LUMINATO & SOUNDSTREAMS present R. Murray Schafer’s opera “The Children’s Crusade” reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Thursday, June 11, 2009,153 Dufferin Street, Toronto.

R. Murray Schafer’s opera The Children’s Crusade is about entering unknown spaces.

For the audience this means locating the address of a disused warehouse, locating the entrance, and standing in a black cloth walled enclosure not knowing whether the performance will come to us or we walk to it (as turned out to be the case).

For Schafer’s characters, in particular the ‘Holy Child’ played by Jacob Abrahamse, entering the unknown means venturing to believe in a visionary figure who gives him a letter from god that instructs him to gather an army of children. It means seeking permission of the King of France to lead this army (20,000 kids according to historical legends) 600 km., on foot, to Marseilles where they can expect the sea will open and let them walk on dry land to Jerusalem. There, gates will open and admit them to the company of the Muslim and Jewish children who are waiting for them to establish world peace through love.

For the audience, this exercise in open-ness works out pretty well. We surged into a huge darkened industrial space not knowing exactly how to orient ourselves to a platform where spotlights picked out a dozen white robed girls standing in a cage, adjacent to a perch with three musicians. One of the musicians rubs the tubes of a complex TV antenna rig with gloved hands, making weird keening sounds, while his colleague bows a saw, and Ryan Scott bows the metal keys of a vibraphone.

To Schafer’s post-modern celestial music the choir of angels begins a chant in Latin. A boy wearing the clothes he put on this morning to go to school walks from the dark of right field down a long lighted ramp towards the musicians, singing that he is the ‘Holy Child’, and the ‘Magus’ (Diego Matamoros) enlists him in the mission.

The conception of this production is magical. Directed by Tim Albery, designed, lighted and choreographed by Leslie Travers, Thomas Hase and Rebecca Terry respectively, the opera dares to send actors, musicians, choirs, dancers and the audience on repeated migrations through dark and wet places (recreating, for some of us, hints of the discomfort of the children in the historical crusade).

One set the audience walks through is piled with packing cases housing dimly visible streetkids. One set is a red-light infernal brothel-like temptatorium; the court of the king is a fashion show catwalk. Huge choruses of adults and of children enter the audience from any direction and move among us singing. David Houle wearing a suit and yarmulke kicks up red sand dancing in a box where he eventually dies and is covered by his Muslim sister, Maryam Toller.

It is like being inside an audio-video 7.1 surround system.

Schafer’s music is an eclectic mix of modern atonal, classical, medieval, secular, ecclesiastical and oriental modes played on instruments ancient, electronic, exotic (George Sawa on the ‘Qanum’) and rare (Anders Adin on the hurdy-gurdy). Schafer’s libretto is less convincing and the acting/speaking performances (with the exception of Matamoros) are mostly going through the motions and don’t make it into drama.

The choirs and choruses, the musicians directed by David Fallis, all rank up there with the direction in the satisfying category. The libretto, the acting, the speaking, and Jacob Abrahamse’s singing, forceful and high but without much texture, colour or subtlety, kept me on the outside looking in on the idealistic and tragic material of this story.

At story’s end, the children are all drowned in black waters, brilliantly staged as black clad dancers flattened on the floor who rise in simulation of waves and literally drag the struggling children down to lie still beside them. Thus, ‘the orphans of France are liquidated’ and enter into the unknown attended by a choir of angels singing that they will have eternal joy because they have seen the face of god.

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