Opera Canada review of Nigredo Hotel

From Opera Canada's Vol LIX, No. 2 issue.

It's barely an hour long—but City Opera Vancouver's Nigredo Hotel (seen Sept. 20th) packs quite a wallop. It's not that far, really, from traditional opera in form and story arc despite composer Nic Gotham's funky, dissonant, jazz-rooted score and Anne-Marie MacDonald's pungently witty—at times uncouth—but ultimately, gloriously redemptive libretto. Unusually for a 20th-century opera, Nigredo Hotel has seen numerous stagings on three continents since its 1992 premiere by Toronto's Tapestry Music Theatre.

In the context of this opera, ‘nigredo’ is a term from Carl Jung meaning "dark night of the soul"—an essential prerequisite to that soul’s enlightenment or full realization. The opera tracks this process in neurosurgeon Raymond, under the questionable and highly unorthodox guidance of Sophie, proprietress of the sleazy Nigredo Hotel where a Jungian “meaningful coincidence” forces Raymond to seek lodging for the night.

Sophie may start out as hotel proprietress but during the course of the opera, she metamorphoses into Personified Wisdom or the Jungian anima (feminine part of the soul) and becomes part of Raymond's psyche. And he part of hers: Nigredo Hotel has a persistent dreamlike elasticity, stretching reality and audience expectation in unforeseen and sometimes uncom-fortable directions.

Baritone Tyler Duncan and soprano Sarah Vardy were perfectly cast as Raymond and Sophie. Duncan portrayed Raymond’s initial, brash confidence with a suave self-assurance that gradually slipped away as he was forced to confront the childhood trauma that has haunted him his entire life. MacDonald's libretto remains murky as to what the nature of that trauma was, but Gotham's music documents the emotional ride with remarkable empathy.

Vardy nailed the role of Sophie with pinpoint accuracy, from the brazenly audacious delivery of her witty bon mots to the aging-but-still-sexy-and-knows-it hotel proprietress. The sexual tension between Vardy and Duncan was eminently palpable, even if the opera’s story resolves it in an ultimately humane, non-sexual, way.

Under conductor Charles Barber, the accompanying instrumental quartet—Francois Houle, clarinet; Laurence Mollerup, bass; Roger Parton, keyboards and Martin Fisk, percussion —remained tight and focused on Gotham's uncompromisingly complex score. His music rarely gave any moments of psychological reprieve, the musical/psychological tension not resolving until the opera's final moments. Even then, it was a battle not easily won.

A huge component of this production's success was the convincingly squalid hotel room atmosphere, remarkably evoked by John Webber's articulate lighting and set design. A hard, narrow bed—uncomfortable even to look at—took centre stage while a brass radiator belching steam at random moments and a cold-water sink (no hand towel) sat resolutely below the upper reaches of the set festooned with a collage of empty picture frames. These, if caught at the right angle, outlined a human head with stark blue eyes gazing straight out at the audience. No doubt about it: this opera was an interior psycho-drama of the first order.

Barbara Clayden's costumes mirrored the stages of the outer-to-inner journey of the opera's two characters, starting with Raymond's bespoke-tailored, black three-piece suit and Sophie's tacky, multi-colored print mu-mu and red plastic-rimmed sun-glasses, with a perpetual cigarette drooping from her too-bright carmine lips. By the opera's culmination, both characters were stripped down to pristine white underwear while a shower of red feathers (symbolizing ‘rubedo’—reddening where the ‘self’ archetype achieves wholeness) cascaded down upon their virginal whiteness, creating a real visual tour-de-force.

Holding it all together with adroit timing, placement and character interaction was Alan Corbishley's intelligent and insightful direction. You may not be humming any Gotham tunes as you head home after the show. But images and emotions from Nigredo Hotel will haunt you long after the final bars have faded away.

-- Robert Jordan