In purely musical terms, the most striking component of this trilogy of contemporary works is the finale: Bel canto by Cassandra Miller. A tribute to Maria Callas, premiered in Montreal in 2010, here it forms an elegiac postlude to Silk Moth by the British composer Bushra El-Turk.
Accompanied by an ensemble that includes a discreetly amplified oud (Arabic lute), four white-clad female singers repeatedly emit brief, keening motifs derived from Tosca’s aria ‘Vissi d’arte’. While undeniably intense – it brought the singers to tears – the 20-minute piece cries out for the contrasts that typify bel canto as an operatic genre.
Silk Moth, with a libretto by Eleanor Knight, uses song, spoken word and projections (both video imagery and text) to engage with issues such as honour crime and female genital mutilation. As its central figure, a woman whose daughter has suffered abuse in an arranged marriage, mezzo-soprano Camille Maalawy initially strikes a poised, sanguine figure. The realities of the situation, seemingly learned from letters and photographs, creep up on her.
The creative team admirably opts to imply rather than portray horrors, but the measured, monochrome staging and subtly moody score (which features the ney, a Middle-Eastern flute, and accordion) add up to a skilfully oblique exposition rather than a fully fledged music drama.
The boldest visual stroke of the evening comes at its beginning, when Mona Khalili (a non-singing actress) emerges from a pile of cinders. She silently traces patterns in the black flakes to the intricate, dawn-chorus figurations of The Heart’s Ear, an instrumental piece by Liza Lim that meditates on a fragment of a Sufi melody. The message remains unclear.