Love in Public mostly succeeds in setting Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s love sonnets to music
By David MacIntyre, from the sonnets of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. At the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre at SFU Woodward’s on Thursday, April 19. Continues until April 29
Beneath its pretty, romantic exterior, Love in Public is quite an audacious little exercise. Local composer David MacIntyre and his cast of opera singers have taken on the momentous task of setting every one of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 44 famous love sonnets to music. The idea is to roll them into an evening that makes some vague narrative sense, and locate it all in a cabaret setting. Even MacIntyre, in his program notes, admits it’s a bold act of both honouring and desecrating the original material.
Barrett Browning wrote the poems in 1845 and 1846, publishing them in 1850 under the misleading title Sonnets From the Portuguese, in an attempt to hide the fact they tracked the achingly intimate courtship between her and fellow poet Robert Browning, six years her junior. More than a century and a half later, her odes to love are still revered, the most famous being “How Do I Love Thee?” “Let me count the ways…”
One of MacIntyre’s biggest challenges is to bring Barrett Browning’s antiquated language—“Thou hast thy calling”; “Beloved, thou hast brought me”—into a contemporary setting and put it to music that is not so much operatic as popular, drawing on everything from tango rhythms to gospel touches at times. In this, the composer (and SFU prof) known for Vancouver Opera’s The Architect and Vancouver New Music’s Sanctuary, mostly succeeds. The four singers, accompanied ably by David Boothroyd on grand piano, can pull off the archaic language, and easily scale the fluid melodies that sometimes feel more like musical theatre. Some of the songs inhabit a mesmerizing space that gets closer to the transcendent powers of Barrett Browning’s verse: mezzo Megan Morrison’s “If Thou Must Love Me” manoeuvers through a mystical chain of key changes, while Act 2 opens with hypnotic ensemble harmonizations for “When Our Two Souls”. Attempts to mix things up with, for example, the dance rhythms of “The Soul’s Rialto” don’t work as well.
For their part, the singers are up to the onerous memorization and mood changes. Baritone Warren Kimmel owns pieces like the powerful “Accuse Me Not”, yet is quietly moving in other songs; tenor Frédérik Robert pours his heart out for “My Letters!”; and soprano Robyn Driedger-Klassen and mezzo Morrison give voice to the sweetness, confusion, and doubt in Barrett Browning’s words.
The intimacy of the work is heightened by the fact the audience sits on three sides of the stage, and the playing area is bathed in dappled, often sepia light, with sets consisting of an autumn-orange tree, Italianate benches, and cabaret tables. Director Peter Jorgensen manages to move the performers in a way that hints at relationships between different pairs of singers, though it would be hard to describe the piece as “narrative”.
About the only element that feels forced and out of place is the dance. This is no comment on the abilities of the expressive Kaylin Metchie and Juan Carlos Villegas; it’s just that their choreography is so earnestly literal—at one point he gives her a box with a flower in it—when Barrett Browning’s poems are not. And often they’re left with little to do amid the singing.
There is so much material here, with 44 sonnets, that adding more elements takes away from Barrett Browning’s gemlike simplicity. Still, seeing this show will probably send you hunting for her book of sonnets.