The gods of the Old Kingdom must be smiling. Few in Egypt have been forgotten. Many of the mightiest have survived, outliving the battered chronicle of human history, reborn in altered form as new sacred paradigms. Among the most insistent of the ancient deities is the goddess Isis. An enduring favourite in the spectacular desert kingdom, revered as a proto earth mother, her 2000-year old allure would eventually spread to imperial Rome. Sister and wife to Osiris, ruler of the underworld with whom she bore Horus, falcon-headed lord of sky and war, her myth, streaked with sorcery and suffering, grew to potent proportions. With its dual themes of resurrection and immaculate conception, the Isis fable, as more than one Egyptologist has noted, resurfaces as a series of abiding Christian motifs. The power of holy love, the fervent belief in an afterlife, the triumph of divine order over chaos echo loud and clear. Countless statues of Isis tending her infant son foreshadow the saintly narrative of the Virgin Mary.
Concluding its 2015/16 season, Voicebox: Opera in Concert ventures deep into the depths of faith and politics, a dangerous world on edge where gods are born mortal and love is spiritual. Debuted to an eager crowd at the St. Lawrence Centre’s Jane Mallett Theatre, Isis and Osiris: Gods of Egypt, music by Halifax-based composer Peter-Anthony Togni, libretto by poet and spoken word performer Sharon Singer, boldly announced its arrival on the Canadian arts scene, a mature, intelligent opera rich in story-telling. Still a touch rough around the edges, much in need of editing, the work, over three years in development, yields a goodly share of theatrical rewards.
Ironically, Isis and Osiris, supremely contemporary in the chronology of first performances, bears distinctly Baroque overtones. This is very much a traditional message piece in which a central, supremely noble character, in this case Isis, indomitable goddess queen, struggles to overcome a particularly egregious disruption to the natural moral order. Goodness and virtue are under attack. Story emphasizes archetypes.
Isis and Osiris have willingly postponed their ascent to godliness in favour of earthly thrones, ushering in a new era of peace and prosperity after much misery and bloodshed in their war-weary land. Seth, brother to Isis, commander of the royal armies, prideful, ambitious, jealous of his sister’s rise to greatness, plots with the treacherous Grand Vizier to seize power. Osiris is drugged, placed in a gilded casket and drowned in the Nile. Although overcome with grief, Isis resolves to battle on against the spiritual forces of darkness. Collecting the remains of her beloved consort’s dismembered corpse which Seth has divided into 14 portions and scattered to the far corners of the empire, the all powerful queen resurrects Osiris from the dead. A golden phallus is fashioned to replace the one eaten by the fishes. Son Horus is mystically conceived. Priests prophesize a mighty battle. Horus shall destroy the fiendish Seth and with him all evil. Osiris slips away, surrendering his mortal existence to preside over the Underworld, leaving Isis to govern the realm of the living above.
Co-creator Singer’s passion for the material is palpable, her language urgent and chromatic. A flood of metaphors and aphorisms pour from her libretto. “I am like a tomb when you are gone,” Osiris murmurs lovingly to Isis. “I have no limit. I am infinite, unbounded,” brags the villainous Seth with Iago-like conceit. There is a a welcome air of the poetic surrounding the telling of this supernatural romance, an unwavering determination to artfully chart the rich mythological landscape. The drama of the piece, inventively semi-staged by Voicebox artistic director Guillermo Silva-Marin as evocative pantomime, is largely built on words, declaimed as often as sung. Overt displays of physical action are few and essentially colourful embellishment.
On a musical level, Isis and Osiris speaks with a more varied voice, combining vivid modernism with earlier opera seria elements, a Benjamin Britten meets Gluck effect. Like singspiel or Broadway musicals, however, the principle of through composition is nowhere on offer here. Instead, coherence and unity arise from the strength and consistency of a scrupulously lyrical tonal arc. Expressive, illustrative, moody, Togni’s multi-faceted score speaks to the theatrical moment, scenic, discrete, adaptable. Quasi Middle Eastern pop tunes, arguably over-elaborated, provide somewhat confusing clues to time and setting.
Leading a superb chamber ensemble at Opera in Concert’s anxiously anticipated premiere, conductor Robert Cooper excelled at drawing out the generally satisfying variety of textural nuances voiced by singers and players alike. The unexpected presence of electronic celeste created patterns of delightful fairytale-like period continuo. An astonishing array of bells, chimes and drums added a credibly exotic flavour to the evening.
Featured in the opera’s demanding lead role, rising soprano Lucia Cesaroni created an Isis of immense strength and compassion, singing with exquisite artistry, clear, gleaming and vibrant. Wise pharaoh, caring wife, this was a goddess depicted, not as idealized grandiose deity, but rather on intimate, human terms, a bringer of light, a woman of courage. Cesaroni’s achingly lovely contribution to Togni’s gentle Act I love duet, My king we are power, you and I, her husband prophetically cradled in her arms reminiscent of a Pietà, voice shimmering and translucent, was the unquestionable highlight of the production.
Michael Barrett was Osiris. Quick to exploit the latent dramatic potential in a scene, the fine hard-working principal more than embodied the innocence and idealism of the trusting king. Unleashing his soaring, expansive tenor, Barrett seemingly breathed his pharaoh. A committed, whole-hearted performance, unclouded by even a wisp of artifice.
In a crowd-pleasing turn as the despicable Seth, baritone Michael Nyby repeatedly stole the show. Dangerous is the villain with charisma and an heroic strut. Nyby’s vicious offhand characterization was positively lethal. His broad, muscular voice, dripping with venom, body taut, eyes flashing contempt, the steely singer actor positively shredded the stage, savage, cunning and primal.
Julie Nesrallah appeared as Nepthys, wife of Seth, sister and confidante to Isis, her glowing velvety mezzo an ideal counterpoint to Cesaroni’s soaring top. There is a poignancy to this voice, a touching warmth that wraps the listener in a comforting, heartfelt embrace. When we first married for a time you were tender, sang Nesrallah to Nyby’s indifferent Seth. Tears could not be blinked away.
Soprano Leigh-Ann Allen was narrator and story guide, Sennefer. Virtually every soloist regardless of voice type struggled through their own harrowing close up encounters with the opera’s punishingly high tessitura. Allen was no exception, forced to flatten her high notes on at least two occasions.
As the priestly Imhotep, Christopher Wattam lent a note of gravitas and piety to stately palace and temple scenes. Stuart Graham was a suitably perfidious Grand Vizier.
Assembled as a solemn troupe of worshippers and courtiers, the always rousing Opera in Concert Chorus cast a stirring spell.
Operas are organic. They grow from our need to express our brightest joys and our darkest fears. Isis and Osiris, though still only partly formed, is laden with promise, a budding appeal to our collective humanity.