Emerging from the swirl of detail that surges through author Bob Gilmore’s 2014 biography, Claude Vivier: A Composer’s Life, one enduring solid fact ultimately prevails. Restless, eccentric, gregarious, the brilliant 35-year old Montreal-born composer shockingly murdered in Paris at the hands of a predatory homophobic psychopath in 1983, fashioned his own identity.
Abandoned as an infant to La crèche Saint-Michel, baptized as Claude Roger by Les Sœurs Grises, Vivier was to live his short, tumultuous life never knowing his true origins. Adopted by a disconnected, emotionally austere working class couple, the Church, by his own admission, became his surrogate family until denied advancement as a novitiate in late adolescence for reasons that remain unclear. The beauty and solemnity of the Catholic mass heard as a schoolboy in the juvénats (charitable institutions of learning operated by Les Frères Maristes) never deserted him however. Music seemed to reveal itself almost organically to Vivier, taking root and flourishing within him, a source of strength and salvation as a young man. The Conservatoire de musique du Québec would later become a secular sanctuary where he would eventually find a measure of redemption and healing.
Lost childhood. Abiding faith. Music as an expression of a burgeoning inner world. Recurring themes swept up from his past rush like rivers through Vivier’s work. Kopernikus, his only complete opera, a heartfelt declaration of the triumph of being over death, derives as much, if not more, from the composer’s earliest definition of self as it does from his tireless, wildly active imagination — more exaltation than requiem. “My profession as a composer,” he remarked in a 1974 television interview, “is my way of saying Hallelujah.”
Transported in all its original wonder from Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity where it premiered in July 2017, Against the Grain Theatre’s landmark production of Vivier’s mystical masterpiece arrives fully charged on stage at Toronto’s legendary Theatre Passe Muraille, simultaneously shattering and restorative. Building on a towering pre-existing transcendental framework, director Joel Ivany greatly extends the theatricality, fashioning a magical work of immense power, vital, urgent, stunningly intense.
If the experience of witnessing AtG’s Kopernikus surrounded by the otherworldly peaks of the Rockies was transformative in its spiritual resonance, this decidedly throbbing, high energy urban iteration is pure visceral sensation.
The lack of narrative focus in Vivier’s rambling allegory, textually surrealistic, dramatically frenzied, is largely irrelevant. Ivany revels in the chaos. Story here is more loose excuse for an infinity of encounters with ethereal guardians than carefully gauged scenario. Vivier’s self-admitted alter ego, Agni, the Hindu fire-god, arrives as a young woman — avatar or mere namesake, the composer is ambiguous in this anarchic féerie mystique — at a celestial way-station, a frightened lost soul in need of support. One by one, waking visions or fleeting figures evoked in dreams appear, a procession of welcoming inhabitants, some familiar characters from childhood, others to whom she is introduced for the first time — Lewis Carroll, Merlin, a witch, the Queen of the Night, a blind prophet, an old monk, Tristan and Isolde, Mozart, the Master of the Water, Copernicus and his mother. Each assists by way of counsel or simple uplifting presence to guide Agni in her ascension to the gates of paradise.
Vivier provides no details concerning his vulnerable heroine’s death, no backstory, no explanation. The passage to a higher plane of existence is what matters most to him, not the passing. Billed by the composer as a rituel de mort becomes, in Ivany and collaborator, dramaturge Leela Gilday’s hands, as much a vibrant celebration of earthly life forces as a witnessing of mortality. A spontaneous gesture of awe. A gentle tentative touch. Angelic dancers drawing music from their bodies. Co-director/choreographer Matjash Mrozewski shares his own euphoric vision of the hereafter. The vitality of this Kopernikus, the non-stop display of compassion, the demonstrable flow of love casts a glowing spell.
