Florence: The Lady with the Lamp, music by Timothy Sullivan, libretto by Anne Mcpherson, premiered at the Elora Festival in 1992 and n 1995 was the first Canadian work performed by VOICEBOX: Opera in Concert. Yesterday afternoon they presented it again at the St. Lawrence Centre; staged and with orchestra.
It’s an interesting piece. Some of it I liked a lot and some not so much. The orchestral writing is excellent; colourful and atmospheric with some jazz influences. I quite often found myself drifting off into listening to the orchestra when perhaps I should have paid more attention to the words, especially as there were no surtitles. The vocal writing is less interesting but it had its moments especially in some of the ensembles. It’s the old dilemma of whether or not to prioritise the comprehensibility of the words over strictly musical values.
The libretto is interestingly constructed. There’s a framing device of a friend of Florence, now a missionary in the Red River settlement, narrating and commentating on the Crimean War and Florence’s actions. This felt a bit like mandatory CanCon and one wonders how (and when!) John Smithurst got his news absent either a newspaper or a telegraph locally. That aside there are two very different acts. In Act 1 Florence is rejecting her future as a wife and hostess in favour of her decision to make nursing a respectable profession, much to chagrin of her mother and sister though with the grudging blessing of her father. How Florence persuades the War Office to accept her services is rather skated over in the interests of time. In Act 2 we arrive at Scutari. There is, inevitably, a scene where Florence confronts the doctor in charge and his henchmen who, of course, claim there is neither need nor place for women in a military hospital but when Florence produces her commission there is a chorus about duty to queen and country that could easily have come from a work by the other Sullivan. There’s also a scene with a chorus of whingeing nurses who seem to be represented by Sister Mary Bridgeman as a sort of shop steward. I’ll confess the details escaped me here as I just couldn’t make out quite a lot of the text. Anyway we are very quickly transported back to London where Flo is honoured by the queen and soliloquises about whether she did the right thing. What it actually took to do what she did is tantalisingly hinted at. So, dramatically it works but at the expense of being a bit wordy despite much being left out and somewhat preachy but I want to come back to that in a more general content. TL:DR version. It’s the price you pay for trying to be reasonably historically accurate.
Performances were pretty good with a few standouts. Lauren Pearl, in the title role, was the clear vocal star. She sang with some power, accurately and with feeling and vocal colour. For a soprano she was really very comprehensible too. Her acting was good and I think conveyed as much of the nature of Florence Nightingale as anyone could. Danlie Rae Acebuque found a way to convey the outsider nature of Smithurst and was very comprehensible. There was a nice Act 2 cameo by Ryan Downey as Dr. John Hall. He produced his usual excellent ringing tenor and rumbunctious acting though that too evoked echoes of the other Sullivan. The other roles and the chorus were quite adequate and the orchestra was excellent. Sandra Horst conducted with some flair. As ever director, designer and theatrical jack of all trades Guillermo Silva-Marin did a lot with a little in terms of the staging which told the story effectively with little fuss. All in all a decent afternoon at the theatre.
I want, as hinted earlier, to digress a little here. The last two Sundays I’ve been at operas about historical characters who are probably better known in a legendary or folkloric way than as fully rounded actually existing people. In one case we have the psychopathic warmongering Frenchman who the English were unfortunate enough to have as king in the late 12th century; Richard, dit “Coeur de Lion”, best known from myriad romantic retellings of the legend of Robin Hood. And then we have Florence Nightingale, spinster of this parish, a formidable woman who accomplishes a great deal by fair means and foul but who gets transformed into The Lady with Lamp; an angel effortlessly gracing the corridors of the hospital at Scutari with her ethereal presence.
Lionheart chooses to focus on one aspect of legendary Richard and plays it up for all it was worth. There was no attempt to even hint at historical Richard (except for some actual characters and locations rather in the manner of, say, Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda). It’s an approach that can work but it’s definitely harder to enjoy when one knows the actual history. In Florence we are much closer to the historical Florence Nightingale than one might expect. Although, inevitably, much is passed over. It would be impossible to convey the true horror of Scutari on stage (though I suppose, with enough budget, video could be used) so it’s really hard to convey what FN actually did and the degree of determination, scheming and sheer skullduggery involved. The Florence who emerges on stage is thus simultaneously a much less complex and rather nicer character than the historical one. And this is despite hints to the contrary for which I give Ms. Mcpherson full credit. No two hour opera can substitute for a 900 page biography which is what FN needs to be fully understood! And so there’s a dilemma for opera creators faced with this kind of story; does one abstract to the legend or does one try to convey at least some of the real character’s nature (which is likely not known to the audience)? I don’t have an answer….