On March 12, 1983, Montreal composer Claude Vivier was found stabbed to death in his Paris apartment, victim of a vicious, still imperfectly understood assault. A homeless 19-year old felon he had met in a bar a few days earlier was arrested and confessed to murder. Lying on Vivier’s desk, police discovered an unfinished manuscript for a proposed choral work set in German entitled, Glaubst du an der Unsterblichkeit der Seele? (“Do you believe in the immortality of the soul?”) The final few lines of terse narrative text, recently written in Vivier’s own hand, were chilling.

Der junge Mann kam, um sich neben mich zu setzen und sagte: ‘Mein Name ist Harry’. Ich antwortete ihm, dass mein Name Claude war, dann ohne weitere Einführungen nahm er ein Messer aus seiner dunklen schwarzen Weste dass er warscheinlich in Paris gekauft, und mich gestochen hat Mitten im Herzen.

“The young man came to sit down next to me and said: ‘My name is Harry’. I answered him that my name was Claude, then without further introductions he took out a knife from his dark black vest that he probably bought in Paris and stabbed me in the heart.”

Disquieting coincidence, sinister premonition, calculated act of self-fulfilling prophesy, whatever the mechanics of circumstance, friends and colleagues were shattered. Suddenly Vivier had collided with tragedy, struck down by senseless violence at the age of 35. But his genius was not to be obliterated. The tide of artistic appreciation that had already begun to build less than a decade earlier in his native province of Quebec measurably broadened and gathered force. Vivier’s music, though still not accorded the full measure of recognition it deserved in English Canada, surged forward, vital and insistent, restless sound poetry for an anxious new century.

Unleashing the power of one of Vivier’s last works, Banff Centre’s Open Space program director Joel Ivany and music director Topher Mokrzewski delve deep into the composer’s one and only opera, a cryptic chamber piece slyly entitled, Kopernikus. In a little over 60 minutes of total elapsed stage time, the 2017 installment of Opera in the 21st Century conveys Vivier’s arguably most emblematic undertaking from the realm of edgy New Age experiment to a place of timeless prominence.

While highly vocally and orchestrally resonant, there is little in the way of firm narrative to anchor the wispy stream of amorphous events that powers Kopernikus with such astonishing force. Story is more vapour than firm ground here. Structurally the opera assumes all the solidity of mysticisme onirique, as Vivier chose to call it — “dream-like mysticism”.

Agni, a woman who may or may not be a manifestation of the Hindu fire god of the same name — absolutes are in short supply in this enigmatic opéra-rituel de mort — finds herself embarked after death on a journey of the soul, accompanied by a quasi-angelic troupe, outbound for some unknown destination beyond the limits of her experience. Wandering across the heavens as her anima floats through space, Agni encounters a fantastic assortment of storied characters from her past, Merlin, Mozart, the Queen of the Night, Tristan and Isolde, to name only a few. Although no longer physically present — all have become phantoms — Agni confronts the various personalities, addressing them with intense curiousity. Lewis Carroll, appearing in the author’s real-life persona as Charles Dodgson, briefly assumes a cameo role as rambling prophet and oracle. An aspect of Alice in Wonderland also seemingly resides in Agni.

A flood of aphorisms and observations, a traveller’s guide to the afterlife, are volunteered, some of the remarks perplexing, some profound, some deliberately rendered incomprehensible. Agni struggles to understand, ultimately mastering the otherworldly tongue spoken in this strange spectral place. Finally, Kopernikus is summoned, hero to those who seek answers beyond the earthly here and now. Agni ascends ever higher, ultimately passing into eternity.

Literal meaning and subtext in Kopernikus is elusive, partially concealed beneath a veil of poetic reverie. Agni’s transit to a higher state of being is profoundly mythic in form and complexity, vaguely mirroring Dante. Vivier, a lifelong believer, strives to calm our universal fear of mortality. The route to peace of mind may be ephemeral with few visible signposts, but the composer assures us there is cause for hope.

Centering Agni’s transcendental trek in an as yet unfinished theatre on stage, a transitory temple of dreams likely never to be completed, Ivany as director brings an abundantly tangible sensibility to Vivier’s voyage of the self. Here celestial inhabitants are neither winged nor robed in white. Sturdy workers’ garb is the enduring fashion for heavenly chorus and on-stage musicians alike. Players are an integral part of the fluid ritual that precedes Agni’s passage into the life beyond. Movement and gesture express eternal mindfulness, singer actors finely tuned to the ancient music of the spheres. Time flows in slow motion. Intergalactic messengers track the orbits of the planets, fingers pointed, hands tracing circles in the air.

Evocatively lit by lighting designer/set coordinator Jason Hand with subtle, personified costume design by Marissa Kochanski — Agni as newly departed soul in flame orange, muted ash tones for spirits — this Kopernikus reduces as much as it expands. The infinite is given palpable dimension. Agni’s quest for immortality is expressed in fundamentally accessible terms.

Matjash Mrozewski’s choreography adds yet another layer of expressiveness to Vivier’s cosmic fable, dancers Dominica Greene and Graham Kaplan imparting an air of ecstatic rapture to the piece.

Factoring the musical component of the theatrical equation, Vivier’s tense, seething score greatly expands the perimeter of the opera’s equivalent stream-of-consciousness libretto, in some ways defining it. Written for seven voices and a corresponding number of players, Kopernikus is distinctly self-perpetuating, singers and instrumentalists interwoven, words dissolving into sound and sound into words. Language enthralls and confounds, breathlessly descriptive. Vivier-invented nonsense speech, a deconstructed babble of phonemes, makes for deliberately disorienting soundplay.

Vivier constantly throws us off balance. Formal composition exerts only weak gravitational pull. Though somewhat revealing of the composer’s travels to the Far East in the mid-70s — Orientalist-flavoured percussion is frequently invoked — plus earlier studies with electronica trail-blazer Karlheinz Stockhausen, music here is not easily classified. Faint strains of Messiaen, though often discernible, are essentially only heard as echoes.

Leading a daring ensemble of violin, woodwinds, percussion and brass, conductor Mokrzewski pilots a nimble course through Vivier’s swirling score, navigating with immense confidence and respect. Dressed in simple, serviceable Kopernikan garb, the perpetually energetic maestro, costumed as a kind of spiritual foreman, deftly marshals the push and pull of Vivier’s startling, highly idiosyncratic atonality.

Singing the role of Agni, Danielle MacMillan entrances, her warm, vital mezzo consistently innocent and touching. Coloratura soprano Danika Lorèn, soprano Jennifer Taverner and mezzo soprano Katie Miller similarly soar, particularly divine when coupled in unexpectedly harmonious duets and trios.

Baritones Micah Schroeder, Adam Harris and bass Michael Uloth provide a depth of countervailing robustness and resonance, critical components in Vivier’s infinitely variable half sung, half parlando schematic.

The range of vocal colour demanded by the composer extends far beyond the boundaries of classical Western operatic technique. Whistling, keening, throat-singing, externally manipulated lip vibrato, virtually every member of this cast is called upon to make an exotic sonic contribution at some point in the evening. That singers do so with such energy and exuberance speaks to the whole-hearted commitment of this daring band of exceptional artists.

Kopernikus is a remarkable opera, part fevered fantasy, part declaration of faith. This very human iteration manages to encompass both aspects of Vivier’s psychic drama. Ivany and Mokrzewski have created something exceptional, uniquely gripping, generously inclusive. A transformative production. Limitless. Heartening. Utterly extraordinary.


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Photo by Rita Taylor, Banff Centre. Kopernikus, 2017. Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.