February 20, 2020
Tonight a rapturous audience welcomed the world premiere of Jacqueline, a new opera from Tapestry Opera at the Betty Oliphant Theatre.
It’s a deceptively simple piece exploring the relationship of cellist Jacqueline du Pré and her instrument.
She was a prodigious talent who had to abandon her performing career at the age of 27 when she developed Multiple Sclerosis, and died at the age of 42. What if that story were told by a singer & a cellist, where the cello were represented as if it were an actual character, given that the instrument was one of the great passions of her life?
We hear of her mother, her sister Hillary, her husband Daniel (Barenboim).
We will hear about an incurable illness.
For close to two hours we were immersed in a poetic world. But I don’t think anyone in the theatre had any trouble making the imaginative leap. The stage is bare, Camellia Koo’s set design wonderfully suggestive as things develop , again through a very simple use of the materials.
I’m tempted to talk about a collaboration between a man and a woman. But whether it’s composer Luna Pearl Woolf working with librettist Royce Vavrek to create the opera, OR soprano Marnie Breckenridge as Jacqueline working with cellist Matt Haimovitz to make music & enact the opera, we’re talking about productive relationships. I think of Director & Dramaturge Michael Hidetoshi Mori as a midwife, bringing both the text & performance to life. The work & the performances are fully formed & mature, well-conceived and in no way seeming incomplete. The tension in each pair whether it was between the words & music, or between the singer & the instrument, was palpable, the root of this very deceptively simple piece.
I’m not sure who had the tougher night, between Breckenridge singing, dancing & crawling about the stage, or Haimovitz playing literally for hours, mostly while seated but also acting as well. Both of them are in virtuoso territory, whether we’re speaking of her high notes & vulnerable portrayal, or his beautiful sound. There are humorous touches, there is a touch of bawdiness and a great deal of romance. If you like cello music you will love this opera, because Haimovitz is making some wonderful music on his instrument, sometimes seeming to go off into long cadenza-like soliloquys, sometimes playing melodic & dissonant phrases, occasionally becoming disjointed as though mirroring the horrific experiences of his owner, cellist Jacqueline. Yet he is mostly in support of the illusion, in support of the story-telling, the expected arc of plot for someone known to have become sick & died young. At times it felt like film music as if Jacqueline were speaking rather than singing, as her vocal line was wonderfully sensitive to the rhythms of speech, and the cello becoming self-effacing.
While there is one big recognizable quote from the Elgar cello concerto –the piece most associated with du Pré –for the most-part we’re listening to fragments, rarely seeming to be in extended musical passages, as the structure seems to come from the text & the words, with the music largely subservient.
I think Jacqueline will be a big success from what I saw & heard tonight in a sold out theatre. It runs only until the 23rd. See it if you can!