It rained a lot yesterday in Toronto. I encountered a man on the Spadina street car. He was carrying home a large boxed toy for his son cheering up the gloomy day. I’d just picked up a stack of books including Pamuk’s new one. The books and the toy. They felt like treasures as the deluge seemingly continued unabated. A good time to strike up a street car conversation. In seconds I could tell my fellow traveler was Egyptian and a question popped up because something has been bubbling away in my mind since Tuesday evening.
“You must be greatly relieved with the election results?”
He beamed with joy and said: “I am very happy with the result!”
His response was genuine and effervescent. We talked about our pre-results fears that Harper’s racist narrative might have easily won. Personally it is still not entirely clear if it did or not but that is for another day. Consider the race-baiting political football that is Bill C-51 and its convoluted trajectory during the election campaign; which remains conspicuously unresolved.
All that stubborn hatred of the other that was spewing out of Harper’s campaign. The petulant absurdity of going to court because two Muslim women covered their faces moored in their religious beliefs (or not). And my fellow traveler today was not the first person I’d talked to about how deeply uncomfortable and even fearful it has been to be Muslim in Canada during this election campaign especially. It is in this yet not quite unresolved climate that I found myself inside the beautiful Elgin Theatre on Yonge Street on Tuesday night. Based on two good reviews; one by Robert Harris (see: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/theatre-and-performance/theatre-reviews/armide-shows-opera-ateliers-lovingly-restored-baroque-opera-at-its-best/article26952457/) and the other by Richard Ouzounian (see: http://www.thestar.com/entertainment/music/2015/10/23/an-armide-fit-for-toronto-and-versailles-review.html) I thought I’d throw my lot in and judge Opera Atelier’s Armide for myself.
It’s cathartic to discover that while Stephen Harper was out in the hustings preaching Islamophobia to the rafters, Toronto’s Opera Atelier had been busily hived away in their workshop creating Arabic calligraphy on their set for Armide. It’ll take a little more reading and study for me to expertly write or critique opera but I know a good story and a song and dance just as well as any other person. Misplaced and misused strengths. The tension between Islam and Christianity, the crusades, duty and discipline at the cost of sacrificing all our humanity and any semblance of vulnerability. Prudery or puritanism versus sensual pleasures. Fear versus freedom; and yes, the most feared – love. Subjects that were callously bandied about during the election campaign; all that is there reframed for us and packaged in silks and brocades of jewel hues that feed the eye and the bittered heart. Not like magazine or TV eye candy but at a deeper and better ordered sensibility that is only possible on the live stage.
I remember one of the earlier Opera Atelier productions tailored for children and adults from probably Mozart’s Magic Flute when Opera Atelier and even Tafelmusik were still quite green. I recall feeling it was all a bit overwrought and bordering on frivolous however delightful and superbly crafted. How far they have come since those early days. The set and costumes in Armide are just another thread by which the whole tale magically enchants your heart, head and soul. A sorely needed enchantment. The intricate patterns of Islamic art and calligraphy with their orderliness and the spare beauty of its curves and scrolls are unique and carry a spiritual depth and a clarity. Clarity to me was what this production was about. Everything becomes crystal clear. What is important and what is not in exquisite visuals and music and voice. I believe the set and the costumes and the Islamic influence played a part in the magic in that the Islamic art aspects were carefully embroidered into the production instead of being placed in opposition.
What thrilled me most was finding out that the set designer Gerard Gauci had worked with an unnamed Persian master calligrapher which work appears on the set in the form of graphic Arabic script. The house curtain which greets you as you enter the theatre are the names of Armide, Lully and Quinault written in Persian in the traditional Arabic script which at first comes as a shock because you don’t expect something so literal in an Islamic sense to be placed smack dab in the middle of a Toronto establishment institution which is a far cry from anything Islamic. Talk about throwing the book in your face but written in calligraphy so beautifully and in the Persian tradition. The work, effort, love and thought that gave life to these art forms and Armide’s tale in her encounter with the crusaders is what had been happening at the atelier unbeknownst to most of us while we were suffering through the horror of a racist election campaign.
And Tuesday night was even more relevant because Armide is a beautifully wrought and lovingly and skilfully crafted rejection of the entirely unexamined base banality that we had to endure as a nation; and Opera Atelier brings it to you with such profound powerful and heart stopping yet accessible beauty accompanied by the wonderful period music of Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir. Perhaps the production got even more exquisite to counter the political hell we had been put through.
The rich silk costumes are jewels on their own making one want to reach out and touch its fabric with your fingertips; everything on the stage at each turn a poetic feast to the eyes and the heart in emerald, sapphire and flame. Jade, black and chartreuse. A closely woven and filigreed enchantment to banish the horrors of the past few months. And banish them it did. I am so utterly smitten that I will be returning Saturday for the last performance and in a seat even closer to the stage to drink in the fabric of the costumes and the calligraphy even more. And most of all to be once again utterly enchanted and transformed by this tale that is far far more than just a love story.
Opera Atelier and Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra are not just Canadian treasures but they are world treasures that we Canadians should be proud of and nurture. And Armide is an exquisitely crafted jewel to wear and feel against your own skin.
Opera Atelier’s Armide runs until October 31, 2015 at the Winter Garden Theatre. Then it moves to the Palace of Versailles.
Renuka Mendis, Toronto, October 29, 2015
Images are not mine.
A music update:A beautiful recording of the entire opera here. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL9Kfr1H5-6H21Vhr694RzviFa2CFDG0yy