged. Against the Grain’s rage remains as robust as ever.
“This may have been the most transformative experience of my career,” noted composer Kevin Lau in a brief pre-performance one-on-one with Ivany by way of verbal program notes. The emotive power of his score, its ability to seize and terrify as it hurtles from structure to anarchy would certainly seem to provide graphic evidence of something far more than a mere contractual undertaking.
With a career largely devoted to orchestral, chamber, ballet and film projects, Lau bluntly confessed to his utter lack of experience in the opera sector prior to confronting Bound v. 2. Building on Ivany’s own pre-existing libretto, a sprawling framework of repurposed arias courtesy George Frideric Handel set for unaccompanied piano, the young Toronto Symphony Orchestra New Creations Festival sensation has essentially deconstructed the Baroque, bending and remolding forms, pushing on to the point of expressionism. Musical comparisons are few. The odd flash of Gershwin in jazzy lyrical passages. Messiaen at the other extreme. What originates in the realm of tunefulness relentlessly ebbed and flowed over the course of an impossibly brief hour, tonality dissolving into dissonance, harmony shattering into a jangled kaleidoscope of acidic colours. Restless, impulsive, profound, Lau’s music tore at the emotions, a soundscape with no landmarks, a cruel and painful world.
A laser-sharp 10-player chamber orchestra led with characteristic passion and animation by AtG resident music director Topher Mokrzewski stunned, whispering, attacking, mourning often seemingly simultaneously. Percussionist Nikki Joshi, surely the hardest working drummer/tympanist/bells, chimes, xylophone-player in contemporary opera provided emphatic punctuation.
Singing the role of Naveen Dewan, tenor Andrew Haji brought a touching, rumpled vulnerability to the moral-minded young physician persecuted by The State. Staring down his fear, the character poured out his humanity. Haji’s bright dynamic instrument rang with emotion. Channeling Un momento di contento from Handel’s Alcina, repurposed here as One day I’ll return, the seasoned COC alumnus tugged at the heart, his hymn of hope exquisitely soulful.
Countertenor David Trudgen appeared as State-identified LGBTQ quarry, Kelly Davidson. Entrusted with the bulk of what little Baroque da capo ornamentation survives in Lau’s highly deconstructed score, Trudgen flung caution aside, tearing into a sizzling rendition of You can’t define me with particular savagery, a warrior’s anthem of defiance, the tune plucked from Handel’s epic Orlando. George Frideric may not have recognized the abstracted orchestral interlude that followed, a device much favoured by Lau that effectively split the rigid early 18th century ABA stanza structure into two discrete halves. But he would most certainly have applauded Trudgen’s ferocious delivery.
Baritone Justin Welsh was ex-US resident turned devout Muslim, Ahmed Habib. This was a performance rich in commitment, redolent and inspired. The circle just goes on, he sang sotto voce to spare pre-recorded electronic piano, harmony slowly unravelling into a tangle of chromatic chords. A potent moment masterfully expressed by a consummate artist. Time rendered troubled and eternal.
Soprano Miriam Khalil was Noor Haddad, a woman wrapped in grace, her hijab a reflection of her dignity and strength. Dramatically centered, vocally lustrous shading to pianissimo in times of deep reflection, Khalil held us spellbound. The compact, self-contained Middle Eastern-flavoured coda that so electrified when first heard months ago — the shimmering conclusion to her poignant solo, Ah! My soul is trembling with fear — spoke perhaps even more abundantly now of limitless human pain.
Bound v. 2 has journeyed far from its original inception, though more revealing of process than finished work to date. Bound v. 3 lies ahead. Expectations run high with this company. The suspense is excruciating.
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Above: Miriam Khalil & Topher Mokrzewski, Darryl Block Photography