Here’s the deal: take a world-famous opera diva. Give her recordings to an iconoclastic turntable artiste. Introduce him to a brown-toned clarinettist and leave the two alone together for a while. The result? An unexpectedly lyrical, flowing album of improvisations packed with melodic invention, and nary a camp postmodernist joke to be found. It most assuredly is a funny old world.
There are one or two gags, of course — there could hardly not have been. The first thing you hear is Callas warming up. Shortly afterwards, Tétreault puts on a teach-yourself-Italian disk full of opera house cliches and leaves Lepage to play an uncharacteristically lumpy solo over the top. Nothing lasts for very long (shortest track: 28 seconds), and Tétreault shows precious little respect for the compositions Callas was originally performing. At one point, he even mimics the soprano perfoming a descending scale by slowing the turntable down with his finger. It all sounds like a recipe for knockabout cultural reference humour but, astonishingly, such impulses seem merely to be registered in order to keep them in check.
Instead, Tétreault and Lepage seem intent on making a record of beautiful music. Of course, Callas’ voice is a fantastic sound-source, and rendered atonal, quavering and unpredictable as it is here it is a musical instrument up to the task of interacting with Lepage. The latter plays with a scrupulously clean classical tone throughout, enunciating his ostinati and curlicues of scales with careful precision. At this disk’s finest moments, Lepage seems to curl his clarinet around Callas’ voice, the two locked in an impossible, or at least implausible, counterpoint.
This also brings Tétreault’s acheivement to the fore. He seems to have given over considerable time to the preparation of this disk — perhaps he did not, but if not then his work here is all the more remarkable. What he manages to do is to take apart Callas’ voice, to use the different elements of it in different pieces, yet to do so without it becoming a gimmick. Most of the pieces here have real musical interest, not just novelty value. Part of the credit for that goes to Lepage, because without an attentive and sensitive duo partner this would have been unlistenable. Part, however, must go to Tétreault for having the imagination and musicality to carry it off. Or then again, perhaps this conventional musicality is all part of another kind of joke, a sort of meta-joke about making a record of opera diva cutups with a straight face. This is a geniune ambiguity for a lot of this disk, the confusion between irony and sincerity, and that too is something of a strength in comparison with all those earnestly wry referential works which tend to dissolve into kitsch.