Review: Against Nature (Citadel + Compagnie)

An award-winning adaptation mixing dance and opera returns to Toronto

Presented by Citadel + Compagnie, the 2016 Dora nominated Against Nature returns to the Citadel. The opera and dance mix adapts French/Dutch author Joris-Karl Huysman’s 1884 novel À Rebours through the direction and choreography of James Kudelka.

After living a luxurious life in Paris, Jean des Esseinte, an aristocrat played by Alexander Dobson, flees to the countryside to live in solitude. In an attempt to escape society, he aims to create a perfect world, and surrounds himself with literature, art and artifacts. Through this isolation, his mental and physical health deteriorate, leaving him unable to escape memories and experiences from his past life.

Joined by two servants, Esseinte relives past experiences in which the two help by seamlessly melding into different characters and creatures throughout. The servants are played by dancer and artistic director of the Citadel + Compagnie Laurence Lemieux, and Korin Thomas-Smith, who seems trained in both operatic singing and movement. All three performers are required to sing and dance, although at different levels, flattering their respective strengths.

Together they create beautiful moments and tableaux in the piece which bring out its inherent mixed emotions. A comical song includes a servant turned turtle (Lemieux). She emerges with a fabric shell encrusted in jewels, as Esseinte claims to try to improve on nature. Yet the jewels’ added weight leads the turtle to die.

Pianist Steven Philcox, violinist Pamela Attariwala, and cellist Carina Reeves join these three performers on stage and provide pleasant music through the performance composed by James Rolfe and Librettist Alex Poch-Goldin. Although I am no expert on opera and singing, I found the vocals and live accompaniment to perfectly encapsulate the rollercoaster of emotions portrayed throughout the narrative.

As a dance specialist, I was intrigued to see this opera as it is directed and choreographed by past Artistic Director of the National Ballet of Canada and choreographer James Kudelka. The strength of movement in the work is no surprise, especially with the superb performance of Laurence Lemieux. I often see a missing link or connection to movement within theatrical works. This performance hits the spot for me; however, I am not sure how it would stand up to a more classical opera or theatre crowd, although I do encourage them to experience it.

A picture frame hangs at the back of the stage, where projections, designed by Jeremy Mimnagh, of paintings mixed with mood enhancing video, is played. My only wish is to have paid more attention to the back projections, as the angle of my seat was inwards towards the performers and not in direct eye line with the projections, leaving me to choose one of the other to view. 

Simon Rossiter’s lighting perfectly highlights the performance with small artistic choices creating a haunting overall ambience. The audience is greeted and left with the image of a single light shining down on a single eye in a projected painting. A strong image for a strong work. I understand why it has been re-staged and hope to see more dance-infused operas by Kudelka in the future. 

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Photo provided by the company