May 2005

Underworlds by Red Sky

Eurydice Variations by The Toronto Consort

May 28, 2005 • Glenn Gould Theatre • Toronto
The audience was looking forward to something fresh and different.

What they got with this double-bill Friday night was a near-successful performance from the Red Sky company, and an admirably successful performance from the Toronto Consort.

Red Sky's Underworlds opened. It's the story of Cheeby-Aub-Oozoo, an Ojibway (Anishnaabe) hero who ventures to the Underworld and brings back music and dream quests to the land of the living.

Underworlds has so much going for it: the story of Cheeby-Aub-Oozoo is intriguing and the narration by the beautiful Sandra Laronde is appropriately strong and stately. Marion Newman's singing and frame drumming is consistently well-focused and well-executed, and the solid traditional singers Eddy Robinson and Derrick Bressette drum a heart-beat as their war-like cries pass back and forth, until the heart-beat slows down to a steady single beat.

We're then listening to the solo efforts of composer/percussionist Antonio Zepeda. He truly occupies centre stage with his spread-out array of water jugs, a white conch, mouth flutes, a vertical wood flute, a rain stick, and a large rack with five hanging frame drums, all of which he plays to a pre-recorded sound track heard throughout most of the production.

We start to notice that Underworlds repeats itself, and monotony sets in: it's narrator and singers; solo Zepeda; narrator and singers; solo Zepeda. Often it was hard to tell whether Zepeda was deliberately mimicking the sounds of nature as described by Sandra Laronde, or whether he was playing to the recorded music, but his near over-dominance of the structure and the running time of Underworlds made Cheeby-Aub-Oozoo's story shrink in prominence. We forgot about Cheeby-Aub-Oozoo.

And — sorry to say — but judging by the restless and coughing audience, the static structure and its equally static staging likely distanced the audience instead of drawing them into Underworlds.

The reverse was true for the Toronto Consort's poised performance of Eurydice Variations, a new look at the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, told through the eyes of Eurydice herself.

(The Bridget Bryant text is based on Alessandro Striggio's lyrics and the variations of David Fallis are based on Claudio Monteverdi's original music for Orfeo.)

The Consort's performance was approachable, clever and thoughtful, and it was so pleasant to see that these singers, these storytellers of the Eurydice Variations, are aware of blocking. From piece to piece, they efficiently changed places on the stage, all dressed in black. Then they sang, and the illusion of a story being told was maintained.

It seems that good performances are based on some kind of useful and effective narrative structure.

For example, the polish and crisp sound of the instrumentalists served as a framework for this evening's performance. The playing of Ben Grossman hurdy-gurdy, Paul Jenkins keyboard, Terry McKenna guitar and lute, Alison Melville flutes, Lucas Harris lute, Laura Jones cellist and gambist supported the audience who read the text while the singers sang. (Now that's ambience.)

And what fine singers. There's Laura Pudwell's warm and articulate mezzo-soprano voice, and there's John Pepper, David Fallis and soprano Michele DeBoer who entertained and impressed us with their clear and deft treatment of the lyrics. Eurydice Variations is a whole presentation on stage about love lost. It's been put together well. It wasn't just a music concert.

On the plus side, Underworld is an original Canadian myth, but its narrative structure might be reworked so it consistently tells its story.

So: if you've got a good story — and both companies do — you've still got to package it so the audience stays.

We welcome your comments and feedback
• • • • • •
Report by David Fujino
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for The Live Music Report

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