Long before “The Golden Ass” opened in Toronto, Canadian Opera Co. boss Richard Bradshaw was carefully making distinctions between accessible and cheap in referring to this new work by Robertson Davies and Randolph Peters.
His concerns are understandable: With a score that draws on the traditions of Gilbert and Sullivan, echoes of jazz and even leans into Andrew Lloyd Webber territory (though it doesn’t actually topple over), as well as a percussive-rich sound that avoids the worst excesses of dissonance, there’s not much here to excite new music afficionados.
There is, however, a considerable nod to audiences who like to be hip, not only musically, but also in Colin Graham’s physically active and smartly staged production (his most recent new opera credit is Andre Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire”).
Based on a 2,000-year-old Aesopian story by Lucius Apuleius set in second-century Carthage, “The Golden Ass” is a retelling by Canadian literary icon Robertson Davies, who died before seeing the work completed. The hero, womanizing and handsome Lucius, rejects the earthly love of a good woman to gain power by dabbling in magic. But things don’t go right and he ends up transformed into a donkey, condemned to stay in this form until he can find a rose to eat.
Robertson spoke of profundity and the transformative powers of art and magic in regard to this work, but it’s a bit difficult to focus on that when Lucius (as the ass) sings “thrust a firestick up my hole” or when his state is referred to as “asshood.”
That aside, it’s a puzzle how such a young composer with a growing reputation in the new music field managed to create a score without much flourish or daring (although the second act is much livelier and more interesting than the first). Perhaps the looming ghost of Davies, whose gruff pontificating style is clearly present in the libretto, created insurmountable obstacles.
In any case, it sure looks good. The C$ 1.8 million ($ 1.2 million) investment shows in the glorious production by Stratford Festival designers Susan Benson (sets and costumes) and Michael Whitfield (lighting).
Soprano Rebecca Caine, who created the role of Cossette in the world premiere of “Les Miserables” and played Christine in Toronto’s “The Phantom of the Opera, ” is Fotis, apprentice to the sorceress and Lucius’ lover. She brings passion and beauty to bear on a voice that is both sweet and strong. Kevin Anderson’s Lucius is also clear and focussed, and at his strongest when partnering Caine.
Mezzo-soprano Judith Forst has proved herself a formidable dramatic singer, and in the dual role of the sorceress and leader of a group of bandits she finds hidden depths in the score, while baritone Theodore Baerg, the storyteller who parks himself on the steps of the market to tell his tale, delivers the narrative in clean, concise fashion.
In fact, precision and clarity is plentiful, even in tumbling and dance sequences that weave throughout the show courtesy of choreographer Debra Brown, moonlighting from her job with Cirque du Soleil.
“The Golden Ass” is one of Bradshaw’s ongoing attempts to introduce opera to a younger and hipper audience. And while the marriage between traditionalist Davies and new music advocate Peters is a rocky one, Bradshaw can rest assured that “The Golden Ass” is indeed accessible, perhaps as it turns out too much so — but it is never cheap.