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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, April 14, 2017 - Volume 45 Issue 15
Seattle Opera's moving The Combat explores the collision between love and religious faith
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Seattle Opera's moving The Combat explores the collision between love and religious faith

by Sharon Cumberland - SGN A&E Writer

SEATTLE OPERA
THE COMBAT:
A MUSLIM/CHRISTIAN
LOVE STORY IN TIME OF WAR
SEATTLE OPERA STUDIOS April 1-9


Seattle Opera's Community Engagement Project has tackled a difficult and timely subject -the confrontation between Muslim and Christian cultures, or, in modern terms, Islam and the West. In The Combat, a new chamber opera presented last week in Seattle Opera's South Lake Union rehearsal studios, the collision between love and religious faith is movingly probed in a pastiche of three pieces by Claudio Monteverdi and François Couperin.

'Pastiche' is a technical term for new work created from pre-existing sources -a technique employed frequently and honorably in the baroque period, and a strategy that has been used as recently as 2011 when the Metropolitan Opera produced The Enchanted Island, a new opera fashioned from the works of Handel, Vivaldi and Rameau. Though Seattle Opera has not attributed The Combat to any individual maker, the person who selected its music and fashioned its narrative framework created a twenty-first century opera from seventeenth century music based on a sixteenth century poem. I'm happy to report that this experiment has succeeded in making something beautiful while engaging in one of the most significant conversations of our time.

Monteverdi and Couperin are seventeenth century composers who wrote operatic scenes based on the sixteenth century Italian epic, Gerusalemme Liberata by Torquato Tasso. This epic, in turn, is about the First Crusade, a war initiated in the eleventh century by Catholic Europe to liberate the Holy Land from the Muslims who occupied Jerusalem. Though Tasso's intent was to present the conquering Crusaders as heroes of the True Religion, Seattle Opera's reinterpretation raises more complex questions about the human qualities we sacrifice for the sake of ideals. By placing this conflict so far in the past, the audience is asked to distance itself from terrorism, endless war, politics, and hate crimes, and to look at war on the most human level of all -passionate love. The Combat deploys only five singers and a baroque ensemble of seven players, yet it tells a large-scale story of lovers set against each other by 'holy war.'

The opera opens with the audience clustered around a small stage where a writer, Testo ('text' in Italian), is studying what we come to assume is Tasso's epic. Though dressed in period clothing, he drags a young man and a young woman from the audience to perform Monteverdi's love duet, 'Tirsi e Clori.' Suddenly we see a boy and girl morph from Seattle hipsters into pastoral lovers, engaging in an explosive, cast-your-fate-to-the-winds passion that only youth can express (but that we older folks sigh to remember). Tirsi sees Clori bathing by the river and sings 'How shall I adore you?' She answers, 'My name is I Love You.' We are convinced that these two have discovered the loves of their lives. This feeling is enhanced by the English-language adaptations from the Italian by Jonathan Dean that capture the delicate balance between rhyme and clarity.

In an interlude designed to part the audience into Christians and Muslims (we were given tokens with either a crescent moon or a cross and told to 'follow your path') we entered a large space with a long central stage. The small baroque orchestra sat at one end -musicians from Pacific MusicWorks, led by their brilliant conductor, Stephen Stubbs in his Seattle Opera debut. The audience of Christians sat on one side of the stage, the audience of Muslims on the other.

As the orchestra began playing Monteverdi's famous 'Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda,' we see Testo enter with his book, and begin to sing the account of Tancredi, a knight of the First Crusade, and Clorinda, a Muslim maiden who fights to defend Jerusalem from invasion. These are our young lovers from the first act, who transform again into the star-crossed subjects of Tasso's tragedy. Tancredi discovers that the warrior he must fight in single combat is the same young woman he fell in love with in an earlier, more peaceful setting.

Stage Director Dan Wallace Miller is to be congratulated for making this battle so realistic. The armor-clad singers -Tess Altiveros as Clorinda and Thomas Segen as Tancredi -go at each other with energy and determination before their helmets come off and they recognize each other. When Testo forces Tancredi to stab his lover in accordance with Tasso's epic, we have a meta-moment in which a fictional character rebels against his creator. Tancredi flings Testo off the stage, but not in time to save Clorinda. The larger comment here is, of course, that fighting to save or liberate Jerusalem is a no-win situation. If we ever hope to overcome the destructive commands of jihad or holy war we may need to rebel against our narrow ideas about the Creator.

The final piece of the opera, Couperin's 'Leçons de Ténèbres,' is music for Holy Week, using biblical text from Lamentations that focuses on the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Here is mourning music both for Clorinda, who is shrouded where she lies by a long white veil that covers the entire stage, and for Tancredi, the survivor who has to live in a world where war has conquered love. The beautiful, mysterious Latin sung by two sopranos in contemporary dress brings the story back into the present as the audience is invited to step onto the stage and leave their tokens at Clorida's grave. I'm getting chills as I write this -it was moving not only because of the deaths of loved ones in war, but because human beings haven't yet found a way to make peace with one another. The irony of 'defending the faith' by killing those you love is made very clear with this beautifully performed musical drama.

The Combat is the second production in Seattle Opera's Community Engagement Project -a new program that brings chamber operas out of the opera house and into various neighborhoods in Seattle. The first effort, As One by composer Laura Kaminsky, was performed in the Central District's historic Washington Hall and brought a whole new population to the art of opera. I applaud General Director Aidan Lang and Director of Education and Community Engagement Barbara Lynne Jamison for entering into the important conversations of our time. As One showed us a Transgender person going through the process of becoming herself, just as The Combat shows us that without religious or ideological conflict we would probably love each other -or at least like each other a lot. This is what arts should do -use all the talent available to probe the important ideas of our time, and to bring enlightenment to the viewer. Seattle Opera's Community Engagement Project is doing that, and doing it with consistent quality. I can hardly wait to see what's coming next!

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Seattle Opera's moving The Combat explores the collision between love and religious faith
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