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Guest Review: Digital Baroque Opera Le Pop de L'Époque

Posted by Greg / June 25, 2013

20130625-PartyLikeIts1699.pngThe digital baroque opera Le Pop de L'Époque premiered on Saturday at Théâtre St-James, a beautiful old bank building, as part of the Montreal Baroque Festival. The evening featured decadent costumes, period instruments, and holographic performances by Syngja, D'eon, Irina Lăzăreanu, Majical Cloudz, and many others. The following is a guest review by Brian Cowan, a professor of early modern British history at McGill University.

It's not everyday that you get to see a court masque in Montreal. And I've never seen an original court masque performed with iPhones, iMacs, and non-i-prefixed musicians live in the flesh, until the performance of Le Pop de L'Époque at the Saint James Theatre on June 22. Just like the courtiers who were entertained at Versailles by the ballets and masques performed for the Sun King, the audience for Aleks Schürmer and Frances Adair's digital baroque opera, enjoyed music, dance and visual display mixed together in a highly innovative reworking of past traditions for our present pleasure.

The great culture war of the age of Louis XIV was fought between the ancients and the moderns. It might be hard for us to understand that both sides in this battle agreed that the classical past (for them, this meant the great age of Greek and Roman antiquity) was the height of cultural achievement. Both the ancients and the moderns agreed that antiquity was awesome. Their debate focused on how to best appreciate and understand that classical past. Was it through the 'modern' sciences of archaeloogy, philology, and source-based historical study? Or was it through the tried and true 'ancient' method of imitating classically inspired literary forms? In this respect then, Le Pop de L'Époque is more ancient that modern, which means it is far from dry as dust historical reconstruction. Paradoxically, the ancient is the hippest, most contemporary art around. This was no reconstruction of the 'authentic' court masque; it was fresh, new art inspired by la gloire of a now long lost and heavily mythologized past.

In an age of retro-recycling of everything, it was only a matter of time before l'age classique, as the French refer to the reign of Louis XIV, would get recycled too. The evening began with poetry readings near the basement vault from Ashley Opheim and Guillaume Morisette, where some 'clasic' poems of Anne Finch, Walt Whitman, were juxtaposed with their own original compositions. It was followed by a multimedia performance in the main hall with a massive projection on the wall of characters such as Mother Earth; Fauna; Phèdre and her son; the furies; an angel and her puppy; precious twinky angels; Queer bb janglez; a tallwhite-socialite; some ladies-who-lunch; Hercules; Neptune; a Merfriend; Neptune's Conch Blowing Bottom Boy; and last but not least, a Boy-in-Clam-With Pearl. You really had to be there to get the full picture.

The performance itself was spellbinding and unlike anything I've seen, ancient or modern, in a long time. The live musical performance, highlighted by a long harpsichord solo performance by Erin Hillyard, maintained the immediacy and humanity of the whole experience. This was a much more interesting, and much more faithful, tribute to eighteenth-century culture than say, the recent production of Michael Sturminger and Martin Haselböck's The Giacomo Variations, which was performed with John Malkovich and company at the Place des Arts earlier this month. Let's hope that this first performance of Le Pop de L'Époque will not be its last.

Brian Cowan is Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Early Modern British History at McGill University. He is the author of two books, The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse and The State Trial of Doctor Henry Sacheverell, and co-editor of the Journal of British Studies.

For photos of the evening, see Tyr Jami's flickr stream.



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