There are some pretty silly opera plots. Donizetti’s Emilia di Liverpool comes to mind but the Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing probably tops even the thundering torrents of the Mersey as it descends from the Cheshire Alps for silliness. Basically one John P. Wintergreen is a candidate for POTUS. His campaign gimmick is that he will marry whoever wins a beauty contest, held naturally enough, in Noo Joysy. Unfortunately(?) he falls in love with the homelier corn muffin maven Mary Turner and marries her instead. He duly gets elected but diplomatic complications with the French follow when it is revealed that the pageant winner; Diana Devereaux of Louisiana is the “illegitimate daughter of the illegitimate son of the illegitimate nephew of Napoleon”. Impeachment proceedings follow but, of course, there’s a happy ending. Along the way almost every US institution and region gets gently pilloried and the jokes are even funnier because what might have seemed risque in 1930 seems “business as usual” now, as when three White House interns sing about how the Presidential Mansion is the safest place in America for a young girl…
Michael Patrick Albano’s production for UoT Opera which opened last night at the MacMillan Theatre wisely chooses to stick with a 1930s aesthetic with some sly nods to the regional humour. Regional accents of a slightly old fashioned kind abound, Miss Kansas wears ruby slippers. That kind of thing. There’s also a lot of very energetic, very 1930s Broadway choreography (by Ana Theodosakis) which is extremely well executed by a large cast by no means all of which look like typical dancers! The sets (Anna Treusc) are clever too. They are quite busy but deft use of a revolving platform and the flies keeps things moving along.
Musically, this is a musical rather than an opera though the line was admittedly much fuzzier in 1930 than now. So, singers sing unamplified but are required to adopt a range of accents and while some parts are quite operatic others require more of a musical theatre approach. The former are exemplified by the parts of Wintergreen and Turner sung here by two of UoT operas strongest singers; tenor Matthew Cairns who uses his slightly baritonal tenor to good effect and Ensemble Studio bound (and Norcop prize winner) mezzo Simona Genga, who dials her considerable voice back a notch but without losing any of its beauty of tone.
There’s excellent character acting from Andrew Adridge as Wintergreen’s manager and chief of staff. He pulls off an old fashioned Southern accent rather well and rather tends to dominate the stage whenever he’s around. The Southerness rather suits his singing voice too. He’s well matched by Jamie Groote as his assistant and romantic interest. I wasn’t wholly convinced by Tatiana Stanishich as Devereaux. She sings very well and pulls off the alternating Southern and French accents required but I think the role needs a rather more of the stereotypical “starlet bimbo”. I suspect this is one place where being a trained opera singer is not a plus. Among a large and very capable supporting cast mention must be made of Joel Allison as the French Ambassador. This is a completely over the top musical comedy Frenchman role and he nails it with ze merst ertrajous Frernch accent, backed up by energetic eye rolling and moustache twirling.
Sandra Horst conducted and got an appropriately idiomatic sound out of a rather larger orchestra than I imagine one would see on Broadway, even back in the day.
It’s a fun show and makes the case, if it’s needed, for works like this being taken seriously by opera companies (as the Lyric Opera of Chicago does). It’s certainly hard to see a work like this requiring operatic voices and a large cast being worked into, say, a Mirvish season.
As ever with UoT Opera there are two casts for this work. The one reviewed can be seen again on Saturday night at 7.30pm while the alternative cast can be caught tonight and in a matinee on Sunday.
All the photos accompanying this review are from Act 1. If Act 2 comes through I’ll try and post a few.