Magazine article Opera Canada

What I Think about the Golden Ass

Magazine article Opera Canada

What I Think about the Golden Ass

Article excerpt

The Golden Ass, by Randolph Peters and Robertson Davies, premiered in Toronto last April by the Canadian Opera Company, sets Canadian opera back at least three generations: a smartly performed and visually lavish spectacle based on a stuffy script and tepid score.

The publicity promised a work of unprecedented significance, the swan song of a "beloved" novelist, a racy tale set to music. With a budget rumored at $1,800,000, the burning question was not "Is it any good?" but "Will it win or lose?" The Globe and Mail's Alexandra Gill said the opening would be covered by "big critics," a category to which evidently no reviewer in Canada's largest city belongs. Barbara McDougall, a former federal cabinet minister, bubbled, "It's the opera event of the century, at least in Toronto," and the wide-eyed Gill agreed: "It's not often that a new opera appears." (In fact, I took in eight new Canadian operas during 1998-9, one of which I composed, and there were others that I missed.)

The opera's source, The Golden Ass by Lucius Apuleius (c. AD 123-180), is in the picaresque vein of Boccaccio and The Thousand and One Nights--a series of loosely spun adventure yarns, interspersed with anecdotes and generously laced with sex and violence. What happens when a young man drinks the wrong magic potion and finds instead of a bird, he's changed into a donkey?

Davies' libretto reshapes the episodic story, giving it a dramatic flow. He reduces most of the adventures of the hero Lucius to a summary, delivered in a long aria after he resumes human form. Thus, the tales become static narration. The music does evoke lively images, but the effect is still static.

In Apuleius, Lucius's escapades include beatings, drownings, amputations, abductions, rapes. Not content with these, the libretto manufactures several fresh horrors. In the aria, Lucius tells us that in his donkey's life he was forced to be a stud; but Apuleius's farmers reject the donkey in this role in favor of their better-fed stallions. The aria describes an act of bestiality by the miller's son, but Apuleius's mill scene contains nothing of the sort; there is no miller's son. However, the aria ignores the ancient author's homophobic Chapter 12, where the donkey finds himself serving a band of "effeminate priests." Davies seems to prefer his own tastelessness to that of his classical source.

Before his transformation, Lucius has an affair with Fotis, the serving-girl of his wealthy host Milo. This teasing passage becomes heavier in the libretto. Here, host and hostess offer the girl to Lucius, thus removing the clandestine element in his fun. Then the two principals enact their copulation, with the Storyteller and chorus egging them on. Bizet and Leoncavallo didn't announce the love scenes of their operas by such leers and winks. …

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