Running a little late here

Back in January I saw Opera 5’s show Modern (Family) Opera at the Arts and Letters Club. I didn’t review it here because I was covering it for Opera Canada.  It seems that there was some breakdown in communication, probably the dodgy email connection at our temporary digs last winter, and it never made it to the mag and so wasn’t printed.  It’s a pity as it was a good show and so, belatedly, I’m sticking the review here, for the record, instead.

The first part of the bill was Wolf-Ferrari’s comedy Il segreto di Susanna. Dramatically it’s rather slight; an extended joke in fact. A newly married count smells tobacco around his wife and assumes she is having an affair. Mayhem ensues before he realizes the obvious and they reconcile in smoke fuelled bliss. With the considerable physical acting talents of Rachel Krehm (Susanna), Geoffrey Sirett, (Gil) and Christopher Mayell (as the silent Sante) available to her, director Grace Smith wisely chooses to play it as a madcap physical farce. Add in Wolf-Ferrari’s rather beautiful late romantic score, Sirett’s powerful baritone and Krehm’s rich soprano and one has a winning, and very funny, mix. Evan Mitchell conducted the chamber sized Toronto Pop Up Orchestra providing plenty of colour without overwhelming the small space.

After the interval came the world premier of Darren Russo’s Storybook. It’s not so much an opera, more a series of scenes or vignettes rooted largely in the mental world of Blake’s Songs of innocence and Experience with a couple of loose linking ideas. The texts are drawn partly from Blake but supplemented by children’s rhymes and other material suggestive of dreams, hallucinations and trips. A good example would be the use of “Five little ducks went out one day”. This little rhyme recurs but always with one duck less conveying a sense of inevitability or doom. Although mostly told from a child’s perspective, adulthood intrudes occasionally, usually in a disturbing way as themes like broken relationships are explored. Aria Umezawa’s staging reinforces the personal and disturbing qualities of the piece. The singers, arranged in two rows of “cells” address us directly in a most Brechtian manner using a very physical and stylized body language.

Russo uses a small but percussion heavy chamber ensemble plus five singers of different voice types. The music is rich; sometimes bold, even violent, sometimes meditatively beautiful. The vocal lines are very singable but often involve the singers picking up the line from someone else, rather in the manner of a madrigal. They are also required to work with a range styles and colours. It’s complex in a way that puts considerable demands on the singers’ musicianship. The orchestral writing too uses a varied colour palette with plenty of string harmonics, pizzicato, electronic sounds and other effects. The music serves the slightly unreal and disturbing texts very aptly. I think in this piece we are hearing the emergence of a new, distinctive voice.

The performances were very fine. Considerable physical acting as well as singing in a variety of moods and colours was demanded of all five singers and the cast of Christopher Mayell, Geoff Sirett, Geoffrey Penar, Emma Parkinson and Leigh-Ann Allen did just that. With excellent playing from Evan Mitchell and his band the best possible case was made for this intriguing and deeply rewarding new work.

Modern (Family) Opera is the most ambitious undertaking yet by Opera 5. Presenting it so effectively marks a significant step for one of Toronto’s most interesting indie companies.

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