Libretto by Royce Vavrek, music by Luna Pearl Woolf, dramaturgy and direction by Michael Hidetoshi Mori, Betty Oliphant Theatre, Feb. 19 to 23, 2020.
By anyone’s standards, the world premiere of the new opera Jacqueline is a triumph. The work explores the life and career of British cellist Jacqueline du Pré (1945-1987) in a daring and innovative manner, and is a feather in the cap of Tapestry Opera, the company that took a chance on presenting the piece.
The sad facts about du Pré’s life are well known. At the height of her career, she was considered among the greatest cellists of all time, but as a sign that the gods can be cruel in the extreme, du Pré was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and had to end her public performances when she was just 28. In all, her career lasted just a brief twelve years, but her recording of Elgar’s Cello Concerto is considered so perfect, that other cellists at the time took the work out of their repertoires. The recording has never been out of print.
The opera, by composer Luna Pearl Woolf (American-born, but who lives in Montreal) and libretto by Canadian Royce Vavrek, is in four movements, which are titled Star Birth, Super Nova, Meteorite, and Impact, and so mirror the structure of the Elgar concerto. At key moments, Woolf has even embedded into the score, quotes from the concerto, which is particularly affecting. Impressionistic in style, Vavrek’s scenario skips back and forth through time periods, touching on du Pré’s youth, virtuosity, fame, conversion to Judaism, marriage to pianist/conductor Daniel Barenboim, the loss of her career, and her struggle with MS. And here’s the adventurous part – Jacqueline is a two-hander. American soprano Marnie Breckenridge sings the role of du Pré, while American cellist Matt Haimovitz performs the role of her cello.
In other words, Woolf’s entire score, even the scattered taped sections, is for unaccompanied cello. That’s a lot of cello music, but Woolf’s composition is remarkable. At one point, du Pré tells us that her cello, whom she calls Mon Ami, is quite a conversationalist, and in the hands of Haimovitz, it is. The modernist, but not discordant, score reacts to du Pré’s mood swings, even to her humour, like hand to glove. Haimovitz’s fingers fly up and down the cello making both commentary and sound effects. The cello supports, reacts, leads, and questions with playing that is virtuosic and always passionate. The fourth movement begins with a long cello lament, performed with formality in centre stage, that is absolutely heartbreaking, and then Haimovitz leaves. Du Pré’s cello has become silent. Near the end of the fourth movement, Haimovitz reappears as a shadowy figure upstage – a ghost of what was once a brilliant career. As a side note, the young Haimovitz was a protégé of du Pré, and apparently recounted his memories to Jacqueline’s creators. That personal connection is very evident in Haimovitz’s performance, which certainly comes from the heart.
Breckenridge’s singing and acting are a marvel. She possesses that bright, clear voice that works so well with contemporary music, and her diction is wonderful. There are grainy subtitles available, but they were scarcely needed. Woolf has given the soprano a lot of notes in the upper register for emphasis, which she makes with ease. Vavrek’s libretto includes quicksilver changes of mood and subject matter, and Breckenridge’s transitions are seamless. In fact, these personality changes, as it were, are one of the libretto’s more interesting details, and Breckenridge is able to change her physicality at the drop of a hat. Her a cappella passages are also dazzling in control. Woolf’s score requires the soprano to take her voice up, down and all around, in a tour-de-force of manipulation, and she is impressive indeed. As a performer, Breckenridge has endless charm, and her spirited portrayal of the doomed du Pré literally seduces the audience’s empathy. The relationship between du Pré and her cello runs from sweet and loving, to hateful and hurtful, and the chemistry between Breckenridge and Haimovitz is patently obvious. In an opera that is ninety minutes in length, communication is an absolutely necessity.
Vavrek’s libretto is clever because he has opted not to do a straightforward biography. Rather, he has chosen a mix of factual happenings from du Pré’s life, such as her Israeli wedding to Barenboim, as well as imagining her thought processes at various times in her life, and so we get a portrait of the cellist’s heart and mind, and it is an emotional experience for both the audience and performers – both impressionistic and expressionistic at the same time. Vavrek’s use of humour is important, because it provides relief, such as a joke about twelve Chinese monks, or in the fourth movement, du Pré entering the stage by sliding backwards on her behind, telling us that the bum is a good means of transportation. Jacqueline even opens with humour as Breckenridge and Haimovitz play a glissando game, as du Pré coyly tells us that she has a disease. It’s black humour, but it works. Vavrek is an exact wordsmith who captures mood and thought with an economy of language that is both potent and pointed.
Director Michael Hedetoshi Mori’s vision for Jacqueline is very imaginative, and his creative team, that includes set and costume designer Camellia Koo, and lighting designer Bonnie Beecher, have ensured that his treatment gets optimal effect. Surrounding the singer and cellist are chairs set up as a large orchestra with a conducting podium. The empty chairs are an eloquent reminder of both du Pré’s fame and glory, and her tragic demise. At certain times, some of the chairs are raised into the air, and dangle at odd angles, which speaks of deformity and failing physicality. Beecher’s lighting is dramatic and precise, as it follows the twists and turns of du Pré’s thoughts. Mori has very clearly determined when Breckenridge and Haimovitz look at each other, and when they don’t, and Woolf has provided pregnant pauses in the music for both performers to freeze in position for emphasis. Koo’s costumes are right out of the sixties and seventies with changes of clothes tracking through the cellist’s life. There is also excellent use of contrast. In the fourth movement, when the cellist’s body is already ravaged by MS, Koo has du Pré wear a red satin recital dress, which makes her loss of musical gift and career even more distressing. Mori also provides contrast by keeping Breckenridge in motion, as opposed to the static Haimovitz.
Jacqueline absolutely deserves a shelf life. With apologies to Breckenridge, one is always going to be able to find a soprano, but where, o where, will one find a virtuoso cellist who can master Woolf’s complicated and dense score? That, I think, is the rub.