The pomegranate is an ancient symbol of the circle of life and death. In Pomegranate Opera‘s world premier production Pomegranate, by composer Kye Marshall and librettist Amanda Hale, this timeless symbol is used as a metaphor for the eternal and resilient nature of love that threatens social conventions.
Suli and Cassia are lovers and initiates in the Temple of Isis, Pompeii, 79 CE. Under threat from Marcus Quintus a Christian centurion and Suli’s spurned suitor, their relationship and religion unravel moments before the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. The majority of Pompeii’s residents perish, including Suli, Cassia and their antagonist Marcus Quintus.
Flash forward a couple millennia. Suli and Cassia have reincarnated in Toronto, 1981. Long-time girlfriends Suzie and Cass are at their favorite dyke bar, The Fly on the Wall. Their relationship is threatened by Suzie’s intolerant mother and uncle. In the modern era they are torn apart by a complex intersection of identities and conflicting needs for belonging.
While this opera has many conceptual and musical strengths, I was not as emotionally engaged by this production as I had hoped. The ancient story in Pompeii was told in much greater detail than the 20th century story and in my view this should have been reversed. In the first act, dramatic tension and adversity lacked urgency and relevance since we know that whatever is happening, it is about to become entirely moot due to the impending natural disaster. The second act felt lacking in personal growth or development for the characters and much as with the first act, the central conflict seemed to dissolve without clear resolution.
The emotional nuance and development that I felt was lacking from the storytelling was unfortunately mirrored by the score. Compositionally, the opera is quite beautiful and was clearly a very enjoyable sing for the talented cast. It is very straightforward harmonically, making it a very accessible exposure to 21st century classical music. It was easy to sink into the musical ideas that were exposed at the beginning, but as the opera progressed there was not as much emotional contrast between the characters as I wanted. For example when the character of centurion Marcus Quintus is introduced, this is a fine opportunity to depart from the flowing, arpeggiated lyricism that typified the music and impose some constraint and rigidity on the harmony, rhythm and melody. These are the musical qualities I would expect from a character that represents unwavering adherence to rules and convention. However other than somewhat more melodic dissonance, there was not a significant shift in mood from the love themes we had heard prior from Suli and Cassia.
The highlight of this production is the beautiful singing from the sexually and gender diverse cast, and charming chamber music orchestration wherein harp predominated. Pomegranate is a singer’s opera and the cast have many fluid, elegant phrases to work with. The opera is clearly a pleasure to sing. Suli/Suzie is an excellent vehicle for Camille Rogers’ gossamer mezzo-soprano and there were many opportunities for their fast, fluttery vibrato to soar and shine.
Soprano Rebecca Gray also gave a strong performance in the role of Cassia/Callie. Her voice is bright and open with a rich lower register that is beginning to fill in. Gray possesses of a vocal consistency and breath stability that did justice to the stoic, resilient character she portrays.
Mezzo-soprano Teiya Kasahara brought down the house with their aria at the opening of Act II in the role of Jules, transmasculine bartender at The Fly on the Wall. Kasahara’s voice is hearty, warm and free. This was perfect for the role of the unapologetically and confidently queer bartender, which was actually the role that resonated the most for me.
Baritone Aaron Durand does some beautiful lyric singing in this piece that he should be quite proud of. As mentioned above, I did not feel the musical writing gave him the opportunity to fully explore villainy. It is possible Durand could be a convincing bad-guy, but it did not come across this performance.
I went into this performance really expecting to love it, given that the themes are right up my street. The truth is, I was bored by the final scene where the lovers sing a beautiful duet celebrating their eternal love while sharing a Pomegranate. Perhaps my reaction was a case of too much hype? There are some excellent ideas to work with here but more musical and character development is needed to create a visceral connection with the work.
- Pomegranate is playing until May 25, 2019 at Buddies in BadTimes Theatre (12 Alexander Street)
- Show times are 7:30 PM on June 6, 7 & 8 with additional matinees at 2 PM on June 8 and 9.
- Ticket prices range from $30 – $50. Regular: $40, Student: $30, VIP: $50.
- Tickets are available online.
Photo of Rebecca Gray and Camille Rogers by Greg Wong