Golden Ass, The
The Golden Ass. Opera composed by Randolph Peters on a libretto by novelist and playwright Robertson Davies. It was commissioned by Richard Bradshaw for the Canadian Opera Company. The $1.8 million production was premiered 13 Apr 1999 at the Hummingbird Centre in Toronto, with Bradshaw conducting. The cast, directed by Colin Graham, featured Theodore Baerg (Festus), Kevin Anderson (Lucius), Judith Forst (Pamphilia/Antiope), and Rebecca Caine (Fotis), with set and costumes by Susan Benson.
The opera was inspired by Davies' 1958 novel, A Mixture of Frailties, in which a character composes an opera based on Lucius Apuleius' Latin fable, The Golden Ass. Hedonistic Lucius travels to Carthage on an endless search for pleasure, and at his host's house, he has a romantic encounter with Fotis, a serving girl. Pamphilia, a magician and the house mistress, transforms herself into an owl and in trying to imitate her, Lucius becomes an ass. Fotis tells him he can return to human form by eating a rose, but before she finds one, bandits take Lucius on a series of adventures generously laced with sex and violence. After suffering many indignities, the repentant Lucius returns to human form with a rose from Fotis. In Davies' version, the adventures are narrated by a storyteller and acted out while the chorus mills about on a stage representing an ancient marketplace.
Davies agreed to write the libretto provided that the opera would be free of "dodecaphonic screech music," so he and Bradshaw chose Peters, who composed a tonal, lyrical score that has been likened to works by Sondheim and Bernstein (American Record Guide, Aug 1999). The premiere of The Golden Ass gave rise to a flurry of reviews in which critics argued about the relative merits of the opera from populist and modernist viewpoints. On the one hand, The Golden Ass was disparaged as anti-modern, with innocuous and tunefully bland music (William Littler, Opera Canada, Fall 1999); while alternatively, critics praised the work for its accessibility, claiming the score had a transparent "Ravelian lushness" (American Record Guide).