On June 27, 1997, in the secluded farming community of Kostychany, Ukraine, a pretty 18-year old high school graduate, identified only as Oksana G, meets a handsome stranger in the local town square. Introducing himself as Konstantin, the self-described international job recruiter persuades the excited teenager and her best friend Natalia to accompany him to Greece, promising top pay as cleaners in glamorous up-market resorts. Journeying south by car through Romania, the young women are raped by Konstantin and the two men he employs as enforcers. Arriving on the island of Kos, Oksana and Natalia, are held, chained and shackled in a bar with other terrified young women, until they can be sold at auction. Konstantin claims Oksana for himself, winning her with a $2,000 bid. Natalia, a gift to a corrupt immigration official and known sex sadist, is left catatonic and hideously disfigured after being viciously slashed across the face. Smuggled by speedboat from Albania, the two girls are trafficked to Italy. Natalia drowns in the Adriatic en route.
Imprisoned in a hotel in Bari, Oksana manages to escape, breaking her leg after leaping from a 4th storey window. In Brindisi, a Canadian priest, Father Alexander, shelters her in a cramped refugee centre filled with victims of the Bosnian War. Oksana suffers sleepless nights, haunted by nightmares. Alexander helps her gradually rebuild her feelings of self-worth. Then suddenly one day, acting on a tip from one of his spies, Konstantin re-appears, waving a fistful of cash to buy back Oksana. Enraged, Father Alexander evicts him. Konstantin flings his money at the priest little suspecting that Alexander will use it to purchase a passport for Oksana and an airplane ticket to Odessa. Nothing goes to plan. Responding to a trick call to rescue yet another terrorized woman from slavery, Father Alexander is lured to a deserted industrial zone at night where he is badly beaten by Konstantin’s thugs. Konstantin creeps into Oksana’s room. Oksana lashes out, thrusting a knife into his genitals. As she sits at her window watching the sun rise, Konstantin dies. “I closed the mouth of a lion,” she whispers.
A raw, relentlessly disturbing story told in bold, unflinching terms accented with all the urgency of investigative journalism or, seen from a no less keen sociological viewpoint, a taut case study. But, in reality, Oksana G is neither. It is opera, a ferocious new work by Canadian film maker/playwright Colleen Murphy and composer Aaron Gervais that brutally recontextualizes an entire art form. And our relationship to a horrific on-going human tragedy.
A decade in the making, partially revealed in an intimate workshop production in 2012, Tapestry Opera’s startling, supremely courageous commission currently playing at the Joey and Toby Tannenbaum Centre’s Imperial Oil Theatre, has morphed into a fine, mature production of great honesty and power.
Built on a series of 18 crisply plotted classic black-out scenes, prologue and epilogue appended, Oksana G is a model of dramatic integrity. Exposition, a potential tripping hazard in the drive to maintain forward momentum, is smoothly surmounted here. Every narrative beat assumes its own legitimacy, links in time and place transmitted seemingly casually in brisk bursts of recitative, no small challenge in such a sprawling piece. Characters are as clearly drawn as they are multi-dimensional. Virtually all the fictional principals have profoundly painful backstories. Konstantin, a teenager in Tiblisi, was forced, by his own admission, to run for his life after a squad of Russian troops raped his mother before gunning down her and his father. Father Alexander is crippled by guilt, the one and only girl he ever loved killed in the car crash he could have prevented a lifetime ago. The present flows from the past, cruelty and kindness springing from much the same source of bitter experience. Fate plays out like a series of Tarot cards. Only the soul is constant. “The wind will carry our names out to sea,” sings a chorus of the damned and the defiant. The women of Oksana G haunt the heart.
A decidedly cinematic pattern of recurring cutaway sketches set in remote hometown Kostychany, loved ones tortured by loss, heightens the opera’s already hypertense resonance to almost unendurable proportions.
Director Tom Diamond brings a sharp degree of acute observation to Oksana G’s broad creative horizons, reducing a cast that totals 50 plus players to a panorama of distinctive individuals. The wide screen scope of the Murphy/Gervais theatrical canvas is made touchingly personal, the sweep of emotion subtly and intricately charted. The scene of Father Alexander playing with the refugee children that opens Act II raises a smile, so very touching and tender. The simple, wordless act of Oksana and priest partnering one another in an innocent Ukranian folkdance speaks volumes, their loneliness and mutual need for affection poignantly expressed.
With monoset by designer Teresa Przybylski, a quasi henge of abstract uprights made starkly emphatic by lighting designer Jason Hand’s coloured washes, mood and atmosphere are given vibrant visual equivalency. The bar scene in Greece is particularly evocative, a picture of evil as glossy enterprise.
Music is far more than mere accompaniment in Oksana G. Gervais’ spiky, jagged score is an unsettling organic experience. If evidence of stylistic unity seems somewhat elusive at first hearing, the feeling of ad hoc composition becomes much less of a sticking point as the evening progresses. With the exception of isolated moments of wrap-around tonality, chromaticism and dissonance are front and centre, assembled into a far more deconstructed ground plan than opera generally demands. Instruments increasingly shed their conventional musical identities, becoming pure naked sound. Harmony and discord battle for dominance. Janáček and Berg are very much present, Jenůfa and Wozzeck nervously circling each other, music on edge.
Conductor Jordan de Souza leads a superbly disciplined 15-player chamber orchestra, collectively shocking and astonishing, frequently at the same time.
Cast in the headliner role of Oksana, Ukraninan Canadian soprano Natalya Gennadi brings a boundless depth of pathos to her character, a naïve, innocent country girl savagely trapped, her body hurled into hell. This is an exceptionally young artist, a singer actor glimpsed at the outset of her career, fresh, spontaneous, exploding with energy, her voice sparkling and bright with a remarkable loft that belies its lightness. Tracking Oksana’s journey from innocence to terror to catharsis and self-belief, Gennadi flings herself headlong into the darkness, carrying us with her, in a brave, uplifting performance. We listen and watch and we are shattered.
Appearing as Father Alexander, tenor Adam Fisher provides Oksana G with its all important centre of good, an anchor of humanity, a focus for hope. Singing with gorgeous ringing Italianate tone, the versatile lead consistently commands attention. Fisher’s handling of the selfless priest’s intensely heartfelt arietta, Lord, make me an instrument of your peace, a pressing plea for guidance in a monstrous world, is a flash of rare, shining beauty on stage.
Fellow tenor Keith Klassen is Konstantin, malevolent, charismatic, complex. With his distinctive polished top and baritonal lower range, the engaging Toronto-based principal reaches far below the surface of the quintessentially demonic villain, turning the character’s irreparably damaged soul inside out. With a quiet murmur, “Mama”, Konstantin dies. It is an electrifying moment supercharged with subtext. Klassen makes us understand.
Jacqueline Woodley is Natalia, purity slaughtered. Aaron Sheppard is Pavlo, her baffled beau. Krisztina Szabó is Oksana’s frantic mother, Sofiya. Alexander Hajek is her uncomprehending husband, Yuri. Kimberly Barber is Asa, oracle and fortune teller. Andrea Ludwig is Lyuba, Oksana’s fiery friend from Kos. Cairan Ryan is the blood-curdling Immigration Officer.
The vibrancy of vocal expression, lights up to fade out, at all levels of characterization, shared by each and every player here is nothing short of extraordinary.
Oksana G has many faces, all reflected in the eyes of one young woman. Her story as told in Tapestry Opera’s haunting and harrowing piece echoes through the mind. It cannot and must not be forgotten.