Opera Sustenida was started during the pandemic and came to my attention because of a couple of well produced on-line shows. Feeling very strongly that it’s time to move back to live performance, and not seeing much yet from the smaller opera companies, I could hardly overlook Opera Sustenida’s show, even if I might not have chosen Verdi’s Il Trovatore for my first go at a live production.
There were three shows in three different venues culminating in yesterday afternoon at the Arts and Letters Club. It’s essentially a traditional production set in some sort of operatic distant past with swords and so on. There’s a bit of an attempt to beef up Azucena’s role with some narrative about tarot cards but it doesn’t really amount to a “concept”. There’s interesting use of a hybrid in person/virtual chorus and excellent use of projections fleshing out a necessarily pretty bare bones staging. The live chorus is actually quite large and rather more than fills the available space. As a production it works but it doesn’t have anything new to say.
There are some good performances. Stephanie DeCiantis (who also directed) was a strongly sung and quite nuanced Leonora capable of handling the more intricate parts of leonora’s music as well as having considerable heft. Hassan Anami, as Manrico, provided some heroic sounding tenoring and warmed up in the acting department as the piece progressed. Andrew Tees’ Conte Di Luna was appropriately nasty without being at all unmusical and Dylan Wright was an imposing and vocally very fine Ferrando. I wasn’t so convinced by Monica Zerbe’s Azucena. Her singing was fine but, to my taste, she was over egging it in the acting department. Sometimes less is more.
Just getting the chorus into place in a small hall with next to no backstage was an achievement and they sang well and seemed to be having fun. I wonder though whether, given the stage constraints, more use might have been made of the virtual approach. Piano accompaniment was the ever reliable Ivan Jovanovic and Suzanne Yeo, conducting, kept everything together which was no mean feat. Nicole Dubinsky as stage manager, make up, head cook and bottle washer somehow pulled off two shows in two different venues less than 24 hours apart.
So an enjoyable Sunday afternoon at the opera but I do wonder whether traditional productions of canonical operas are really a viable strategy for a small opera company in Toronto. I suppose if it’s just about performance opportunities then why not, but if the aim is to build something sustainable I’m sceptical. Small companies in Toronto tend to gain attention and grow when they dare to be different. The most memorable small company shows, and the ones that have led to bigger things, have been “transladaptations”, unusual locations, staging of works not usually staged or works rarely seen at all, not “Met lite”. Is my personal bias showing?