It was snowing. Not the decorous fall of feathery flakes of mid-winter. Stinging, driving sheets of sharp, icy crystals, the product of a reluctant early spring. Beyond a broad, unlit square — the Lake, shoreless in the whiteout; the theatre, a shadow to the west. A harsh and haunted setting on a stormy March evening.

Captive angels and their abusers on stage.

Angel’s Bone, a stunning allegorical journey to the heartless centre of human trafficking opened for an intense, clipped run at Harbourfront Centre this past weekend, a churning 90-minute, expressly 21st century chamber opera of dark, profoundly disturbing dimensions flashed with bitter revelation.

Partnership, financial and creative both, has long been an active feature in the ongoing history of this hypertense indie piece, something of a stand-out in an increasingly prevalent form not known, however regrettably, for its durability. First presented in 2016 at New York City’s annual Prototype Festival — legendary opera innovator Beth Morrison Projects originating producer — the work, winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Music, received its Canadian premiere in 2022 in Vancouver. A national collaboration of Lower Mainland-based re-Naissance Opera and Sound the Alarm: Music/Theatre, supported by Toronto’s Loose Tea Music Theatre, the project, highly venturesome in nature, continues to bear the credentials of the latter two contributing artistic companies in this decidedly urgent Toronto remount. With music by Shanghai-born Du Yun, libretto by Brooklyn-based Canadian Royce Vavrek, Angel’s Bone, despite multiple artistic influencers, links to a single zeitgeist.

A pair of beautiful young angels, boy and girl, crash land on earth — the notion of the explicable as backstory rendered largely irrelevant in Vavrek’s vision of story-telling — where they are found, muddy and battered in a grubby backyard by the resident property owner, Mr. X.E. His wife, Mrs. X.E., fearful and intimidated to the point of submission by her husband — a less than subtle web of prompts suggestive of a former life of assault and sexual exploitation at his hands — seizes the opportunity to please him. “Prune them,” she flatly commands. Wings sheared, featherless, literally deprived of flight, the two celestial emblems of innocence and grace are trafficked into a world of increasingly degrading sexual servitude. The use of live-to-video screen projection, combined with highly charged scenes of erotic intention, rendered ensuing scenes of angelic abuse excruciating yet somehow physically detached. The depth of depravity in this most recent Angel’s Bone is clearly intended to resonate deep in the imagination. Nudity and explicitness are nowhere on show. Theatre of the Mind. Or perhaps something more metaphysical. Theatre of the Soul.

The impact of religion and/or aspects of spiritualism have a profound impact on dramatic development here, underlining character with broad, irreverent strokes.

“God is rewarding us for years of struggle,” Mr. X.E. proclaims to his wife as the two displaced angels nervously await their fate. “For putting us through hell. He is offering us helpful, beautiful things.”

“I know how Mary must have felt. The Virgin one. At the Annunciation,” rejoices Mrs. X.E., her shaky belief system miraculously revived by the prospect of the potential economic windfall cowering in their bathtub.

“We all deserve their blessings. Take my number! I have been blessed! Donations are accepted in the form of cash or cheque. A spiritual meeting, with our full discretion.”

Naivety and otherworldliness sell for top dollar on the street.

Singing the Boy Angel, singer-actor Asitha Tennekoon tendered a performance of great power and emotion, superbly gauged, as subtle as it was soaring, his bright, youthful tenor ringing with futility and pain.

In an utterly unexpected appearance as the Girl Angel, co-producer/director Alaina Viau, substituting for ailing soprano, Winona Myles, gifted us with a touching, supremely actorly performance, a still, white-garbed vision of vulnerability and fear. At times partnered with countertenor Ryan McDonald and soprano Ainka Venkatesh, the three memorably prevailed, sharing vocal duties, voicing the desolate, ravished character with more than a little readily transferable poignancy.

Mezzo-soprano Alyssa Nicole Samson appeared as Mrs. X.E., pivoting from trafficked survivor, traumatized and tormented, rebranding herself as collateral damage in a desperate struggle to escape her past, the tabloid media a willing ally. An exceptional performance, brave, insightful, unflinchingly honest.

Baritone Alexander Dobson as Mr. X.E. tendered arguably the most muscular portrayal of the evening, bullying, posturing, dangerous, voice raging and incandescent.

Appearing as both comprimari and choristers, Daniela Agostino, Erica Iris Huang, Anika Venkatesh, Annie Ramos, Fabian Arciniegas, Bradley Christensen, Keith Lam and Ryan Downey proved a tireless source of abundant theatricality, powering a highly affecting episodic narrative arc. Heaven Is A Prism, composer Du Yun’s startling overture-like mantra, sung-chanted by the ensemble, members progressing in a double cohort through the darkened house, positively electrified.

Considered from the compositional side of the operatic ledger, Angel’s Bone’s restless, surging score is something of a multi-tiered monument to eclecticism. Punk rock, opera — bel canto and Romantic — electronica, musical theatre, Eastern figures and motifs — contrasting genres and styles frequently intermingled, occasionally deliberately opposed, swarm and swirl in insistent expressions of sinewy atonality. Declamation largely replaces harmony in through-sung selections. Conductor Joshua Slater struck a stern pose on the podium, skillfully marshalling the combined forces of a double-sized small orchestra courtesy Vancouver’s Turning Point Ensemble and Array Music, Toronto — another instance of a robust TransCanada collaboration at work. The quality of playing was extraordinary.

The snowstorm delayed the opening night chat last Friday. Co-producer/director Alan Corbishley introduced his fellow speaker, Katherine McLaughlin, an outreach worker with Arise Ministry. She had a challenging ask of us. To carry forward the two words she most often heard spoken by victims of trafficking.

“See me.”

Angel’s Bone gives loud, clear voice to their plea.