We think of ancient Egypt and images of the pyramids, the sphinx, and giant temples rush to mind. Columns still resting as if only having been put up yesteryear tell us of the grandeur of a past civilization. Opera, in this context, is perhaps a musical art form that best is suited to bring ancient Egypt alive. We are all familiar with Radames and the larger-than-life march in Verdi’s Aïda and can also recall the trials Tamino had to endure in Mozart’s Zauberflöte. This is why it’s a special occasion to be able to witness the world premiere of a new Canadian opera set in ancient Egypt: Isis and Osiris: Gods of Egypt.
Setting the Stage
Conceived by librettist Sharon Singer with the music of well-known Canadian composer Peter-Anthony Togni, the opera tackles the famous myth of Isis and Osiris, a story that was only waiting for an operatic adaptation. It was in 2010 that a preview of the opera was first shown to members of the Art Gallery of Ontario in conjunction with the then-Tutankhamun exhibit. Then in late 2013 the seeds seemingly were sown with a lively fundraiser at the Heliconian Hall in Toronto. Now, three years later, the production hit the stage at the Jane Hallett theatre near the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto.
The Opera Goes Live
The stage bore statues reminiscent of those found guarding the entrance into Tut’s burial chamber as well as blocks of broken columns by the front. As the stage darkened to initiate the performance, patterns of light shone against the back wall. The orchestra at the front was small with only one cello and a few violinists. We met the protagonists of the story, though not before a chorus introduced them to us. One particular highlight here was the amazing singing by Julie Nesrallah (Nephthys), who we know through the Tempo programme on CBC Radio 2. Her continued shock at the actions of Seth were reflected beautifully in the awed tone of her voice. Seth’s many emotions, more bellicose than not, were rendered powerfully by Michael Nyby. The music, how could it not, was marvellous – Mr Togni has been nominated for a Juno (Canada’s equivalent of the Grammy’s) in the past. It was his first opera, which he composed. He combined sounds, which seemed to be home in ancient Egypt, with melodies set in the sacred.
I loved the music. It gave life to the story. It perfectly encapsulated the befuddled feelings of Osiris before entering Seth’s box and then made us feel the horror and pain that Isis felt at the discovery of Osiris’ drowning in the Nile. The singing of the performers was at times interrupted by words only spoken without the orchestra’s music. In looking at the costumes of the singers, they were dressed in black leggings with tight black shirts – some of them had a collar of golden fabric around their necks and a stash down their fronts. While it looked Egyptian, the black leggings were not. The stage itself did not change throughout the performance with Seth’s box only opening out of the ground.
Isis and Osiris – meet the world!
It is a pity that the opera was confined to such a small stage and budget. I sure wonder, what it would be like, if it were produced by the Metropolitan Opera House or even the COC right here in Toronto. Imagine a dedicated opera house with an extensive orchestra and an even more elaborate stage. Nevertheless, this opera now has its premiere behind it. Its music and song, they are proof that Isis and Osiris: Gods of Egypt are ready for the world stage – perhaps even a performance or two in Egypt itself?