Vivier’s langue inventée, a fractured babble of phonemes born of the composer’s penchant for automatic writing, his language of the beyond, may very well remove us from the realm of strict verbal comprehension from time to time. But certainly not from understanding. Agni must master angel-speak to communicate with her cosmic minders, but we, of course, are not similarly compelled. Simply listening is enough to transport us to a state of quasi-grace. The supremely innocent play of uninhibited sound, the release from burdensome intellect, draws us closer to our beginnings. And links us to the promise of eternity. We shall all live forever among the angels, Vivier, the ageless lonely child, reassures us.
Commanding a seasoned, gifted chamber ensemble of seven singers partnered by an equal number of integrated on-stage musicians, conductor Topher Mokrzewski leads with boundless sensitivity, his abundant self-declared passion for Kopernikus — “Canada’s greatest opera” — movingly evident in every meticulously observed cue and downbeat.
Vivier’s score is immensely difficult to characterize. Trendsetting European influences of the time are unquestionably present. The cool abstraction of Pierre Boulez. Karlheinz Stockhausen’s electronic textures. Spectral sound painting courtesy Olivier Messiaen. But no sonic model, however resonant, is ever scrupulously quoted. Rules of composition, classical and contemporary alike, are sketchily applied.
Needless to say, Kopernikus owes little to the conventional operatic canon. Voices, though occasionally showcased in arias, are primarily employed as source material for highly figured collages. Homophony yields to counterpoint becomes ravelled fugue. A vast chorale brings Agni’s quest for salvation to an emphatic dissonant close. The level of expressionism forever surprises. Musical instruments subvert tonal expectations. Clarinets are made to sound piercingly abrasive. A trombone becomes a megaphone. And yet, as if defying his own centre of gravity, Vivier gifts us with moments of stark, shining beauty. Singing bowls and tubular bells sound the rhythm of ancient ritual. A single silvery-hued trumpet plays a haunting prelude to the rising hopefulness of Kopernikus, Act II.
Reprising her role as Agni last seen at Banff Centre, mezzo-soprano Danielle MacMillan turns in an exquisite performance brimming with poignancy and pathos. The co-mingling of warm, radiant timbre and finely tuned technique tenderly mirrored by an exceptionally open stage presence, makes for a singularly appealing blend of guilelessness and artistry.
Cast as Vivier’s intergalactic Master of Ceremonies/Ringmaster/Universal Anchorman, baryton-martin Bruno Roy bears the bulk of the opera’s weighty extended theatrical conceit, a tireless, ubiquitous stage manager-cum-tour leader to the heavens, executing his assignment with breezy vocal confidence wrapped in a deceptively casual, throwaway lyrical style.
Starring in a variety of Kopernikan guises, spirit guides to archetypal immortals, sopranos Anne-Marie MacIntosh and Jonelle Sills joined by mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabo soar singly and in ensembles, the latter partnering a decidedly plausible operatic hommage to Mozart’s Three Ladies. The distance from Kopernikus to Magic Flute is not as infinite as it might appear. The notion of a wandering truth-seeker undergoing a series of elemental trials greatly appealed to Vivier. Appearing as his ersatz Queen of the Night, MacIntosh ignites a spectacular arsenal of explosive coloratura fireworks.
Lending fundamentally darker shades to Vivier’s tonal palette, baritone Dion Mazerolle and bass Alain Coulombe provide Kopernikus with a vital depth of vocal colour and dramatic gravitas. Reciting a letter from Lewis Carroll with magnificent authority and grandeur, Mazerolle captivates. Colombe’s Merlin, master of the inexplicable, utterly entrances.
Kopernikus, largely forgotten in Vivier’s homeland since its unveiling at Montreal’s Théatre du Monument National in May 1980, has enjoyed any number of high profile international performances of late, most recently a Peter Sellars-helmed revival at L’Espace Pierre Cardin in Paris in December 2018. Canada, shamefully, still remains largely untouched by Vivier’s genius. Ivany and Mokrzewski are clearly determined to update his profile.
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Above: Danielle MacMillan, Bruno Roy and the Ensemble of Kopernikus. Darryl Block Photography