TORONTO - The Children's Crusades of 1212 are, in their way, ideal fodder for someone adapting historic events to the modern stage.
While modern-day scholars have begun to doubt that they ever occurred, we are left with the suggestion that both of them -- one originating in France and the other in Germany -- are largely apocryphal, thus rendering them perfect material for anyone re-writing history and determined not to be bothered by pesky facts that pop up to get in the way.
Enter Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer and his latest opera, titled The Children's Crusade, currently enjoying its world premiere in an all-but-derelict industrial building hard by the Dufferin Gate, a production of Soundstreams Canada and the ongoing Luminato Festival.
Known as much for pushing the boundaries of conventional opera as for his avant-garde compositional style, Schafer has chosen to concentrate on the French leg of the Children's Crusades, embracing the notion of a young boy seemingly touched by God, who appears at the court of King Philip of France with an introductory letter from the highest source. But then, having been royally mocked, the young man goes on to lead thousands of children in a march to the Holy Land, convincing them that God will set aside all obstacles in their path.
When the sea fails to part at the child's command, however, things start to fall apart and a tragedy of truly operatic proportions ensues.
Schafer's work is presented in more than a half-dozen stand-alone scenes -- with 'stand' being the operative word. Cast, orchestra (conducted by David Fallis) and audience alike move from site to site throughout the building, guided by a host of ushers-cum-crossing guards, while director Tim Albery, designers Leslie Travers (sets and costumes) and Thomas Hase (lighting), and choreographer Rebecca Hope Terry conspire to bring life to Schafer's Byzantine tale.
The setting they have chosen is undeniably modern, from the moment their audience encounters what will develop into a chorus of angels, each busily engaged in some sort of scientific pursuit. While they sing in a chorus that blends so magically with Schafer's instrumentation that it is almost other-worldly, we meet the Holy Child, beautifully sung and earnestly performed by young Jacob Abrahamse, on the day he encounters the mysterious Magus (played by Diego Matamoros in the first of a number of spoken parts) and is launched on his mission.
Gathering young followers as he goes -- the Canadian Children's Opera Company makes a strong collective impression -- he arrives at the the court of Philip (Matamoros again), who is too busy dallying with his mistress, (Wallis Giunta) and his sycophantic courtiers to pay the child much heed. From there, the crusade continues, with various adults, both venal and saintly, attempting to aid the youth in his quest and/or subvert it to their own purposes.
While little may be known of the Children's Crusades, the one thing on which most everyone agrees is that if they happened at all, their purpose was to bring Muslims to the Christian faith -- a little bit of modern day social anathema that Schafer sidesteps by teaming his Holy Child up with a young Muslim slave (Maryem Tollar) who appears to him in visions in company with a young Jewish boy (David Houle), where the three form an ecumenical conspiracy of peace. Sadly this new vision fares no better than the events that may or may not have inspired the work.
But in art as in life, it is often the voyage we remember, not the destination -- and The Children's Crusade is an artistic voyage filled with memorable moments.
The Children's Crusade concludes tonight.
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