Norbert Palej’s new piece East o’the Sun and West o’the Moon, commissioned by the Canadian Children’s Opera Company opened at the Enwave Theatre at Harbourfront last night. It’s based on a Norwegian folk tale and tells the story of a girl, Rose, who does a deal with a magic white bear to feed her starving family. The bear, of course, is really a prince who has been cursed by a witch. Rose tricks the witch and marries the prince. There are also trolls. Lots of them.
It’s scored for string quartet plus flute, oboe, clarinet and keyboards/percussion. It’s an interesting score with plenty of variation in orchestral colour and an attractive, moody quality. It’s really quite sophisticated given the limits of having to write the vocal lines for inexperienced singers and large groups of children. All the vocal parts in this work are taken by young people unlike some other CCOC productions where a couple of older professionals have been included. The libretto, by Kaitlin Bryski, isn’t as strong. It’s serviceable but tends towards the overly sentimental at times. Folk tales don’t have to be and, in their essence, rarely are sweet.
Joel Ivany directs with costumes and sets by Laura Gardner. The look and feel is largely naturalistic; peasant children look like peasant children, the bear looks pretty much like a bear and I guess Groucho Marx lookalikes are as good a way as any of making a bunch of teenage girls look like trolls. The narrow stage of the Enwave makes handling the multiple, large, choruses quite challenging but Joel manages to create some striking stage pictures, notably in the scene where Rose is asking the Four Winds for help in finding the witch’s lair. He also makes good use of the galleries behind the stage.
The performances were pretty good though first night nerves did seem to be somewhat in evidence. The stand out was Jacoba Barber-Rozema as Rose. She has a sweet toned, young soprano and she sang accurately and expressively. She can act too and hers was the character that come across most as fully developed. One to watch. David White as the Prince seemed a little diffident, maybe because the part was too low for him. When he was in his comfort zone though he sounded rather good. Caelyn Hill was a striking witch. The part lies pretty high and may be the hardest sing in the piece but she pulled it off quite well. There are also about a hundred smaller parts with a few lines to sing; most of them handled well. Anne Cooper Gay conducted and managed the not inconsiderable feat of keeping everything pretty much together as well as getting some lovely sounds from the very good ensemble in the pit.
All in all, it’s quite an interesting piece and the score is definitely worth hearing. It plays again today and tomorrow at 2pm and tonight at 7.30pm. Note that there are cast changes for the final two performances.
Photo credits: Michael Cooper