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A potent biographical psychodrama

The Betty Oliphant Theatre
02/19/2020 -  & February 20, 21, 22, 23, 2020
Luna Pearl Woolf: Jacqueline
Marnie Breckenridge (Jacqueline du Pré), Matt Haimovitz (cello)
Michael Hidetoshi Mori (director & dramaturge), Camellia Koo (set and costume designer), Bonnie Beecher (lighting designer), Jason Cabanaw (sound coordinator)

M. Breckenridge & M. Haimovitz (© Dahlia Katz)

Now in its 40th year of presenting new operas, Tapestry Opera has come up with a work unlike any I have experienced. As a monodrama it bears a resemblance to Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King, except here the solo singer, soprano Marnie Breckeridge, interacts with the other performer, cellist Matt Haimovitz. She portrays Jacqueline du Pré, the astonishing cellist (1945-87) whose meteoric career was truncated by the relentless onset of multiple sclerosis, and he plays the cello. “Plays the cello” has two meaning in this case: he performs on his cello and also personifies the cello at some moments, such as when the child Jackie ecstatically embraces her cello, she embraces Mr. Haimovitz.

The almost two-hour-long work is in four “movements”. In the introduction, accompanied by queasy glissandi, Jackie tells us she has a “terrible disease”. The accompaniment here echoes Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and there is a suggestion that her ailment is psychosomatic which of course it was not, although it eventually disrupts her equilibrium. (The affliction is not mentioned by name throughout the piece.)

The work then progresses more or less chronologically through her life: from her joyous discovery of her affinity for the cello at a very young age, through to her taking charge (perhaps arrogantly) at a recording session, her impetuous marriage to Daniel (Barenboim) and her conversion to Judaism, her enjoyment of a buzzing performing career when she was in demand everywhere - and her subsequent disillusionment as the performing demands take over her whole life. There is a portrait of ordinary Jackie when tells a bawdy joke about the sexual proclivities of monks. She subsequently has to handle the onset of her ailment, with a glimpse of rueful humour as she slides around “on her bum”, but then she gives vent to understandable profane rage. The most profound moment is when she must cancel her engagements, and Matt Haimovitz plays a profoundly elegiac passage with a broken ending - the tragic musical climax of the work. The opera cleverly manages another climax when there is a quote from her most renowned piece, the Elgar Cello Concerto, a work from a composer’s maturity with which she triumphed while still in her teens. Michael Hidetoshi Mori’s stage directing at this point places the cellist back in the shadows of the large stage, thus we experience an echo of a performer’s triumph which also serves as her eulogy.

The work has further resonance in that Matt Haimovitz was mentored at age 13 by Jacqueline du Pré just four years before her death. And now, 33 years after her passing, and after several years of thoughtful gestation, and with the help of librettist Royce Vavrek, his wife, Luna Pearl Woolf, has devised this piece. Matt Haimovitz has proven to be one of the major cellists of today; his rich, probing playing, and Marnie Breckenridge’s sparkling voice and candid presence come together to create a truly beguiling work.

Michael Johnson



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