Xavier Montsalvatge’s El Gato con Botas, given last night by the Glenn Gould School at Mazzoleni Hall, may not be the most profound thing in the opera canon but it is fun. The 1948 score is jazzy and accessible and the libretto has fun with the fairy tale of the scheming cat and her gormless monkey servant. The lighter, even absurdist, elements of the plot were rather played up, and to good effect, in Liza Balkan’s production. Mazzoleni Hall is not the easiest place to present opera. There’s no pit and no way to do surtitles. Not much in the way of wing space or scenery handling either. Balkan got round this by placing the band on stage and using very simple sets and props that often spilled over into the auditorium even getting Charles Sy, sitting in the front row, to take a selfie of the wedding party at the end. Given that the Spanish numbers were not surtitled, it was smart to add extra English dialogue, much of it improvised. I certainly didn’t have any difficulty following the story. Credit too to lighting designer David Degrow too for making the most of the limited resources of Mazzoleni.
Credit for much of the success of the piece must go to the high energy and quite physical approach of the singers, especially Meghan Jamieson as the Cat. She really threw herself around and was very funny as well as singing her numbers rather well. She got suitably feline support from three supernumerary cats (I can’t imagine any cat considering him or herself supernumerary but there you go) played by Emma Greve, Justin Maisonneuve and John-Michael Scapin. Alvaro Vasquez Robles sang the rather gormless Miller; the nominal owner of the cat. He really played it as a foil to Meghan which made a lot of sense. His initially reluctant but later extremely enthusiastic love interest was played by Jocelyn Fralick who produced some of the strongest singing, a trait shared with the smartphone obsessed king, her father, played by Diego Catala. The cast was rounded out by bass Gabriel Sanchez-Ortega as The Ogre who gets tricked out of his castle by the Cat. Strong singing here backed up by a really nifty to appear and disappear during the transformation scenes. Peter Tiefenbach conducted an eleven piece band to great effect showing how effective chamber opera can be from the point of view of getting a lot of colour out of limited resources.
After the interval we got a staged version of Berio’s Folk Songs continuing what seems to be becoming a Toronto “thing” of staging art song. Originally written, inevitably, for Kathy Berberian they were arranged here for three mezzos; Lilian Brooks, Christina Campsall and Shauna Yarnell (boy, are there are a lot of mezzos around right now or what?). Dressed in sort of ancient Greek dresses they acted out the series of songs of love in longing in languages varying from Occitan to Azerbaijani very effectively and the three rather differently toned voices added interesting layers of colour. A seven piece, percussion heavy, on stage band accompanied. It was an interesting and fun way to hear unusual settings of often pretty well known songs. One small beef, including translations of the texts in the program is OK but if it’s too dark to read them not terribly helpful.
The two pieces make for a fun, rewarding and not overlong evening. It’s playing again tonight at 7.30pm.
Photo credit: Stuart Lowe