This summer Against the Grain Theatre and UoT Opera have been collaborating on an Intensive focussed on modern opera. Last night saw the culminating show; This is Prophetic, featuring staged scenes from twelve post 1950 operas. Since there were one tenor, one baritone and nineteen assorted sopranos and mezzos selecting the scenes must have been quite a challenge. Unsurprisingly perhaps there was nothing from Billy Budd.
It was a pretty good show with a decent standard of singing and, perhaps even more so, acting. The stagings; by Joel Ivany and Michael Patrick Albano, were effective and used simple, modular sets that made for slick changes between numbers. It was all done on the stage of the MacMillan Theatre with the audience sitting on stage on three sides of the action. This made for a welcome intimacy but it did subject the singers to the rather unflattering acoustic of that space. It was all piano accompaniment ably handled by Brandon Tran, occasionally supplemented by drums and other stuff that I couldn’t really see.
So how was it? I was impressed with soprano Sarah Parkin’s very solid, controlled and well characterized performance as the depressed alcoholic Birdie in a scene from Mark Blitzstein’s Regina. She was well supported by Brittany Rae, Lauren Halasz and Alasdair Campbell.
McKenzie Warriner made a decent fist of Will you have Egypt with me? from Wainwright’s Hadrian. It was accurate and nicely characterised but the acoustic definitely took the bloom off the voice.
There were two scenes from Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles. The first, Look at the Green probably needs to be seen in context to actually make sense. The second scene, Revolution, worked much better as a standalone and allowed tenor Nolan Kohler as Bégearss to show that he’s a powerful singer and an energetic actor.
The scene where Constance and Blanche discuss the dying Mother Superior, from Dialogues of the Carmelites (sung in English) came next. Anna Boyes was a delightfully girlish Constance ably supported by Stephanie Sedlbauer as a more subdued Blanche.
A scene from Thea Musgrave’s Mary Queen of Scots came next. It’s the one where Mary Seton and the queen discuss the future of the infant James. It was nicely acted by Caroline Stanzyk and Charlotte Stewart-Juby but not especially memorable musically.
The first half closed with two scenes from John Adams’ Nixon in China. I was surprised by how good this sounds on piano. The first scene has Pat Nixon (Sarah Parkin) reminiscing to an audience of secretaries. It was well staged and Parkin again sounded very assured. Then came perhaps the most famous aria from the piece; I am the wife of Mao Tse Tung. This is notorious for its high coloratura. Madison Angus managed the notes while leaping athletically around a set built from blocks. Quite impressive.
The second half opened with Albert Wong’s Shopaholic; a short scene in which three shopaholics meet with their therapist. It’s a trifle performed here with some wit and panache by Madison Angus, Caroline Stanczyk, Amy Moodie and Alasdair Campbell.
Two scenes from Britten’s Gloriana confirmed my view that it’s Britten’s weakest opera but it does have more female roles than most Britten works. The Lady Rich/Mountjoy was performed well enough by Morgan Reid and Alasdair Campbell while the rather more substantial scene where Essex bursts into the queen’s chambers produced some decently dramatic singing from Gwendolyn Yearwood and Nolan Kohler and a large supporting cast.
Amy Moodie as Blanche and Morgan Reid as Stella produced an OK performance of the scene from Previn’s Streetcar Named Desire where Blanche shows up at Stella’s apartment. The acting was good but musically the piece is too feeble to offer much to the singer.
The confrontation between Sophie and the résistante Wanda from Nicholas Maw’s Sophie’s Choice gave Julie Ekker and Cristina Lanz an opportunity to display their acting skills but again vocally it’s a bit dull.
There was more real singing for Gwendolyn Yearwood as the refugee Magda in Menotti’s The Consul. There was some real emotion in the singing here, ably supported by Lauren Halasz as the secretary.
The finale was something of a contrast from most of what had come before. It was Mariana, Tus Ojos from Golijov’s Ainadamar. It was the only piece not in English and one of the strongest musically. It’s arguably more of an oratorio than an opera anyway so lends itself to this kind of show. It provided a great opportunity for Virginie Mongeau to show that she has an interesting voice and an ability to convey emotion. A good way to finish.
All in all, quite an interesting and enjoyable show perhaps notable, a few highlights aside, more for the acting than the singing. It certainly makes one more grateful for modern composers like Adams and Golijov who can write vocal lines that really allow singers to show what they have got.
Photo credit: Stephanie Sedlbauer