Aaron Gervais’ and Colleen Murphy’s Oksana G. finally made it to the stage last night after a most convoluted journey. It’s being produced by Tapestry at the Imperial Oil Theatre with Tom Diamond directing. The wait, I think has been worth it. The story, set in 1997, of a naive country girl from the Ukraine who gets caught up in sex trafficking is dramatic and the it convincingly depicts the sleazy underworld of southern and eastern Europe created by the collapse of the USSR, the civil wars in the Balkans and the pervasive official corruption in countries like Ukraine, Greece and Italy. It’s gritty and, at times, not at all easy to watch.
Part of the effectiveness of the piece comes from the contrasts in its dramatic structure. Scenes from Oksana’s journey across Europe are interspersed with scenes in her home village featuring her parents, a fortune teller and a local boy. The contrast of the simple village world, where there is one telephone and a pair of cool sunglasses represent the ultimate in sophistication, and the increasingly violent, corrupt and unpleasant world Oksana finds herself in is effective and it allows the librettist to work in tarot card symbolism effectively.
There’s some interesting character development. Oksana herself, sung by Nataly Gennadi, goes from innocent and optimistic through various stages of defiance to guilt over the collateral damage involved in saving herself to final despair. Her main antagonist, Konstantin sung by Keith Klassen, is rather more than just the unpleasant bully one might expect. He’s deeply damaged by childhood trauma and fetishizes Oksana in a rather disturbing and almost childlike way without losing any of his brutality. Andrea Ludwig plays Lyuba, a Russian trafficked prostitute, who has acquired a kind of resilient “fuck you” quality despite the awful things happening to her. Jacquie Woodley, who plays the hopelessly naive Natalia who ends up mutilated and drowned, is really engaging. The village quartet; Krisztina Szabó as the mother, Alexander Hajek as the father, Aaron Sheppard as the boy and a very convincing Kimberley Barber as the fortune teller, contrast strongly with the rest of the cast as they need to. Act 2 brings in the other key character; the Canadian priest Father Alexander sung by Adam Fisher. It’s an interesting study in a person trying, somewhat idealistically, to do good in the face of illimitable need while battling his own demons. His dangerously close relationship with Oksana is also well drawn. Maria Soulis as the practical housekeeper provides a well drawn foil to his idealism.
The score is distinctive. There’s a chamber orchestra of fifteen players plus a fair amount of prerecorded sound effect material. It’s atmospheric and heavy on percussion creating quite a rich sound world that sucked me in but there’s not a lot of interesting vocal writing, especially in Act 1. It’s pretty much through sung recitative. Act 2 is a bit more expansive in that department with a few passages that pretty much function as arias and a rather good duet for Oksana and Father Alexander. I have a feeling too that the orchestral textures were not helped by the acoustics (it’s a cavernous rehearsal space) or the necessity to have the orchestra off to one side because there’s no pit. Jordan de Souza though did his level best to get the detail across.
The production is slick, and it needs to be. There are sixteen scenes and one of the keys to this production is the highly efficient way that the changes were made on a curtainless stage. Diamond also uses the stage depth to great effect and there’s a highly atmospheric lighting plot that is central to creating the delineation between the different scenes. Direction of the characters is definitely in “realistic” mode. There are no big stagey gestures but lots of detail. It’s all very carefully considered and well executed.
There are some fine performances. Natalya Gennadi makes a very convincing Oksana. She looks the part, sings well and is a very accomplished actress. Klassen manages the mood swings of Konstantin pretty well and has the necessary power to bring out the darker side of the part. Adam Fisher is lyrical as the slightly dreamy Alexander. The contrast between the two tenors is effective. I also really enjoyed the cameos of Andrea Ludwig whose body language communicated perhaps even more than her fine singing. The rest of the cast was extremely effective and the chorus, on the odd occasions it gets to sing, is fine.
It’s not often that Toronto sees new works as ambitious as Oksana G. It’s a genuine, full length chamber opera which tells a real, human story with just the right touch of universality. I found it dramatically compelling and musically interesting. It’s well worth seeing. There are three more performances on May 26th and 30th at 8pm and May 28th at 3pm. Oksana G. plays at the Imperial Oil Theatre, 227 Front Street East.
Photo credits: Dahlia Katz