February 21, 2020
Would the much too short and music-filled life of the late cellist Jacqueline Du Pré make for a good opera? Yes, it turns out: this Wednesday, Feb 19th, Tapestry presented Jacqueline, a chamber biopic opera composed by Luna Pearl Woolf and written by Royce Vavrek in which two performers play the title character. Soprano Marnie Breckenridge and cellist Matt Haimovitz covered, respectively, the verbal, physical side of the musician and her cello and cello-playing. This doubling worked extremely well. Haimovitz, silent and serious but always alert to Jacqueline’s demands and confessions, remained stationary on the soloist podium, while Jackie moved free-range till the very last act. Occasionally I found myself wondering if perhaps a dark mezzo would have been a better voice to have for du Pré to match the cello timbre, but the contrast too makes sense. She is light if chromatic, with musical lines spiky and not exactly beautiful; very playful, spirited, often silly. The musical line on Haimovitz’s cello on the other hand has gravitas; it seems to come out in one smooth, seemingly endless line, and has a dark beauty and no sense of humour.
The librettist Joyce Vavrek structured the work in four acts/fragments. First part follows Jackie’s life until her early rising stardom and marriage to Daniel Barenboim, while the second details the period of her first recordings, and the “delirious excitement, and the continual exhaustion, of life on the road”. First MS symptoms begin to show, but she suspects it’s all due to stress and mental strain. The third fragment finds Jacqueline alone at home ill with multiple sclerosis, slowly saying goodbye to life and finally, in a dramatic dialogue, to the cello. (Remember, 14 years passed between her early retirement from stage and her death). Haimovitz leaves the podium, and Jackie follows, saying “I’m afraid I’ll have to cancel all my engagements.” The final act is a fantasy – or what survives after the physical Jackie is gone. It’s the images and sounds of her in Elgar’s cello concerto before a large orchestra – in this setup the cello is in the back propelling the motion, she out front, in a glamourous red silk dress.
Director Michael Mori places the opera on a slightly awry concert stage, with bits of other scenery put in and removed as the opera progresses. This works well. But there are a lot of things to quibble with which should probably be tweaked in future revivals (and this opera should see many if there’s any justice). If we look at the surviving images of du Pré – she was quite a sex kitten, if I can put it that bluntly, just an extraordinarily attractive young person who could have been played as a Rheinmaiden, a Titania, a Tinkerbell. In this production, she is clad in dull retro clothes in various shades of beige and wears a long, retro wig. This opera has such sound foundations that it would work well, and probably better, if Jackie wore present-day clothes that suit best the soprano who is singing the role. (Haimovitz is in neutral black clothes that do not distract, as is only right.) Soprano Marnie Breckenridge is blond herself and could have easily worn her own hair in the role.
Another tweak in waiting: the way this fictional Jackie speaks. The OUVAH-emphasized posh English pronunciation puts a distance between us and the character and it slightly caricatures her. Her sense of humour is retro and weird enough! Just let her speak regular RP English, and when needed slightly de-poshify. It’s not a documentary, for Pete’s sake.
The extra distance was added by putting all of this on stage, one level up and away from the audience in the otherwise pleasant Betty Oliphant theatre. It would have worked better if the audience was on the same level and closer to the two performers. Imagine observing Jacqueline’s erotic writhing with the cello or her silly jokes or her final angry *fuck yous* – from a much shorter distance. A very different experience, I expect.
And while for the most part Jacqueline admiringly manages to steer clear from sentimentality, the final Elgar-fest act succumbs to it. It’s not treacly, exactly – but it’s way more demonstrative than the rest of the play. Jacqueline could run straight through with no intermission and easily end on “cancel all my performances” after Haimovitz’s final cello solo. What comes after is sliiiightly over-egging it.
There are so many brilliant details scattered throughout. “Daniel” is scarce after illness strikes, somehow always away on tour. In act 3, the sickness act, there is a polished silvery cello case on a chair next to Jackie that disturbingly reminds of a coffin. And who knew that the phrase “straddling the Strad” can sound so naughty?
Remember Svadba? This opera may live as long, travel as wide and get as many productions as Svadba: it’s small and compact, funny and serious, and packs a punch. To appear in its full glory, tweaks will be needed down the road. But you have three more chances to see it in its diamond-in-the-rough, world-premier-y incarnation at the Betty Oliphant: tonight, tomorrow and Sunday.