Owing to the limited size of the performing space, only a small audience could be admitted to see How It Storms each night. I attended on Thursday evening, and I count myself lucky to be among the 100-or-so people who experienced the piece during its brief run.
The most unusual thing about How It Storms is that it’s scored for a quartet of voices and Indonesian gamelan – an ensemble of (mostly) bronze instruments struck with mallets. The ensemble for the occasion was Toronto’s Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan, an eight-member group that plays on instruments imported from Indonesia. Since 1983, the ECCG has presented works by many contemporary composers, as well as traditional Sundanese degung repertoire. (Some disclosure may be called for here: I am one of the many composers whose music has been played by the Evergreens.)
In How It Storms, not only is the ensemble of Indonesian origin, so too is the story. The libretto, inspired by Hindu mythology, deals with relationships – including erotic relationships – between humans and gods.
The low-budget production that the ECCG mounted inevitably had a workshoppy feel. It was done “opera-in-concert” style, with the singers reading their parts from music-stands. However, some ingenious rear-projections of outdoor scenery – forests, rivers and the like – gave the audience something interesting to look at, and located the opera in a rural landscape.
The talented cast was in fine form, offering intimate and detailed performances, under the composer’s baton. The central characters, Pascal and Coco – a betrothed couple – were sung by baritone Keith O’Brien and Danielle MacMillan, respectively. They were a well-matched pair, both strongest in their upper registers. Tenor Christopher Mayell had a pleasantly light voice, and a touch of Broadway theatricality about him when he appeared as a beggar who draws Coco into a tryst with the gods. Later on, Mayell also sang the role of a magical stag that lays a curse on Pascal. Finally, mezzo Claire de Sévigné, portraying Molly, Coco’s sister (and Pascal’s lover), was a rich-voiced asset to the production.
But the biggest star of the show was the Evergreen Club, and the music Cole wrote for the ensemble. In How It Storms, the composer showed a thorough understanding of the expressive range of the gamelan – from delicate whispers to frenetic outbursts. In effective climaxes, Cole skilfully had his singers soar in long lines over the voluptuous, enveloping sound of the gamelan. The enchantments of the libretto were vividly mirrored in the score.
The concert performance I attended succeeded admirably on its own terms. But at the same time, it suggested that a more elaborate treatment – complete with costumes, stage direction and perhaps also dance – could bring a sense of grandeur to How It Storms. It would be a fine thing if this modest premiere served as a springboard to a fully staged production.
© Colin Eatock 2015