Discourses in Music: Volume 2 Number 2 (Winter 2000-2001)

Sublimating Ontario History: Gary Kulesha's new opera at the University of Toronto

As its first offering of the 2000-2001 season, the Opera Division at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music presented four performances of Gary Kulesha's latest work, The Last Duel, between November 2 and 5, 2000. The plot is based on an 1833 incident in Perth, involving the schoolteacher Elizabeth Hughes and her two suitors, John Wilson and Henri Lelièvre, which resulted in a death and a legislation banning duels by pistols in Upper Canada.

In the tradition of much of twentieth century opera, Kulesha has structured his score as a quasi-cinematic sequence of ten short tableaux. The brevity of many of the scenes led him into a somewhat unyielding symmetry of musico-dramatic design. For example, the second tableau alternated period ballroom dances (played on a parlour piano) with stretches of recitative, without really bringing the borrowed music together with Kulesha's own. Only in the transition to the next scene was the audience accorded a glimpse of the possibilities latent in such a juxtaposition, when one of the old tunes entered into a heterophonic conversation with the orchestra. Aside from this rare moment, long stretches of the work remained monophonic, inspired perhaps by the harmonic language of Benjamin Britten's earlier operas. This contributed further to a feeling of sameness, as did the lack of rhythmic variety. Since most of the musical material is concentrated in the vocal parts, which follow closely the sentence structures of the text, some of this may have been the result of the metric organization of Michael Patrick Albano's libretto.

The opera's final scene, its longest, was also its most successful. Kulesha developed a more sustained musical argument here, and related it closely to the dramatic situation. He composed a large-scale passacaglia, which subsumed Elizabeth's music in its inexorable momentum, trapping her tightly in the obligation to "follow the path of duty" by marrying the man who provoked the duel "on her behalf".

Raffi Armenian kept things moving with his no-nonsense conducting, but could not always prevent the orchestra from overwhelming the singers. The cast of November 5 was remarkably even, and was challenged by the new score into giving concentrated performances. Colin Ainsworth [Henri Lelièvre] stood out because of his elegantly produced voice and sensitive phrasing. Tina Winter [Elizabeth Hughes] helped to increase the effect of the last scene with her committed acting, while Michael Sproule [John Wilson] never allowed others to overshadow his more prosaic character.

Clearly, working with a composer gives young singers a heightened sense of purpose and responsibility. The Opera Division was able to provide them with this experience thanks to special funding from Music Canada 2000. One can only hope they will be able to secure money for similar commissions in the future.

-Jiri Smrz

Jiri Smrz is a Doctoral candidate in the department of history at the University of Toronto.