The Lion Heart is a new opera by Corey Arnold and Kyle McDonald. Their aim, as described in an interview on barczablog, was to create an opera that was more accessible to modern audiences than “most modern opera”. I’m not sure how much “modern opera” they have actually seen/heard but what they seem to mean by accessible is a heavily scored neo-Romanticism supporting a through sung vocal line with nothing much in the way of an aria or any way for their singers to display their chops but we’ll come back to that.
The opera deals with the well known legend of Richard I of England being rescued from imprisonment by Duke Leopold of Austria by his faithful minstrel Blondel. In this version various decidedly non-canonical events take place. Richard is challenged to a contest/fight by the duke’s son. Each gets to thump the other one in turn until one falls over. It’s a bit like the version of rochambault in South Park. The duke’s son, Walo, is played by John Kirby as a sort of comic circus strongman and I wasn’t at all sure whether this was supposed to be a comedy until Richard’s punch kills the boy. The Duke then has a hissy fit and has Richard thrown into a pit with a lion. The orchestra plays loudly, there is a tape of fighting lion noises, slides tell the story of the epic fight. Eventually Richard strangles the lion, sticks his mitt down its throat and rips its heart out. At this point I expected somebody to throw the lion from the Monty Python “Scott of the Sahara” sketch on stage but instead we get Richard appearing with the heart and biting a big chunk out of it. I guess that’s how he got his soubriquet. I really wasn’t sure whether this was supposed to be a comedy.
Meanwhile there’s been a bit of romance going on between Richard and the duke’s daughter Marinella which is abruptly terminated when he gallantly reveals that he is already married. Marinella is surprised. She must be the only duke’s daughter in Europe who doesn’t know that the king of England has a wife. Then Blondel shows up singing his signature tune and rescues Richard.
At least that’s what I think happened because there were no surtitles. The singers were behind the very loud fourteen piece orchestra and the acoustic of College Street United Church was not at all helpful. The orchestration was often very dense and the singers were covered much of the time. The acoustic, besides not aiding clarity, took the bloom off the voices which often sounded dry and harsh (Listening to the promo excerpts on Youtube shows them to be much better balanced and pleasant to listen to) There were moments when things lightened up to good effect. Richard and Mirella got a nice duet in Act 3 but even here they didn’t have a whole lot to work with in terms of showing off their voices. There were some good singers in the cast too so this was a shame. Kyle McDonald in the title role sounded like he was capable of much more than I could hear. I know that Nicole Dubinsky as Mirella is. She’s got excellent coloratura chops but they weren’t used here. Both Andrew Tees, as captain of the guard, and Andrew Derynck, as Leopold, showed they had plenty of power (as well, rather oddly, as being about twice the size of Richard). Really only Tonatiuh Abrego, as Blondel, got music that showed the best of the voice. In this case some really nice lyricism.
In summary, the work had its moments but it felt dramatically and musically undercooked and to an extent ill conceived, though the acoustic and lack of surtitles didn’t help. But t’s a first opera from a team that obviously has talent and drive. I might suggest that dismissing “modern opera” is not a great starting point for creating one. There’s a wealth of good new opera out there even if it hardly ever gets programmed by Canada’s major companies. A look at George Benjamin’s Written on Skin or Missy Mazzolis Proving Up would show that intriguing, relevant, accessible opera is possible without trying to reinvent Puccini.