Opera Preview: Magnificent Mezzo

Interview with Krisztina Szabó for Now Magazine, September 23, 2015 by Jon Kaplan. View the article online at @nowtoronto.com

The Canadian Opera Company presents - Pyramus and Thisbe with Krisztina Szabo and Phillip Addis Michael Cooper Photographic Office- 416-466-4474 Mobile- 416-938-7558 66 Coleridge Ave. Toronto, ON M4C 4H5Mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó has an unusual gig this fall: in the course of little more than an hour, she performs works from the oldest operatic repertoire as well as the premiere of one of the newest.

All three works deal with tragic love. Lamento D’Arianna features Ariadne, abandoned by Theseus on the island of Naxos; Il Combattimento Di Tancredi E Clorinda has Tancred, a Christian Crusader, battling Clorinda, a Saracen warrior maiden whose sex is hidden by her armour. Both are by 17th-century composer Claudio Monteverdi.

The debut is Canadian composer Barbara Monk Feldman’s Pyramus And Thisbe, which tells of lovers whose story has parallels to Romeo And Juliet. You might know P&T from another Shakespearean work, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but this version, based on Ovid, is far from the Bard’s laugh-fest.

“The two see each other through a wall’s crack and decide to meet in the forest,” says Szabó. “Thisbe first comes across a lioness and flees, dropping her scarf, which the beast tears; Pyramus, thinking her dead, kills himself, and she follows suit.

“That’s the bare story, but Feldman’s take isn’t narrative. It’s a philosophical, cerebral work that tracks the interior landscape of the characters.”

Regardless of how esoteric the work might be, Szabó will make Thisbe a strongly dramatic character. The singer has appeared with the Canadian Opera Company before, most recently as the troubled woman in Erwartung, singing the difficult Schoenberg score with skill and creating a fascinating portrayal of a figure seeking her lost lover.

She was equally haunting, musically and theatrically, in Against the Grain’s clever pairing of two song cycles, the romantic Die Schöne Müllerin and a modern piece, Harawi.

“Thisbe will be a challenging role to sing,” Szabó admits. “The score is spacious, and she has lots of silences. I have to be careful to find the character’s through-line in those silences. The colours of the score are sparse and delicate, never too loud. It feels very French to me.”

The whole evening, in fact, has an in-timacy unusual for shows presented in the Four Seasons. Though Feldman’s piece has a chorus and orchestra, the earlier works are scored just for continuo (strings and keyboard).

It’s easy for the singer to define her characters in the two Monteverdi selections, since “both are so text-driven that I can find who the women are in the words alone. Arianna, for instance, talks of hope, despair and pleading for Theseus’s love. But I have the freedom to play with her musically, getting to follow my emotional impulses in the moment.”

What about the combination of the old and the new scores?

“A lot of people who sing baroque music also do contemporary works. In the baroque there’s experimentation and ornamentation, some of which is left up to the singer. A similar kind of experimentation is part of modern work.”

Though she performs Mozart, Handel, Puccini and Wagner, Szabó discovered that she has an affinity for contemporary music, loving “to figure it out.” Before the triple bill opens, she’ll be singing a Soundstreams concert of modern compositions with Adrianne Pieczonka and, afterwards, doing a Tapestry Opera evening that features Polaris Prize-winning punk provocateurs Fucked Up.

But for now she’s concentrating on Feldman and Monteverdi.

“I feel my roles deeply and try to be as authentic as I can. I’ll never be able to phone in a performance” – no surprise for anyone who’s seen her onstage – “because I look for something in myself for each character. I’m not a simple person, and all those emo-tional experiences feed what I do onstage.”

PYRAMUS AND THISBE by Barbara Monk Feldman, with LAMENTO D’ARIANNA and IL COMBATTIMENTO DI TANCREDI E CLORINDA by Claudio Monteverdi, directed by Christopher Alden, with Krisztina Szabó, Phillip Addis and Owen McCausland. Presented by the Canadian Opera Company at the Four Seasons Centre (145 Queen West). Opens October 20 and runs in rep through November 7. $50-$435, some youth and standing room tickets. 416-363-8231, coc.ca.

jonkap@nowtoronto.com | @nowtoronto.com